While watching the new six-episode Tamil anthology Modern Love Chennai, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, the one question that was insistently nagging was: Where is the city of Chennai in these stories?
To be sure, you get to see a few identifiable places and a few landmarks, but those are just visual props. The quintessential city of Chennai, which you’d expect with an anthology that carries its name to showcase, is conspicuously missing.
These stories even if they were named, say, Modern Love Kolkata, it wouldn’t be any different. This was equally true of Modern Love Mumbai and Modern Love Hyderabad, the two other anthologies in the franchise.
Of course, it is a fact that all of the stories in the Modern Love ambit are based on events that happened in New York and are chronicled in The New York Times. The stories are tweaked and set in the geography of the language they are made in. But writing the city as a character is a specialised skill. Merely showing a landmark or two of the place is lazy and bogus.
For example, you can feel the myriad shades of the city of New York in Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen’s works. In fact the duo has used the setting of their films to help create a longstanding mythology of New York itself.
A good director will know how to incorporate the place of its happening in the narrative element and changing it will make the narration completely different if not meaningless.
Take for instance the 2012 Hindi film Kahani. Directed by Sujoy Ghosh, the film lives up to the cinema cliche that the city is a character in the film as Kolkata comes alive in its variegated splendour.
Another good example could be the 2008 Tamil flick Subramaniapuram. Now, just because the film was titled Subramaniapuram, which is a locality in the city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, the place did not become an important character.
Sasikumar, for whom this was his debut as a director, not only brought alive Subramaniapuram of the 1980s alive in the frames, but also smartly created characters who well and truly belonged to the whole area.
The protagonists Azhagar (Jai), Paraman (Sasikumar) and their gang were filled with the small-town ethos of their place where blind emotions always triumphed over hard reasoning. In other words, if Azhagar and Paraman, with their methods and motivations, had been shown to be in, say, Chennai, it would have looked out of character.
If through Paraman and Azhagar, Sasikumar showed two people who belonged to a place, the contrast could be seen in the 2001 English movie Lost in Translation in which the two characters played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are shown to be outsiders to Tokyo.
The impenetrability and other-worldliness of the city imparts the mood of the characters and makes them morose. The director Sofia Coppola adroitly shows their sense of alienation through simple visual differences such as placing the tall Bill Murray together with short Japanese men in an elevator. The shower in the bathroom is placed too low for his height. The idea of not fitting in is both literal and metaphorical.
There is no such smart use of the place in Modern Love Chennai where the backdrop is as generic as they come. The only story in the anthology where the city comes alive a bit is in the Raju Murugan directed segment Lalagunda Bommaigal. But here too Chennai is evidenced only through the easy marker of language.
A good director’s understanding of a city or town always comes through. It makes the film’s world feel more realistic and genuine, and it creates a system of understanding for the audience to get to know the characters. In Modern Love Chennai one found a lot of modern love but very little of Chennai.
Also, seen very little was the hand of director Bharathiraja who is credited with helming the segment titled Paravai Kootil Vaazhum Maangal. Right at the end, there is a credit line that the film is a homage from Bharathiraja to his ‘friend Balu Mahendra’.
And the segment indeed feels a tribute to Balu Mahendra right from the naming of the characters Ravi, Revathi and Rohini, who as almost everyone has pointed out, is a hat-tip to the actors who played the leads in the 1993 film Marupadiyum.
As in that Balu Mahendra directed film, this segment deals with a man choosing a new woman over his wife. The way the characters speak with pared-down emotions is also typical Balu Mahendra-esque.
But the segment had no feel of Bharathiraja, and there is a lingering suspicion that he merely lent his name to the episode and it was actually directed by someone else. Apparently those behind the anthology seem to have used Bharathiraja’s name merely because it helped to market it easily. If indeed this is the case it amounts to grave cheating of the unsuspecting viewers. (Some feminists are also upset with the story in which two women change their lives to make the life of a man easy. But that is besides the point.)
Overall, Modern Love Chennai is not bad. I particularly liked the concept of Kadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukkara Emoji segment. The spoofy feel of the story smartly hides its meta take on films and its impact on some people.
The whimsicality in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Ninaivo Oru Paravai that grapples with the fundamental query of what is reality if our lives are just memories from the past. The idea of Thiagarajan Kumararaja making an almost biographical sketch about a director and actress who find themselves acting out scenes from a script that they are working on is delightfully Nolanesque in its sweep and substance.
But while we managed to find Ilaiyaraaja big time in the series — , the other raja (Bharathiraja) and the city of Chennai are nowhere to be seen.