Modern Love Mumbai's exploration of the life of Kashmiris away from their home is a refreshing take
Raat Rani’s writer Nilesh Maniyar and director Shonali Bose discuss breaking the stereotypes surrounding Kashmiris and offering a new perspective on feminism in Modern Love Mumbai
The typical narrative that’s associated with Kashmiris involves them either being victims of militancy or perpetrators of violence in the valley. That’s why Raat Rani, the first story in the Modern Love Mumbai anthology show, comes as a breath of fresh air. It features Fatima Sana Shaikh as Laali and Bhupendra Jadawat as Lutfi, a Kashmiri migrant couple living in Mumbai. A decade ago, Laali and Lutfi eloped from Kashmir because they weren’t allowed to get married as they belong to different castes. Mumbai is where they find a place of their own and lead a decent life as a married couple. But all is not well in their little paradise, and when Lutfi leaves unannounced, Laali has to find her way on her own.
Laali’s story is bittersweet. The story is written by Nilesh Maniyar and directed by Shonali Bose, the duo behind films such as Margarita With A Straw and The Sky Is Pink. Raat Rani is a sensitive and insightful short story. Though inspired by the New York Times’ beloved column (that the original American show is based on), their story is Indian at heart, but has universal appeal. “It is expected that you tell political stories only a certain way with an agenda. Since we can’t tell ‘normal’ stories of Kashmir without the baggage, we tried to tell the story via Mumbai. Modern Love Mumbai gave us that platform. Mumbai is a melting pot where everything comes together and all lines blur. Politics is important but it shouldn’t be in your face. We think of characters as human beings first. All of us are grey in many ways, we are not black and white. So the idea of portraying any political subject in black and white is not something that I relate to. We have to observe and yet get past that and see people for who they are. That’s what Modern Love is about,” explains Nilesh talking about his approach to the story.
Shonali’s nuanced direction brings Nilesh’s story to life. It is a narration that tugs at the heartstrings. Whether it’s Laali’s anger at her husband for deserting her, her cooking rogan josh even when she is angry with him, or her uninhibited laughter when she finally sets herself free — it’s the story of a woman directed by another woman which adds a spark to the narrative. However, Shonali is humble and talks about how the writer helped her take the story forward with his compelling ideas. “All my films are my babies, but this time, I am not the mother. Nilesh is the mother and I am the father. The process of nurturing the story had both our contributions, but it was really Nilesh’s ideas. He is my neighbour, and one day he just barged into my house and said he has this idea that Laali sells tea at night to earn more money. I didn’t know about the cyclists who sell tea at night in Mumbai. This is also the story of Mumbai, so it was really exciting to watch it grow like a baby with Nilesh’s different ideas,” explains Shonali adding, “Adaptations are very complicated. You have to be true to the essence and spirit of the blog (referring to the NYT column). You have to honour the real person and their real story, but you have to bring in your own culture. In that blog, the protagonist is unable to cycle on the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, which are iconic bridges in that city. In Mumbai, the equivalent of that, is the Sea Link, where not even two-wheelers are allowed. But by the end of the story, such a powerful feminist message of this girl, at a spot were she is not allowed to be on her cycle, was amazing. I was in awe of what Nilesh had handed to me. It was a gift. I was intimidated and terrified to make it.”
Fatima excels in her performance as Laali, a free-spirited and lovable Muslim woman, who finds herself and is proud of her discovery. There’s a line in the story, when she meets her husband Lutfi briefly after he has left her. She says, “If you would have stayed back, I would have never woken up from my sleep.” It’s a powerful metaphor for a woman who has embarked on her new journey all by herself. While the actress has played strong female characters in her earlier films and web series, there’s something special about her Laali. Her command on the Kashmiri accent and her restless body language add authenticity to her portrayal. “My showrunners Romita and Ishita Nandi recommended her. I wasn’t 100 per cent confident about her. But this girl blew me away. I have had the good luck of working with Konkana Sen, Kalki Koechlin and Priyanka Chopra, who have given their heart and soul, so this new heroine was up against a strong track record. I work very deeply with actors, trying all kinds of improvisation, and the actor has to be open and make themselves vulnerable to you for a successful process. I feel this has been the most successful collaboration with an actor. We felt a closeness and emotional intimacy like a mother and child. She is an unbelievably hardworking, dedicated and a very talented actor,” signs off the director.
Modern Love Mumbai is streaming on Amazon Prime Video