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Review | 'Ankahi Kahaniyan' is a reminder of why the 'Modern Love' hangover must end

Yet another anthology, and more half-baked characters looking for connection. The best in this three-part anthology is Abhishek Chaubey’s signature less-is-more film.

September 18, 2021 / 06:48 PM IST
Kunal Kapoor and Zoya Hussain in a story about an extramarital affair in the anthology film 'Ankahi Kahaniya'.

Kunal Kapoor and Zoya Hussain in a story about an extramarital affair in the anthology film 'Ankahi Kahaniya'.

The growing appeal of the love story anthology among OTT gatekeepers is a conundrum. Of course, they require less work and less money to make them. Are they then fillers—for both filmmakers and the streaming giants? Or is it just that two largely desultory seasons of  Modern Love, based on the traffic-magnet New York Times blog of the same name, have proved through some data-crunching logic that the format makes eminent sense?  

I am yet to investigate to get at the answer. But watching Ankahi Kahaniyan, I did endure some heavy-duty tedium and fatigue. In the city, six lonely characters connect with someone or something for emotional healing. In writing as well as execution, two of the three stories in the anthology make stuttering attempts at the sublime.

Just as short stories are as old as literary prose, the film anthology is not new. From Paris Je T’aime (2006) and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) to the most memorable one in recent times, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), the anthology film has had its currency in India too—Bombay Talkies (2013), Lust Stories (2018), Dus Kahaniyaan (2018), Unpaused (2020), Ajeeb Daastaans (2021), Ray (2021) are the notable ones, besides several others in regional cinema.

Ankahi Kahaniyan, directed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, Abhishek Choubey and Saket Chaudhary, and written by a team of seven writers, starts on a promising note with Tiwari’s story about a clothing store salesman Pradeep (Abhishek Banerjee), who falls in love with a mannequin. He names her Pari.

Pradeep is from a village, and the only person we see him talking to besides a boorish boss and the other salesman at the store, is on the phone with his mother. He counters his loneliness by investing his affections in Pari. He dresses her meticulously, talks to her, adorns her with jewellery, takes her around in an autorickshaw and walks on neon-lit beaches lugging her around.

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There’s not a hint of explanation for Pradeep’s psychosis—the loneliness is the psychosis, but that’s not enough for the emotional heft required to convince us of the romance between a mannequin and an adult man with a mobile phone—finding connection with a wooden female figure is quite the 1980s, even further back into the pre-live chat era.

Pari isn’t even close to a Japanese love doll. Pradeep’s flotsam life in the city has its moments, but they are undone by a monologue in which Pradeep explains, teary-eyed, why he loved Pari—it’s the loneliness, of course; there is nobody to talk to, especially when a man is as shy as he, and Pari gave him a sense of belonging.

But when a character spells out the premise of his existence in such an obvious way, you wonder: Where is the magic of film there? Or, how stupid does a director consider her audience to be?

Abhishek Banerjee plays a clothing store salesman in 'Ankahi Kahaniya' on Netflix. Abhishek Banerjee plays a clothing store salesman in 'Ankahi Kahaniya' on Netflix.

Abhishek Chaubey’s story takes the anthology several notches up with a love story set entirely on the margins of poverty and grime. It is a romance that lifts the two characters, Manjari (Rinku Rajguru) and Nandu (Delzad Hiwale), out of the funk of their dilapidated, dreary lives.

Nandu works at a single-screen theatre when not looking after an emaciated, alcoholic man who adopted him when he was a child. For Manjari, trapped in a life of abuse and shame, redemptive moments occur when she watches Marathi films at the theatre Nandu takes care of, or when she bites into a nankhatai.

Chaubey’s direction uses silences, props and expressions to build the tense trajectory of this love story—an effective approach in the short format. It doesn’t matter where Nandu and Manjari land, and if they find their escape together or not—you wish they would.

The story is emotionally robust; their sadness or their moments of joy are palpably alive. Rajguru, who played the lead role in the Marathi blockbuster Sairat, channels a fearlessness and volatility that arises from oppression—almost bubbling over, not yet ready to explode. She handles the role with maturity and subtlety. Hiwale is not her match in acting, but effective enough to convey the journey from hopelessness to hope with the right combination of restraint and fluid body language.

Saket Chaudhary’s story is set in a world far removed from those of Manjari, Nandu and Pradeep. Manav (Kunal Kapoor) and Tanu (Zoya Hussain) connect because of their spouses Arjun (Nikhil Dwivedi) and Natasha (Palomi Ghosh), who had an affair. They retrace the journey of that affair to make sense of their own lives.

With classic Mumbai backdrops—including conversations about the self-love and erosion of self-esteem at the Taj Mahal Tea House—the inspiration for the premise is clearly Wong Kar-Wai’s magnificent In The Mood For Love.

The writing slacks almost as soon as the premise is established. The pain, remorse and reward that can arise from the trauma of living through an extra-marital affair of a spouse is amiss—without any awkward and rough edges rife in the act of letting a potential partner into our awkward bubble, this story is without any emotional punch. A tepid note to end the anthology, and perhaps a reminder that the Modern Love hangover should end here. 

Read more: 'Ankahi Kahaniya' directors on love, acceptance and separation in the film
Sanjukta Sharma is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mumbai.

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