What were the brutal experiences of fear, grief & unexpected connections in the last two years but lessons in love & relating? The lockdowns forced me away from my usual coping mechanisms & distractions. What is left when all assumptions are stripped away?
Love & Identity
As a metropolitan Indian woman with admittedly very radical views about my identity, I haven’t see myself in the stories served up for me, in books, movies & the conversations around. I’m political. This means I confidently know what I deserve (dignity, right to consent, safety) even as my world tells me I’m wrong. But I am also not able to unsee my own privilege & the glaring inequalities on which this is founded. A system that actively wants to eradicate me, use this dichotomy well to derail feminist conversations with whatabouttery. This is the same unlabelled turmoil that I found myself relating to, in the book ‘Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh’. Even as Indian women of privilege, our agency is hard-won. And because we are Indian women of privilege, these victories are treated as unfair advantages for which we have to pay a price in other ways – enduring shaming, gaslighting and finally, loneliness.
Where does romantic love fall into this bleak picture? It’s such a struggle to hold on to my identity. Where is there space to imagine a functional, fulfiling relationship with another person, especially one from the group that actively erases me – the cis man? Most people like me succumb & vanish from public narratives. How many single women in their 40s do you see in storylines, where they are NOT accessories to men or younger people as mothers/sisters/wise old guides? Battling this is a battle for identity & it comes with hate-labels about my sexuality. I’ve been told (by a rejected man, of course) that maybe the reason I can’t find a good man is I should be looking for a woman instead. Where is even room to explore this when I’m not even allowed to exist as a person? But it does tell me something important – we are an enmeshed, interconnected world. Our identities are framed in terms of how we connect to each other. And love, happily (even in its toxic forms) is the most common currency of this connection.
I’ve been following the Modern Love stories via the New York Times column for years. Those stories are not mine. Yet they explore the feelings of cis women, older women, divorcees, emotional tangles in the time of hookups. I’ve enjoyed them. I’ve even been part of an interesting social/creative experiment around the 36 Questions of Intimacy and later used the NYT app in relationships, both romantic & otherwise. The nature of relating can be romantic & sexual but it doesn’t have to be limited only to that. These have been my ways of negotiating with the world to explore who I am, especially with regards to other people.
I was not that impressed by the first Modern Love series on Prime video. EASY on Netflix was better in pushing boundaries of storytelling as well as raising uncomfortable questions about intimacy. Modern Love, in comparison felt like a throwback to the romantic comedies of my early adulthood – popcorn fare, fairytales for escape. I actually read some of the Modern Love essays on which the series was based and liked them far better. Reading has always touched me more than watching. And perhaps with stories this personal, they’re best told by the people who live them.
Falling In Love With/In Mumbai
I came to Modern Love Mumbai (the first of the India series) with mixed emotions. Most of what popular Indian media serves up is misogynist, propagandist & personally triggering to me. How I wondered, were they going to mangle yet another slice of my hopeful world. Unlike the original based on real people’s essays, Modern Love India is scripted. I still had to check it out because, well, hope springs eternal.
Raat Rani is the most talked about story in Modern Love Mumbai. It’s a perfect kick-off featuring an upcoming Bollywood starlet as an outsider to the city, finding her self. Clearly, it runs on the biggest fairytale that Mumbai is for the rest of the country – a place where dreams come true. At the same time, it didn’t alienate my native Mumbaiker self by forcing in the aggression, condescension & brutality I see in stories about/set in North India. The hero of this story is the woman and it is about her falling in love with herself, the city as a proxy. Most stories just recast a woman in a typically male role – face a conflict with rage, violence & grab a hard win at the cost of the world around. But this story showed the protagonist embrace frustration, betrayal, fear & takes on the slow plod to healing. It was unglamorous, it was patchy & it felt real. She didn’t vanquish the world around her; she became a part of it. And that’s loving.
Baai doesn’t get as much love possibly because the audiences can see it for the token attempt to gay up. It touched me because of the backdrop. Only someone who lived through the Bombay/Mumbai transition of the 90s would understand the trauma of seeing this democratic city become a communal hate ground. And because of that, I think it still fits a narrative about love with/in Mumbai. This story made me realise the show set up the city as not just a space within which to love but as an entity with which to fall in love. This is when it became my narrative. Stories about life, love & my identity have disappointed & brutalised me so much, I found my peace in framing Mumbai as both home & lover.
Neither Mumbai Dragon nor My Beautiful Wrinkles moved me much. I have no interaction with Mumbai’s Chinese community. And while I am getting to be an older woman reflecting on attraction & love, this story was about a South Bombay senior citizen widow. Not all older women are the same, not all Mumbai neighborhoods are the same. I just love that this city and this story encompassed all our variety in their respective glories.
Cutting Chai was the perfect finish to the series (even if I think it was just what I expected). Mirroring the first story, it casts two bygone Bollywood stars as a middle aged married couple, examining whether their daily frustrations are regret or play. It was comforting & lovely.
I saved the last but one episode, I Love Thane for the end because this was my favorite. Why? Because I am that girl in the story. The independent professional, juggling unusual careers & an unsatisfactory fast paced dating life in a city where no one has time to care. My best friend has been at the other end of a phone line, hundreds of kilometers away. I have realised mid-meeting that my evolution is now learning not to roll my eyes at ludicrous demands. And I’ve deployed that new skill when meeting startup bros, hustle dudes, wokebro mama’s boys on earnest dates. I’ve even tried to be ‘that girl’ before realising she’s a figment of this dysfunctional prototype dude’s imagination. And I know Thane and its people. Shoulder to shoulder with my insomniac city, is this lovely land of lakes, gently bobbing along, seemingly indifferent to us. Their placidity makes our glamour & success feel like desperation but it’s also really soothing & enriching. Just like that early morning chai at the end of the story.
Modern Love Mumbai series had a female protagonist in every single story. They were youthful newcomers to the city, wizened immigrants, young professionals, senior homemakers. Even the one story about gay men love had a powerful woman’s influence in the backdrop. And its treatment felt very female. Every single conflict was intimate rather than grandiose (ugh, Modern Love Season 2 treating the pandemic like a meet-cute). The characters negotiated their way through the story, two steps forward, one sideways, one back, then forward again, just like in real life.
I loved, loved, loved this show so much because it’s been such a long time in coming. A story about people like me. A story that looks at love, not as acquisition (by a cis man) but for all its complexity of connection. A story that recognizes that where we have been, impacts what we are looking for. A story that says relationships need adaptation not adjustment.
Modern Love Hyderabad just dropped a week ago. And I’m savouring it bit by bit. I was intending to write about it too here but that’s the stuff of another post. Please drop a comment & I’d love to discuss this further.