Chequered love: Most Indian OTT anthologies are meh

A still from ‘Raat Raani’.

A still from ‘Raat Raani’. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Is Bollywood making interesting romances anymore? For me, the last time an onscreen pair crackled right from the word go was Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul in  Tumhari Sulu, and perhaps Ayushmann Khurrana and Radhika Apte in  Andhadhun. Indian web shows have scarcely fared better. In the recently-released  Modern Love: Mumbai (based on  The New York Times ‘Modern Love’ column) on Amazon Prime Video, for example, only two out of six stories worked in their entirety for me — Vishal Bhardwaj’s Mumbai Dragon and Raat Rani, directed by Shonali Bose ( Margarita with a Straw) and written by Nilesh Maniyar and John Belanger.

What worked for these stories that the others in this anthology (and indeed, most recent Bollywood films involving love) lacked? First, these are the two stories where cultural diversity was used intelligently. In  Mumbai Dragon, for example, Sui, a third-generation Mumbaikar originally from China, prays to a dragon deity to make her son leave his vegetarian Gujarati girlfriend (vegetarianism is just one of her many sins, in Sui’s eyes). This is a delicious premise and set-up, and every character feels well-thought-out and just right for a city like Mumbai.

“One of the recurring themes in these failures is style over substance. Look at the Tamil-language, ‘Navarasa’, for example”

Second, while individual romances are at the heart of these stories, they really are about other, arguably more wide-ranging subjects like freedom, societal conditioning, ageing, filial affection and the seemingly invisible threads that connect us to our ancestors, our homelands. Bottomline: these stories and their ambitions encompass several genres while also engaging with the beats of the traditional romance in consistently surprising ways.

Flatter to deceive

For me, the others in this collection just did not work, despite a couple of strong individual performances, like Ritwik Bhowmik’s in  I Love Thane.  Baai is shamelessly manipulative and clichéd to boot. The brilliant Sarika looks lost in the underwhelming  My Beautiful Wrinkles, which treats a May-December romance more like an aesthetic than a complex, multi-faceted personal and social scenario.

A collage from ‘Ludo’.

A collage from ‘Ludo’. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

For me, the inconsistency of  Modern Love: Mumbai is in line with the problems plaguing Indian OTT anthologies in general, and there have been quite a few of them in recent years — Feels Like IshqNavarasaAnkahi KahaniyaLust StoriesGhost StoriesPitta KathaluAjeeb Daastaans, Ray and several others. Each one of these projects has featured one or two shorts that are genuinely innovative and well-written while the others flatter to deceive.

Despite misfires

One of the recurring themes in these failures is style over substance. Look at the Tamil-language  Navarasa, for example. Everything, beginning with its tastefully-shot title sequence featuring a galaxy of stars (Suriya, Vijay Sethupathi, Prakash Raj et al), is hyper-stylised. But every time a story threatens to become vaguely intriguing, there’s an outdated trope or a hackneyed sentimental note just around the corner to mess things up.

Karthick Naren’s  Project Agni, for example, is ambitious and clearly modelled after some of Christopher Nolan’s movies (he’s name-dropped more than once). But, ultimately, it gets too talky and too wrapped up in the Hindu symbolism of its apocalyptic story, delivering an ending people could have seen a mile away — even though this is a short film.

There are exceptions that  Modern Love can learn from, of course: the Tamil anthology Paava Kadhaigal was consistently good. Anurag Basu’s Hindi film Ludo was more of an interconnected-stories narrative than a thematic anthology, but the way it built connections across its four strands was quite instructive.

Generally speaking, though, we seem to keep getting more and more anthologies on the OTT platforms and they don’t seem to be getting much better, if we’re being honest. Clearly this is a format that executives across the board believe in, otherwise they wouldn’t have persisted with it despite the many misfires. Hopefully, in the next one there will be a little more forethought and cohesion in the writing department — as  Modern Love: Mumbai proves, these are just a couple of things that can make or break your product.

Aditya Mani Jha is a writer and journalist working on his first book of non-fiction.

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Printable version | Jun 11, 2022 2:28:58 pm |