Modern Love Chennai Review: A mostly enjoyable, fiercely original exploration of romantic love
This anthology of six featurettes starts well, has a middling end, but finishes with an unforgettable flourish
What’s the right way to write about an anthology of six featurettes? Do you create separate segments for each film and analyse them for their individual merits? After all, they occur in different fictitious worlds—and while the films of Modern Love Chennai are brought together by the theme of romantic love, their objectives, their treatment, their style and grammar… they are all different. And yet, these six films, that together run for more than four hours in duration, do still come under the umbrella of one grand title, don’t they? Perhaps the best way to approach this is to capture the many feelings and the many jumpy thoughts pertaining to these different films.
Showrunner: Thiagarajan Kumararaja
Directors: Raju Murugan, Balaji Shakthivel, Krishnakumar Ramakumar, Akshay Sunder, Bharathiraja and Thiagarajan Kumararaja
Cast: Wamiqa Gabbi, Ritu Varma, Ashok Selvan, Sanjula Sarathi, Kishore, Sri Gouri Priya
Romance, as a genre, is fascinating in how it’s both oft-explored and under-explored. There’s a lot of exploration in terms of quantity, but I’m not sure we can say the same about the quality. So, perhaps my earliest excitement—about an anthology whose showrunner is among our most original cinematic minds (Thiagarajan Kumararaja)—arose, as always, when considering the ocean of possibilities in this space. Across the six films—directed by Raju Murugan, Balaji Shakthivel, Krishnakumar Ramakumar, Akshay Sunder, Bharathiraja and Thiagarajan Kumararaja respectively—many facets of romantic love get explored, some rewarding, some engaging, and some repetitive. So, what do these films tell us about romantic love?
While we get glimpses of this sentiment across the series, the films quite preoccupied with this idea are Akshay Sunder’s Margazhi and Balaji Shakthivel’s Imaigal. While the former speaks of a girl experiencing the sensations of first love—and climbing out of a depressive phase, the latter is what I like to describe as a ‘disease love’ film. It’s where one of the partners suffers from a degenerative/terminal condition (in this case, a condition that causes progressive loss of vision), and the story explores the challenges inherent in such a relationship.
There aren’t many emotional pleasures to be drawn from either film—though it’s not for lack of good performances, especially in Balaji Shakthivel’s film (Ashok Selvan and TJ Bhanu), which also shows a likeable refusal to sink into melodrama. Margazhi speaks of first glances and butterflies in the stomach, and the musical equivalent of this is Ilaiyaraaja’s ‘Nenjil Oru Minnal’, in which the maestro’s voice effervesces with the excitement of teenage love—but largely, it’s a rather sedate film. I did enjoy its sense of place though and how it captures the church neighbourhood and life around it. In Balaji Shakthivel’s rather jumpy exploration of how a couple deals with a ‘disease’, there are sparks of inspiration. There’s something about gender roles; there’s something about a man, even if kind and self-sacrificing in a sense, getting away with a lot. Perhaps the best part is when a conversation in a busy street turns from a vulnerable plea to a full-blown ugly argument. And yet, I wasn’t exactly riveted by either of these two films.
Raju Murugan’s Lalagunda Bommaigal begins with a woman reeling from emotional and physical agony, let down by that unkind, selfish creature called the man. This is a sentiment perceivable throughout this enjoyable film—the idea that these strong, expressive women have no choice but to interact with—and fall for—this disappointing specimen, man. In content, it’s a rather bleak film, as a hurt woman gets hurt again. In execution, however, the film buzzes with infectious energy (I really enjoyed Sean Roldan’s music). There’s such easy humour too in typical Raju Murugan fashion, even though it’s a film that speaks of social problems like bigotry and sexism (again, consistent with his body of work). A Pani Puri seller is in the thick of things and the film takes great pains to point out how even when a variety of people coexist in a cauldron-like Chennai, they don’t really mix. In another film, showing a Pani Puri seller as a not-so-great guy and a poli saamiyaar as a not-so-horrible bloke may warrant criticism, but Raju Murugan painstakingly establishes whose side he’s on and more importantly, whose side he isn’t on.
In another film, Krishnakumar Ramakumar’s Kadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukkara Emoji (written by Reshma Ghatala), the woman protagonist (Ritu Varma) reels from a different kind of romantic hurt. This film is probably the most cinematic of the lot, and I say this without attaching any negative connotations. It’s, what’s that word, breezy; it’s enjoyably light, and it is enjoyably self-aware. At the centre is a woman whose ideas of love have been shaped by films (I think all of us can plead guilty here), and the most enjoyable portions are when the film seems to be poking fun at its protagonist and itself. Like when she’s hurting in love and runs to the bathroom, so she can cry under the shower—because that’s what Reema Sen does in Minnale. Perhaps because Reshma has been a regular associate of Gautham Menon’s (and perhaps because his portrayal of romance has had such an effect on the psyche of an entire generation), we get many liberal references to his work. Oh, and there’s Mouna Raagam and Alaipayuthey and Kushi and I could go on. Part of the enjoyment in watching this film is reference-spotting. If I went all philosophical about this film as I’m wont to do, I could talk about how the impressionable among us constantly look to recreate that which we have admired (and how Ritu Varma’s character is merely an exaggeration of this idea), and how this deliberately light and cheery film, is, in fact, speaking of a deeper idea. The film, quite appropriately, ends when two individuals, searching for cinematic love, dance without music, paying no heed to judgment from a neighbour. The big temptation is to condescend on the ‘frivolity’ of the protagonist and her notions of love, but why must true love be only for the ‘deep’? After all…
Love doesn’t judge
It’s an idea that comes through in a profound way in the wildly original, wonderfully written Bharathiraaja film, Paravai Kootil Vaazhum Maangal. This is perhaps the most revolutionary piece in the whole series—and it has arguably the most empathetic character I’ve seen in our cinema. I think Nallasivam from Anbe Sivam now has some serious competition from Revathi (Ramya Nambeesan), who shows that even the most explosive of conflicts can be solved if you have one victim who’s able to decline the invitation of self-pity and prioritise empathy. This homage to Balu Mahendra stands for individual liberty and is revolutionary in how it tackles the tricky issue of an extramarital affair. In what’s among the most beautiful stretches in the entire series, the film begins with ‘En Iniya Pon Nilave’ playing out to two strangers (Kishore, who’s terrific as always, and Vijayalakshmi) moving from tentative introductions to a warm romantic companionship (part of the pleasure is also getting to see this classic song play out to new visuals). There’s hardly anything said between both; why bother when Ilaiyaraaja’s music captures all the said and the unsaid? It’s wonderful that the film doesn’t judge this relationship one bit—and neither do we—and Raja’s song is a big reason why.
This relationship is treated just as the starting point, and I enjoyed that the film sees not this as its fundamental part (like most films tend to do) but an ensuing awkward conversation meant to decide the futures of three individuals (and by extension, those associated with them). The dialogues burst with such wisdom and emotional insight and—again, I can’t say this enough—a lack of judgment about human frailties. Sure, you could ask whether it’s all too good to be true, but the first answer would be that these are all based on real articles, and the second would be to ask why it must be true anyway. There’s an aspirational quality to the resolution presented in this film, and it’s a delight to be introduced to such an original character as Revathi—and how wonderful that the wisdom is not from a wizened woman but one in the prime of her life. She’s a woman who smiles where others might cry. I’m referring, of course, to that final scene when Revathi remembers the first time she met her husband. It’s a scene that speaks of the impossibility of permanence, of the beauty in transience.
And really, what’s more transient and fallible than a memory?
Love remembers; love forgets
In what’s the most fascinating film of the whole series—Ninaivo Oru Paravai—Thiagarajan Kumararaja seems, with his ruminations on romantic love and the nature of memories, to be paying homage to Charlie Kauffmann (how do you resist thinking about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?). This film too, like his others, begins with a sex scene—and I point this out because it’s perhaps the most gorgeous sex scene I’ve seen in our cinema. Ilaiyaraaja is in such inspired form throughout this series—and his track, Kaamathup-paal—is the musical equivalent of sex, starting slow and accelerating as it goes, hurtling towards a breathless climax. It’s a track that begins with tentative wonder and curiosity and moves on to communicate magnificent tension and passion… The song—and how it’s picturised in this film—deserves its own long analysis, in terms of the emotions it invokes and its many expressions. This film too—like Aaranyakaandam and Super Deluxe—bursts with many original moments of entertainment, stemming entirely from the interactions of two individuals who experience the pleasures of romantic love (or perhaps he might prefer the term once used in the film, ‘situationship’). It captures these pleasures in painstaking cinematic detail. Even the idea of a dejected woman walking out of a hospital gives way to a memorably claustrophobic visual. The film shows such keen attention to detail about romance: the conversations about hypothetical situations, the nurturing of private vocabulary, the cheeky joke-insults, the liberation, the rebellion… Sam (a terrific Wamiqa) once points out amid a bout of frenzied silly togetherness that if alone, she might have judged herself for behaving in such juvenile ways. And indeed, is this liberation from society—and self—not the value of romantic love and its earliest stage especially? If adults have any capacity for play at all, isn’t it when they meet someone new and they are eager to impress by acting in strange, beautifully silly ways? As K (PB) once asks, “What’s the point of it all if we can’t be childish?”
This is the film I thought the longest about after watching. The non-linear narrative and the bits and pieces of information we get about their relationship means that we are encouraged to piece the story together in our head. What’s real? What’s not? While K believes he can remember his past if given enough time, Sam, almost cruelly, points out that he will need her to confirm the veracity. It gets you thinking. How much can we rely on our minds anyway? Here, the union is of two artist types, who are prone very much to escapes of fantasy. And like with our own memories that sometimes spring from out of the blue with no respect for chronology, so it is with this film, as it takes you through snapshots from a relationship. Regardless of what’s real and what’s not, we can all agree that for a brief period, romantic love makes everything seem beautiful. This is not a particularly new idea to our cinema (given how we have seen characters in love hug total strangers), but never before have we seen a woman read love lines off a toilet paper and break into a million pieces. Perhaps the best evidence that this film gets romantic love is just how much laughter there is in this film. Everything’s funny when you are in love, is it not? Sam and K, I dare say, spend more time laughing with each other in this film than they do talking. And if that’s not the most beautiful observation about love, what is?