By Poulomi Das
Netflix’s first original Hindi film (co-written by Sumeet Vyas), opens with Sanjay Chaturvedi’s (Vicky Kaushal) morning routine: He stands on the terrace, toothbrush in mouth and towel in hand, peeking intently into the lives that play out in the skyscraper across the road. While he waits for his railway-announcer father Bhaskar (Raghubir Yadav in top form) to free the bathroom for him, the couple across the road have no such worries. Nestled in their spacious apartment, they are the outliers in the city of dreams; ones who can afford the luxury of space, time, and companionship without having to compromise with the city that never sleeps. As Sanjay and the man in the apartment lock eyes, it’s clear that Sanjay wants to live the ultimate Bombay dream: A place to call your own.
On this side of the apartment block, Sanjay barely gets what he yearns for, even inside the confines of the bathroom: space. His mother’s (Supriya Pathak echoing a distinct Hansa deja-vu) persistent warnings and father’s simultaneous harmonium-laced singing practice keep reminding him of the paucity of privacy in the modest railway quarters that they inhabit. Passageways double up as drying areas, the living room is also Sanjay’s bedroom. With his father’s retirement due soon, there are now two choices in front of Sanjay: Either accompany his parents back to their ancestral house in Kanpur or fight it out in Mumbai and buy his own house.
On the other side of the city is his colleague Karina D’Souza (Angira Dhar) who is in a similar dilemma: She shares her relative’s dilapidated studio on the verge of collapse with her Catholic mother Blossom (Ratna Pathak Shah at her comic best). Harassed by the frequent BMC eviction notices, her mother’s fervent suggestions of marriage get more pressing. Blossom, unlike Karina, has lived in Mumbai long enough to let the city force her into lowering her expectations and take hard decisions. To her, Karina’s marriage is the only escape from their carton-like house with walls so thin that they are reluctant eavesdroppers to their neighbour’s sexual drive. Karina, on the other hand, is too young to not dream about having her own house in Mumbai.
But, daring to dream and owning a house in Mumbai is easier said than done; a theme that was beautifully explored in Bhimsain Khurana’s poignant Gharaonda a little over four decades back. The Amol Palekar-Zarina Wahab starrer touched on the worthlessness of human emotions in the big bad world of Mumbai housing, highlighting the ethical dilemmas of a young couple. In the older film, which shares a similar premise as the Netflix film, Sudip and Chaya save every penny, pooling in money to buy their own flat before getting married.
Because this was set in 1977, when socialist cinema was peaking and focused on the “middle class”, the proposed flat never comes up and the builder decamps with their money. As tragedy strikes the much-in-love couple, the film takes an unexpected turn when Sudip suggests that Chaya marry Modi, her wealthy, older boss (who has had an eye for her) and bide time until his death. He reasons that since Modi has a heart condition, the wait can’t be very long, and the two can reunite soon.
Chaya agrees to the proposition, partly in order to fund her brother’s education. But, soon settles into her new life as Modi’s wife, nursing him back to health. Meanwhile, Sudip plunges into an abyss, desperately longing for her to walk out of the very marriage he suggested in the first place. Gharaonda, then, became a portrait of the other side of the much-lauded spirit of Mumbai, which involves making do, and arriving at a compromise that leaves one defeated and yet lets them survive.
Love Per Square Foot, a spiritual and millennial update of Gharaonda, never gets quite as grim as its predecessor. Yet, it manages to delve into the perils of negotiating your space in a relationship in a city where existence is as much an act of rebellion as a compromise.
In the film, the two bank employees navigate their dysfunctional romantic encounters – Karina ends a suffocating, love-dead relationship with her boyfriend Sam (a hilarious Kunaal Roy Kapur) and Sanjay puts an end to his submissive fling with his boss Rashi – to come around to the idea of a marriage of convenience with each other. In their heads, a harmless pretense of husband and wife is a worthy barter for landing their own house, a thought echoed succinctly by Sanjay. “Main ghar ke liye shaadi bhi kar sakta hoon,” he admits twice; once jokingly, the next convincingly during the 134-runtime of Love Per Square Foot.
In doing so, the film’s leads represent a generation of couples whose romance is anchored to the idea of practicality and is wholly conditional. The romance that springs between them sidesteps the boy-meets-girl template; it’s a romance that is instead scooped out of practical companionship. Take away the house from the equation, and their romance might not even exist.
Besides throwing a light on the lack of privacy for intimacy in the city (a theme beautifully captured in last year’s short film The Affair), the dissolution of purity from romantic encounters, and the perils of millennial ambition, Love Per Square Foot is also a long, hard look at the intensity of the problems afflicting modern romances. For today’s generation, the problems are more internal. In Gharaonda, for instance, Sudip and Chaya’s alliance were to fight external factors like Modi, a cheating developer, and the heartlessness of Mumbai.
It’s the opposite for Sanjay and Karina, whose relationship instead needs to pass the hurdles of their own moral beliefs and defeat trust issues. It’s also precisely why their differing religions, their disparate upbringings, and their parents’ inability to identify with each other are no more than passing thoughts.
They are powerless to cause a dent in their children’s love lives solely because romance just doesn’t work that way anymore. Love Per Square Foot is then, as much about finding the space for a Mumbai romance, as it is about surviving the transactional consequences of an urban romance.
Featured image credits: Juergen Dsouza
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