The 2019 webseries adaptation of New York Times column “Modern Love” became such a phenomenal hit that Amazon Studios spawned different versions of the series with “Modern Love Amsterdam” and “Modern Love Tokyo” in 2022. Considering India as a subcontinent, the Indian division of Amazon Prime Video banked on the opportunity and announced different versions of “Modern Love” in 2022 and released ‘Modern love Mumbai’ as its first entry in the lineup. Last week, “Modern Love: Chennai” released on Amazon prime Video featuring six episodes directed by six various filmmakers with Thiyagarajan Kumararaja as showrunner. The show offers different romance stories of people belonging to different ends of the spectrum across Chennai and it is structured in a way that the intensity starts from being light hearted to gripping narratives. Every story in the anthology series gives the female leads the spotlight and they anchor the narrative. Let’s go for a deep dive into each of the six episodes.
Written and directed by Rajumurugan, the first episode titled “Lalagunda Bommaigal” (Lalagunda Dolls) is set in the suburbs of Washermanpet, Chennai the 42 min short revolves around Shoba (Sri Gouri Priya) who comes out of a failed love and again falls in love with Nathuram (Vasudevan Murali), a newly settled North-Indian guy who sells Panipuri in their area. What follows is a journey of rediscovering love and acceptance filled with quirky twists and turns. Director Rajumurugan is well-known for authentically capturing the lives of unnoticed people in humble regions. The short captures the lives of employees working in the Butter biscuit factories and the humble lives of people living in the suburbs using the lens of Nirav Shah. More than the leads, it’s the supporting characters, Vaijanthi (Vasundhara Kashyap), Shoba’s uncle (Bakkiyam Sankar), fake godman (Prasanna Ram Kumar), who truly holds the narrative. With its characters and setting, Rajumurgan doesn’t shy away from making bold yet quirky socio-political commentaries on xenophobia, abortion, patriarchy and Social Media influencers.
The use of simple little gestures by the characters takes the visual storytelling to the next level. The starting setup using the fake godman and the payoff at the end is something that tries to Out of all the six shorts, I felt that this is the only short which used its geography at its best. Sean Roldan’s songs and music gives the local flavor required for the narrative especially “Uravu” song’s usage at the end is fantastic. In the end, Rajumuragan emphasizes that appearances are always deceptive when it comes to love and to heal the pain of a failed love another love finds its way.
E02 – Imaigal
Set in the humble regions of Royapetta, the second episode “Imaigal” (Eyes) revolves around the relationship between Nithyanandham (Ashok Selvan) and Devi (TJ Bhanu), who suffers from degenerative ocular disease and what progresses is their tumultuous yet endearing path. After the critically successful tragic drama “Vazhakku En 18/9” this episode marks the return of Director Balaji Sakthivel in the director’s chair after 11 years. Written and adapted by Balaji Tharanetheeran (known for his previous works Naduvula Konjam Paakatha Kaanom,Seethakathi), this ‘fault in our stars’ template tale doesn’t take a complex over-melodrama route; rather, it takes a simplistic and minimal approach. As the film progresses, when Devi loses her eyesight exponentially, we empathize with her situation rather than just feeling pity, which makes for a unique character sketch. With tight closeups and framing by DOP Jeeva Shankar, the camera focuses on the micro-emotions and subtle expressions of the two leads.
The impeccable performances by TJ Bhanu and Ashok Selvan make us totally connect with their nuanced emotions and arguments, especially in the last act. The underscoring on how love can make an individual acknowledge their pitfalls and ready to fulfil the life partner’s wishes and ambitions giving them an individual space which makes it refreshing and adds to the modernity of the show. Yuvan Shankar Raja’s (who also composed the title track for the series) music compliments the minimalism this drama requires and the song “Peranbae” takes us back to the vintage Yuvan days.
E03-Kaadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukkura Emoji
Set in the posh urbanscapes of Adyar & Anna Nagar, the third episode is called “Kaadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukkura Emoji”, written by “Neethane En Ponvasantham” fame Reshma Ghatala and directed by Krishnakumar Ramakumar. It revolves around the failed pursuits of Mallika (Ritu Varma), a hopeless romantic cinephile on finding the ideal ‘cinematic love’. From the very first minute with the placement of references to director GVM’s “Minnale”/“Rehnaa Hai tere Dil Mein” film, the short sets the quirky and self-aware mood. As it revolves around a cinephile, the film is surrounded with lots of references to yesteryear Indian Romantic films and some surprising cameos from famous stars, directors and even reviewers which could have produced a lot of hooting and cheering if this was released on big screens.
Actor Ritu Varma makes it a cakewalk in playing the role of Mallika which generates a lot of chuckles and laughter. In this Ritu Varma show, debut actor Pawan Alex casual performance as college rockstar KK and Actor Vaibhav’s brief appearance at the end registers in our mind among the supporting cast. The short tries to make a point on how ‘cinematic love’ has influenced real love and the after effects of it. The GV Prakash Kumar – composed song “Kukunu”, sung by Ramya Nambeesan, adds a quirky flavor to this short. While the short ends on a pretty ‘happily ever after’ note and has the cinematic charm of early 2000s Indian Romcoms (and some Netflix romcoms), it walks on the tight rope between a ‘spoof’ and ‘serious story’ which might make some hard to connect with the story and the setting but nonetheless it was an amusing short.
Set in the regions of St.Thomas Mount, this episode is written and adapted by Balaji Tharaneetharan and directed by debutante Akshay Sunder. “Margazhi” centers on Jazmine (Sanjula Sarathi), a teenage girl who is caught between the divorce of her parents. In the midst of this, she discovers love in the form of Milton (Chu Khoy Sheng), a teenage boy from Delhi who comes to Chennai for the holidays and follows the brief romance that blossoms between them. The short explores themes of love and infatuation in teenage years from a female perspective which totally has the essence of Japanese slice-of-life anime. Debutante Sanjula Sarathi puts forth a matured innocent performance required for this narrative. More than labelling this brief bond between the two leads as “romantic love” it can be interpreted more as yearning for the love in a “companionship” healing her pain at the end.
This is where Illayaraja’s Music plays a major role in the narrative used in a smart and wholesome way to show the compassion between the leads with the use of “Uravugal thodarkathai” song from “Aval Appadithaan” movie as a great needle drop moment. It’s interesting to note that the short further affirms the embedment of Illayaraja’s music in the everyday lives amongst the tamil Diaspora. It’s surprising to see how an 80-year-old Illayaraja conducts the youthfulness required for this short through his music. The warm visuals by Vikas Vasudevan and intricate production design recreates the 90s and Early 2000s aesthetics and the unusual camera angles makes us feel the little spaces of Jazmine’s home and the Church in the locality. Undoubtedly, this short is a sweet throwback to the teenage chapters from our personal diaries!
E05- Paravai Kootil Vaazhum Maangal
Donning the director’s hat after many years, legendary director Bharathiraja makes a comeback with this fifth episode titled “Paravai Kootil Vaazhum Maangal” (Gazelles residing inside a bird’s nest) set in the Metro regions of Purasawakkam. Co-written by Pratheep Kumar. S, the 47 min short focuses on the triangular relationship between a married man Ravi (Kishore), his wife Revathi (Ramya Nambeesan) and his new lover Rohini (Vijayalakshmi Agathiyan) and the complex threads in the triangle. Bharathiraja dedicates this short to another auteur of Tamil Cinema, Director Balu Mahendra and with its character names, setting and “En Iniya Pon nilave” song (from “Moodu Pani”) as needle drop, this tangled drama is a modern spin to the latter’s path-breaking film “Marupadiyum”. Complex relationship dramas are not something new for Bharathiraja and the director has explored great facets of romance in his yesteryear films. Bharathiraja subverts and shatters a lot of tropes and cliches that are seen in this genre of films.
With most of the runtime set in a small flat involving the three principal characters using sharp and profound dialogues, the level of intensity and tension peaks to a great extent making us immersed in this drama. The strong performances put forth by Ramya Nambeesan, Vijayalakshmi and Kishore make us buy into these characters’ world. Ravi’s Father Sundaresan (Delhi Ganesh) acting as the audience’s surrogate was pretty interesting in this drama telling us to drop the pre-conceived notions. Another interesting aspect is the use of a flock of birds as a visual motif to highlight the meandering relationship. The final frame of the family selfie being a call back to one of the initial scenes is a bittersweet, contemporary yet poetic ending to a short of a genre like this. It goes on to highlight that the understanding of love has always been incomprehensible for humans and Bharathiraja once again proved that his pen hasn’t lost its glimmer!
E06- Ninaivo Oru Paravai
Russian Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said that “a book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books”. Clocking at an ‘intentional’ 69 minutes, from the cryptic mind behind “Super Deluxe” and “Aaranya Kaandam”, Thiyagarajan Kumararaja’s featurette “Ninaivo oru Paravai” (Memory is but a bird) cantera on the breakup between Sam (Wamiqa Gabbi) and K (PB) and what follows is a psychedelic trip of distorting memories and realities. The non-linear narrative is an idiosyncratic blend between Charlie Kaufman’s “Eternal sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and Wong Kar-Wai’s aesthetics. Unlike other shorts from this anthology, this is set in Thiyagrajan Kumararaja’s universe of Chennai which feels other-worldly (in a positive note) thanks to the ethereal neon-lit production design by Gopi Prasanna and the low-light symmetric cinematography by Nirav Shah and Jeeva Shankar.
TK also places allusions to the ‘Matrix’ trilogy to this reality distorting romance drama which makes this puzzle even more interesting to solve. The fantastic sound design by Tapas Nayak adds a lot to the “No Plot just vibes” nature of this trippy world. Illayaraja understands the psyche of TK’s mind and provides a Jazzy, Trippy, Vaporwave soundtrack delivering the dynamism for this world.
Editor Sathyaraj Natarajan’s editing is like shattered pieces of jigsaw puzzles delivering an interactive experience of solving the puzzle which was reminiscent of “Bandersnatch” from “Black Mirror”. The trick is that the solution of this jigsaw puzzle is subjective for the audience. While the performances of Wamiqa and PB provide complex layers to their character and have profound dialogues, some of them felt a bit alienating and the chemistry between the two leads could have been explored more. This might not seem as a downside but this featurette too falls under the same problem that films of this genre face i.e., being esoteric in its perception and narration which might divide the audience into different groups. In a nutshell, “Modern Love Chennai” is a solid experimental romance genre potpourri adapted right!