An anthology like Modern Love: Chennai is rare. Every segment of this anthology works wonders and it does so with refreshing writing and treatment at a time when love stories are seen as a done-and-dusted genre that no longer surprises the viewers. Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s anthology, based on a collection of real essays that appeared in The New York Times, has shorts that make you wonder what was real or what was fictionalised, as well as those in which you wish the events were true.
The bizarreness of what transpires in Rajumurugan’s Lalagunda Bommaigal is the former — you wonder if something similar really transpired — you chuckle for a bit and feel bad for the characters at times, but you also know that this is as real as it can get. Lalagunda begins as a love story between two souls, one hesitating to open up again and the other fighting to be accepted. Left broken on the hospital bed after an abortion, Shoba (Sri Gouri Priya) hopelessly shuts off the world around her; eventually, after many ‘fateful’ events, she falls in love with Nathuram, a panipuri seller. Unexpected events follow.
The biggest of attractions is Sean Roldan’s music, which brings nonchalance to it all. ‘Jingarthathanga’, in particular, bursts with the energy of finding love again. The lyrics compare Shoba to a racing dove (though she looks peaceful, she can put up a fight), and Nathuram to a single shark (even if he’s all alone in a dangerous ocean, he’s still a shark). There are other strikingly-impressive aspects, like how it attempts to break bigoted notions about migrants from North India, at a time when incidents pertaining to the same have been hitting the headlines.
In Balaji Sakthivel’s Imaigal, there is a compelling argument for the futility of fixed gender roles. When Devi (TJ Bhanu) informs her boyfriend Nithiyanandham (Ashok Selvan) that she will lose her eyesight after a few years due to a degenerative eye disorder, it seems like she expects him to desert her. Nithiya, however, takes her hand in marriage and promises to show her all the world until she can. But after a few years, we realise that Devi’s world has shrunk to doing household chores and taking care of their daughter; this is where it speaks of how hopeless patriarchal gender roles are.
Another lovely, deftly-done touch is the first shot of this short — we see Devi looking straight at us as if she could pierce through our souls; her still pupils look so clear that it almost seems unnatural, foreshadowing what we later realise. Interestingly, she looks the most peaceful when she closes her eyes at a pivotal moment in the end.
Modern Love: Chennai (Tamil)
Cinema is the craft of selling the figments of one person’s imagination to everyone else; it creates an unreal even if probable world and lets ordinary mortals live larger-than-life lives. Krishnakumar Ramakumar’s Kaadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukkura Emoji is an ode to such romantics. Mallika (Ritu Varma) begins to question if anyone at all could become the dreamboats that Alaipayuthey’s Madhavan and Titanic’s DiCaprio were. She’s so adamant that even a National Award-winning English pesra Blue Sattai film critic fails to convince her.
Everything about this short makes you swoon and look back at the charm, delight, and angst of innocent love. There are callbacks to Tamil films that make for some hilariously real and human moments even while addressing the filminess of it all. Even coping with heartbreaks is infused with humour and it’s glad to see a film that takes into account how food and movies are the most popular coping mechanisms.
When Mallika wonders why there aren’t any “soup songs” for women, you chuckle but share her wonder. While it makes a solid point on the endeavour to find people who share the same madness as you, it’s disappointing that even this turns a hypocritical lens on the beauty of the unpretentious moments of reality by using a slow-motion shot at a pivotal point.
Akshay Sunder’s Margazhi begins with a divorce and ends with the birth of love. It speaks of the feelings that bloom like flowers in between the crevices of a rock. Puberty, hormones, and the yearning to fill the sudden maternal absence take by storm the heart of young teenager Jazmine (Sanjula Sarathi), who lives with her divorced father (Srikrishna Dayal).
Jazmine’s father enrols her in a choir class at the local church, and there, she meets Milton (Chu Khoy Sheng), a Delhiite spending his winter holidays with his grandmother. Margazhi speaks of seasonal love — the love that is temporary — and is meant to push you through the harsh winter. An ethereal world, with minimal expressions from its fantastic actors, gets overwhelming emotional heft when Jazmine listens to a particular Ilaiyaraaja song. Ilaiyaraaja here is composing music for a world that celebrates his music. It is only when Jazmine plays Ilaiyaraaja on piano and speaks of her mother, do we realise how its the song that lets her fill the void in her heart.
In Bharathiraja’s short Paravai Kootil Vaazhum Maangal, the metaphor of pruning a tree to bring new life becomes a dialogue, a sign of over-exposition that becomes the only issue with this short. Ravi (Kishore), a married man, his wife Revathy (Remya Nambeesan), and Rohini (Vijayalakshmi), a woman Ravi is in love with, decide to talk things through to see how they can all get the best of the circumstances.
Paravai Kootil.. is Bharathiraja’s ode to the late Balu Mahendra, a filmmaker who was known for his unconventional stories: ‘En Iniya Pon Nilaave’ from Balu Mahendra’s Moodu Pani becomes the song through which Ravi and Rohini fall in love and, similarities in the stories apart, it’s also a tribute to Marubadiyum (the characters are named after the actors in the latter).
Even while it has characters desiring to be a part of a conventional family structure, the ideals that they follow are modern; case in point, Ravi’s explanation of how people can change, or how Rohini speaks out on being unable to take a step back even when she knows what it means to Revathy. Rohini isn’t treated as the ‘other woman,’ but instead, is shown as an individual just trying to find happiness in her life.
After Bharathiraja’s crystal-clear frames, it takes some time to acclimate to Kumararaja’s world in Ninaivo Oru Paravai, especially due to its colour palette of scarlet and blue. But a breather — the advantages of streaming — helps, because you get to see what the two colour-scheme means; the splash of the colours denoting how in a relationship, two people carry the pieces of each other.
In this short, the final moments of a relationship are the most pleasant. K (PK) and Sam (Wamiqa Gabbi) have sex for one last time and part ways. Months later, we realise that Sam is heartbroken and that K, after a nasty accident, is left with partial memory loss. He only remembers Sam, and she is brought in to help put his mind back together.
Ninaivo Oru Paravai is easily the pick of the lot; the staging of the scene where the two have explosive, mind-bending sex that literally rocks each other’s worlds is the peak of it all. Ilaiyaraaja’s background score in this scene hits a crescendo and is the cherry on top. Like yet another take on astrology by Kumararaja after Aaranya Kaandam or how the characters question the innate abnormality of storytelling in books and movies, there’s a lot to keep you hooked. The most intriguing touch is how the characters enclose their world, making you question the reality of it all.
Modern Love: Chennai is just what was needed to rejuvenate mature discussions on love. Most of the stories in the anthology manage to surprise you with their unique takes on romance, something that has been absent in new-age Tamil cinema, and umpteen moments end up lingering in your mind; it’s the best of storytellers coming together to tell a wonderful assortment of love stories.
Modern Love: Chennai is currently streaming on Prime Video