Chennai’s scorching heat feels slightly less harsh to the cast of Modern Love: Chennai, as they take shelter in all the conversations about all things love, with eager journalists. Modern Love: Chennai, the Tamil edition of the popular Prime Video’s Modern Love franchise, has Thiagarajan Kumararaja as the showrunner, a name you normally wouldn’t associate with the genre of romance; ironically, he calls himself someone “not big on love”.
Prime Video’s Country Director Sushant Sreeram shares the rationale behind choosing Kumararaja; they wanted a showrunner who could bring a deeply-local lens to this international franchise. “The answer he gave when I asked him why he’d made only two movies in the last two decades was, ‘I have a commitment to myself on leaving a legacy, in which the few things I do should be talked about a lot.’ That hits at the heart of why he was a fantastic partner,” he informs.
Modern Love: Chennai (MLC), like the other versions, is based on the popular weekly column of the New York Times, which was adapted by Kumararaja and Co. “We wanted these love stories to stand out, but we also preferred not to push them to the extreme,” explains the Aaranya Kaandam-maker, adding that they wanted the stories to cater to everyone.
“Then we decided to adapt the articles to suit the city and the people who live here; with this as the wider scope, we chose ‘acceptance’ as the common theme.” More “flavours” like weaving these stories for different age groups and writing characters that break out of their shackles were added to the chosen stories. However, the subject of queer love, a vast topic that is yet to penetrate mainstream Tamil cinema, couldn’t find a place. “Other Modern Love versions spoke about queer love, so we chose conventional stories and tried to break boundaries within those conventions,” says Kumararaja.
Apart from show-running the anthology, Kumararaja is also directing one of the segments, Ninaivo Oru Paravai. “The content has to move quickly from one point to the other as streaming audiences are fidgety. We have done that, but with some indulgence and breathing space whenever required. However, this didn’t affect my form much because I knew I was writing for OTT and so didn’t feel it as a restriction,” he says.
Kumararaja’s short is headlined by Wamiqa Gabbi, an actor who is currently in the limelight for another Prime original in which she gets a romantic arc, Jubilee, and has starred in many love stories in Punjabi. “I am so lucky because I get to play out moments that may not happen in your life. You are working towards your idea of love, but a writer has their own definition. It’s nice to become all those different people and experience that one emotion in different ways,” says Wamiqa.
‘Love is absolute freedom’
Ninaivo Oru Paravai is, of course, an ode to the classic Ilaiyaraaja song from Bharathiraaja’s Sigappu Rojakkal. Interestingly, while Ilaiyaraaja is the composer of three of the six segments, Bharathiraaja has directed a segment named Paravai Kootil Vaazhum Maangal. Actors Kishore and Vijayalakshmi say they feel honoured to have worked with the legendary filmmaker. “Nobody could have shown women as beautiful as him. It was great to know that he was looking at me through his monitor, and he brought out exactly what he envisioned for my character,” says Vijayalakshmi, while Kishore points out how the veteran was modern even in the ‘80s and ‘90s despite telling deeply-rooted stories. “We just tried to grasp whatever we could from all that experience,” he adds.
Kishore has been acting in multiple regional languages; can he identify how the distinct sensibilities of the regional audiences find their way towards filmmakers defining characters and extracting performances? “Of course. For instance, MLC will reflect Chennai’s soul and its native culture. So when that changes, a character’s expression is changing... so what is expected of me also changes,” he answers.
‘Love cannot be defined’
Who would have thought that an emoji could become the symbol of an emotion? Kaadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukkura Emoji is the title of actor-turned-director Krishnakumar Ramakumar’s short. “The definition of love keeps changing and sending that emoji (heart eyes) is now an expression of love.”
His story, headlined by Ritu Varma, is about the different stages of love told from a woman’s perspective, for which Krishnakumar took steps to understand the right gender gaze. “I was happy that Kumararaja gave me this story, but I was hesitant since it is from a woman’s perspective. But after I realised how big of an opportunity this is, I had to grab it. The difference in perspective of a male and a female is as different as how a young and an elderly person look at things,” he says.
For Ritu, MLC is the latest addition to a string of feel-good romance films; Ninnila Ninnila, Nitham Oru Vaanam, Oke Oka Jeevitham, and Pelli Choopulu to name a few. “I’ve been really fortunate. I want to be in scripts that make a difference, and if you take Modern Love as an example, we see all our individual takes on love, and how it can exist in different forms.”
‘Love isn’t unidimensional’
Ritu’s Ninnila... and Nitham... co-star Ashok Selvan, however, isn’t paired with her this time. Ashok, who we saw in three distinct shades in Nitham..., has acted in Imaigal, a short directed by Balaji Sakthivel, someone known for writing intense themes with strongly-etched characters. “I think this is the most realistic role I’ve played in my career. I wish we had more days on set because I truly cherished working with Balaji sir,” he says. Having donned several looks in many love stories, were there talks of how they could change things up? “Yes, physical transformation is needed for believability, but the other 50% is about what we bring to the role.”
TJ Bhanu, who made an impressive debut in Vaazh, co-stars alongside Ashok. Bhanu says that she instantly connected with the character during the narration itself. “It’s a simple story about a simple woman and the complexities and problems she deals with. I connected a lot to it because I hail from a simple background in Chattisgarh and I’ve seen a lot of people like her around me,” she says.
‘Love is.. acceptance’
Now, when a streaming web-series like MLC comes out, how does an actor ascertain how they have performed? Unlike the response they receive in theatres, actors only have social media to rely on. Many agree that this is an inevitable drawback, but they all unanimously say that what they get back for the sacrifice — with creative freedom being the biggest — takes priority.
“OTT makes you more honest and more fearless, and you get to tell your story as your story,” says Krishnakumar. Vijayalakshmi says she likes the immediacy of social media reviews, while Bhanu likes the challenge of performing to an up-and-close streaming audience. To Ritu and Ashok, reviews come second to the gratification they feel as artists. Wamiqa feels indifferent because, she says, the entire business of cinema is based only on trust. “The producer putting money into a project, a director casting the actors, and an actor signing a project... everything is based on trust. But we don’t know what the result will be; in a way, everything is a fluke.”
Kumararaja adds that most of the shorts would work for everyone who watches it. “You will like at least four, but the remaining two might be stories that you’d have liked earlier in your life.... or you may like them later in life,” he signs off.
Modern Love Chennai will premiere May 18 on Amazon Prime Video