I have never been someone who enjoys podcasts. However, as with any rule, there is an expectation, and I made one for the New York Times’ ‘Modern Love’. I have enjoyed listening to celebrities voice out stories of love in kaleidoscopic glory. In auto rides back home after a night of drinking, during a long evening walk to clear my head, and sometimes as just background noise while I plod around the kitchen, these stories and the people who have shared them have come to be a source of comfort; a friend who allows me to look at the world in different ways.
The podcast, and the original series that followed, are a testament to how widely loved the Modern Love column in New York Times has become over the years. The latest addition, ‘Modern Love Mumbai’ also brings to its viewers stories of love. Much like the original series, it too serves as an ode to the city that shaped these series, and as someone who has a biased sense of affection for the city, I truly appreciated its prominence in its myriad forms throughout.
Directed by Shonali Bose, Dhruv Sehgal, Alankrita Shrivastava, Nupur Asthana, Vishal Bharadwaj, and Hansal Mehta, Modern Love Mumbai is a collection of six stories set in the city. Unlike the original series that retells the real stories of New York Times readers, Modern Love Mumbai is not based on real stories, which was a letdown for me. However, we are given stories of people from all walks of life. We meet Lalzari (Fatima Sana Shaikh), a cook in an upscale Mumbai apartment, who is abandoned by her husband out of the blue; Saiba (Masaba Gupta), a landscape designer who falls in love with a boy who is in love with Thane, and Dilbar (Sarika) who finds herself again after she catches the fancy of a 20-something man, played by Danesh Razvi.
The second episode of the series, ‘Baai,’ directed by Hansal Mehta, is meant to be a commentary on certain socio-political aspects of India such as homophobia and religious schism. The episode follows Manzu (Pratik Gandhi), who wishes to come out to his doting grandmother, aka Baai (Tanuja). It is clear from the get-go that Baai is a formidable woman who has lived not just through the riots but also has the chutzpah to send away a bloodthirsty mob with just one dialogue (which is left to the imagination of everyone, including the rest of the family members). However, his rather suppressive family believes that giving her this information would kill her. Mind you, this is a woman who has lived through communal riots.
The series captures the sentiments of the average middle-class family quite well. This is depicted in how Rehana, Manzu’s older sister, is made to marry someone despite being in a relationship with another man, or even in how Manzu’s father, played by Ghazal singer Talat Aziz, asks him if he only wanted to come out to his grandmother so she could die and he could take over their family home.
Much of the story is conveyed through bursts of flashbacks. Manzu, who no longer can handle his family’s taunts, moves to Goa, where he meets chef Rajveer, played by chef Ranveer Brar. Now, in some ways, they both seem like people yearning for love. And, not having found it, they have poured in their all to their work. Manzu turns to music as a a source of comfort and joy, and even as a means to meet people. Ranveer, on the other hand, is enamoured by food and the ability to convey love through it.
They find each other, fall in love and even decide to celebrate their love in front of their friends and family. When Manzu tries to tell his parents this, it is Rehana who steps in for him, so that he canb live his life the way he wishes to even though she couldn’t. Eventually, his mother comes around; she even once asks Ranveer if they can cancel their plans to shift to the US, where they would live their life freely. She even admits that she feels guilty about taking so long to accept Manzu for who he is.
On the face of it all, Baai seems like a good story. At the point that the story begins, Manzu has returned to a changed Mumbai. Baai is unwell, and the whole family seems to have gathered to be there during her last days. While so much has changed, the only thing that stays consistent is Manzu’s desire to be accepted.
While the crux of the story is a tender one, the way it has been conveyed is shoddy. To set the premise that Manzu is gay we are given a flashback of Rehana’s wedding, where Manzu is decorating the house with flowers, and the young man who helps him touches Manzu’s side hip. In case that point is missed, they make sure it is not by playing ‘Chandni Raat’ in the background. Just to make sure that the point is conveyed clearly yet again, they share an awkward kiss, after which the young man slaps Manzu.
What irked me was the forceful over explanation of their areas of interest throughout the episode. Manzu believes that music is his haven, so Mehta chooses to explain everything – from awkward kisses to intimate moments – with songs. Considering the episode is only 40-minutes long, the number of songs that make their way in seems intensely disproportionate. Don’t get me wrong, the songs are beautiful, and maybe do convey the emotions of the hour, but they largely seem like a crutch. I also suspect the reason Manzu’s paramour is a chef is that they wanted to set up some similarities between Baai, who is described as a great chef, and him. The cheesy dialogues that help the story come full circle and the lack of chemistry between the two men make for a rather uninteresting watch.
Also, and I understand I might be alone in this, I feel ready for portrayals of same-sex relationships that move past coming out and acceptance. While, of course, these are very real struggles, why can’t we also see portrayals of moments and struggles beyond this point? What about couples living together that want to be a family in the very quintessential sense of the word, or what about a gay couple in a long-distance relationship or a hundred other scenarios that are true for a queer couple as it is for a heterosexual couple?
At the end of the day, it is an episode that calls for the triumph of love over hate, be it about faith or about sexual orientation. It attempts to weave together same-sex romance, generational trauma, and communal discord all in 40 minutes and barely manages to come through. In the end, the most poignant part (and only real honest moment) of the episode is Manzu’s mother’s realisation: “Preventing love is also like spreading hate.”