Six love stories. Six odes to Mumbai. Modern Love, the madly popular NYT column which been filmed as a series set in New York, now has a Mumbai version, the city which is soul-sister to NYC in many ways — in its ability to absorb the millions who keep streaming in, adding to those who are already there, straining at the jib. Where do you go to, except the ocean-front, for a bit of air, some dalliance, a much-needed break from daily strife? And to stories which hold out hope.
Not for nothing, as the cliché goes, is Mumbai the most cosmopolitan of all Indian cities. Even with parochialism creeping in, it holds out its munificent arms to migrants from all over the country who submit to her chaotic embrace, because it gives them a chance to be something they are not, perchance to dream, and a way to fulfil them.
A shy fresh-off-the-boat fellow goes for a run in the morning, and fantasises about an older woman (Sarika) during the day, even as he piles up one rejection letter after another in search of that elusive job. News flash, she does too. Manzu (Pratik Gandhi) is in the closet, warding off marriage proposals from his worried folks: will his ailing grandma (Tanuja) free him up, to revel in his one true love? The unexpected connection between a content-to-be-in-Thane boy and searching-for-the-right-someone city girl (Masaba Gupta) plays out in whorls of conversation (Richard Linklater much?) over concern for the environment and tasty missal: is it something of a curio, or will they be able to stick to it? A possessive mum (Yeo Yann Yann) of Chinese origin holds on to her traditions and her son (Meiyang Chang) while warding off a ‘vegetarian daayan’ (Wamiqa Gabbi). A voluble Kashmiri young woman (Fatima Sana Shaikh) learns the joys of being free as she navigates the insurmountable distance between Mumbai’s holey jhuggis and fancy high-rises. And a much-married couple (Arshad Warsi and Chitrangda Singh), him a permanent ‘late-lateef’, her a grumbling mum buried under demands from ‘pati’ and ‘bachcha’, tries to find her writerly mojo –the delightful Warsi giving off shades of an Amol Palekar character in a Basu Bhattacharya set-in-Bombay-movie, that director who was creating modern romantic classics back in the day in a city that used to be.
I have a friend who laughs at me every time I tell her that Mumbai is the only true ‘mahanagar’ (metropolis) India has. In my head, I tell her to be quiet and let me soak in the electric, salt-laden air of this city which never sleeps. Do these stories match up to the city they are set in? Mumbai is a hard act to follow. Did I fall into the same awed-affection while I was watching this series? Maybe not all the way, no. Because in a few segments, the tropes aren’t freshened enough, despite the attempt at giving the plots new settings. And some stretch the central conceit for a bit too long, tagged by cosy bumper-sticker philosophical end notes.
Still, each story does have something uniquely Mumbai about it — claiming the Sea Link in a humble vehicle which is not allowed on it, a dash across the city in a local train (if you haven’t done one of those, you haven’t lived, even if you emerge, crushed, on the other side), the inner workings of a Bollywood music studio, belligerent movie directors being accosted by hopeful singers who belt out their wares in urinals (yes, a true urban legend). And a few have elements which we may not have encountered before: a Sardar (Naseeruddin Shah) who understands Chinese (Cantonese?) and universal human emotions, for example.
And overall, despite a niggle here and there, ‘Modern Love Mumbai’, produced by Pritish Nandy Communications, does what it sets out to. It gives us some characters we begin liking as we go along: Fatima Sana Shaikh starts off ultra-excitable, and is so extra that you long to tell her to calm down, but then she settles down to her vivid, physical performance. Real-life chef Ranveer Brar, who has long turned each of his YouTube cooking episodes into an act, is no actor, not yet at least, but makes up for it by his screen presence, even though the most excellent Pratik Gandhi will have to learn how to really savour a meaty ‘nihari’ before we believe he can. Then there are the performers whom we are programmed to like: it’s wonderful to see such actors as Tanuja and Sarika get something real to do.
And when you see that couple finally get a moment to themselves at Marine Drive, creating their own privacy in that most public of spaces, you fall in love with Mumbai, all over again.
Modern Love Mumbai cast: Sarika, Tanuja, Pratok Gandhi, Masaba Gupta, Fatima Sana, Shaikh, Meiyang Chang, Arshad Warsi, Wamiqa Gabbi, Chitrangda Singh
Modern Love Mumbai director: Six segments, directed by Alankrita Srivastava, Dhruv Sehgal, Shonali Bose, Hansal Mehta, Vishal Bhardwaj, Nupur Ashthana