The first Indian spin-off of the Amazon Prime Video series Modern Love is set in a decidedly unromantic city. At least that’s what Mumbai looks like on the surface. Somewhere and somehow within this mega-jungle of cement and steel, its denizens assert their right to love and be loved.
Modern Love Mumbai comes after two seasons of Modern Love, adapted from the New York Times column of the same name. The six-episode Modern Love Mumbai – to be followed by Modern Love Chennai and Modern Love Hyderabad – are fictionalised versions of the New York Times personal essays.
The show shares with its source a tendency towards corniness and neat solutions to the complications of the heart. Several episodes have a great deal of talking and a shot/reverse-shot shooting style, making the series well-suited for viewing on a phone.
There’s nothing terribly off about Dhruv Sehgal’s I Love Thane, written by him and Nupur Pai, or My Beautiful Wrinkles, written and directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, but there’s little to recommend in them either. Flat in feeling and frisson-free, these episodes bumble along on the strength of their actors.
I Love Thane doesn’t fulfil its threat to reveal how romance has a different flavour in the city on the outskirts of Mumbai. Masaba Gupta plays a landscape designer in search of the perfect date. Saiba forges a connection with Parth (Ritwik Bhowmik), a Thane Municipal Corporation auditor.
Gupta has already displayed her camera-friendliness in the Netflix series Masaba Masaba. In I Love Thane, she is the epitome of loveliness and its chief draw.
My Beautiful Wrinkles stars a wrinkle-less Sarika as Dilbar, a senior citizen who captures the heart of marathon runner Kunal (Danesh Rizvi). Any sparks between the glam grandma and the shy young man are left to the imagination. Better than their desexed bond is the ardour of Dilbar’s friend Seema (Yamini Dass) for her new boyfriend.
Cutting Chai, written by Devika Bhagat and directed by Nupur Asthana, stars Chitrangda Singh as Latika, a housewife struggling with both her first novel and her marriage to Danny (Arshad Warsi). A series of dream-like moments connects Latika to the woman she used to be and the woman she needs to be.
Chitrangda Singh is a hard-sell as a wallflower. Arshad Warsi is typically a delight, but isn’t around enough.
Baai, directed by Hansal Mehta and written by him and Ankur Pathak, can barely contain its themes of Muslim identity, communal violence, homosexuality and homophobia. Pratik Gandhi sensitively plays Manzu, who wonders how to tell his ailing grandmother (Tanuja) about his boyfriend Rajveer.
The unconventional casting includes chef Ranveer Brar as Rajveer and ghazal singer Tatal Aziz as Manzu’s homophobic father. Several songs are included in an attempt to boost an uninvolving narrative. Baai has in its favour an intimate moment between the lovers – one of the few in the series that acknowledges the importance of sex in a romantic relationship.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Mumbai Dragon has one of two knockout performances across the series. Malaysian actor Yeo Yann Yann is terrific as an Indian Chinese woman who effortlessly switches between Cantonese and Hindi.
The entertaining episode revolves around the Chinese temple in Mumbai’s Mazagaon neighbourhood. The widowed Sui (Yeo) is the temple’s custodian and a dragon mother to her only son Ming (Meiyang Chang). When Ming turns up with a vegetarian Gujarati girlfriend Megha (Wamiqa Gabbi), Sui’s tolerance for assimilation is severely tested.
Written by Bhardwaj and Jyotsna Hariharan, Mumbai Dragon provides a snappy history of the Chinese presence in India. There are times when the Indian Chinese community’s complex history is in danger of being reduced to a bunch of touristic moments.
This episode weaves songs organically into its storytelling. Meiyang Chang, whose Ming has chucked dentistry for singing, croons lovely tunes composed by Bhardwaj.
It’s impeccably performed, with cameos from Naseeruddin Shah as Sui’s Sikh friend, Imaad Shah as a composer and Anurag Kashyap as himself. Yeo Yann Yann towers over them all.
Her perfectly judged performance embraces poignancy, wicked humour, and smothering feelings for Ming. Props to Bhardwaj for persuading an international talent to appear in an Indian production and rattle off Hindi with complete ease.
The best episode in Modern Love Mumbai also displays the most fidelity to the city’s reputation for freedom and new beginnings. Shonali Bose’s Raat Rani, written by Nilesh Maniyar and John Belanger, inventively interprets the feminist slogan about a woman needing a man like a fish needing a bicycle.
Lalzari (Fatima Sana Shaikh) is a Kashmiri cook married to the security guard Lutfi (Bhupendra Jadawat). When he leaves her because he “isn’t having fun”, Lalzari is heartbroken, then pensive and finally determined to face her situation.
Shonali Bose is in excellent form, dexterously steering over 41 minutes what is in effect a mini-movie. Beautifully shot by Kavin Jagtiani and edited by Antara Lahiri, the episode delivers a plausible fairy tale in which a forbidden cycle road on Mumbai’s sea link bridge (on which two-wheelers are barred) becomes a metaphor for Lalzari’s journey.
Lalzari is aided by Nazrul, played by the estimable Dilip Prabhavalkar. A parallel track involving Lalzari’s employers – a lesbian couple – and their divorce-hungry clients dovetails neatly into Lalzari’s own transformation.
Since her debut in the film Dangal in 2016, Fatima Sana Shaikh has been in a series of roles, including in web series. Raat Rani is her best performance to date. Equal parts passionate, goofy, self-aware and unselfconscious, Shaikh is in direct contest with Yeo Yann Yann for the show’s best actor prize.