By Rachit Raj

Feels Like Ishq, the new anthology on Netflix, is by design a corny affair. These short films are presented to us as a fresh take on young love (teenage to mid-20’s), and they are at their best when the writing, direction, and performances match the cheesiness that quite obviously is the soul of all these stories.

This gives us middling results, often making us smile and at other times forcing us to wonder if the attempted corniness got lost in the long journey of an idea turning into a moving image. Yet, for the three-hour long runtime of its six short films, Feels Like Ishq fares a lot better than some of the other recent anthologies, albeit with its share of flaws.

The first is also probably the weakest one. Titled ‘Save the Da(y)te’, the story involves a girl (an ever-improving Radhika Madan) who is on the run to find the bride-to-be – her best-friend, who has panicked hours before the wedding. She journeys with the planner of the marriage (Amol Parashar) in a strange, quirky, loud, short film about two strangers conversing about marriage, love, and companionship.

The idea is not entirely bad and Madan brightens the screen with her social-media-influencer act (leading to an intelligent homage to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara). Parashar is also reasonably commendable as the marriage-hating wedding planner. It is a classic case of two ideologically opposite people bonding over their diametrically opposite views on life, and love. However, director Ruchir Arun, who has also directed Dice Media’s Little Things, does not ignite the attraction of the two characters strongly enough, making this a watchable but also a largely forgettable short.

The second one, directed by Tahira Kashyap Khurrana, titled ‘Quaranteen Crush’ is the quintessential small-town story of innocent, inexperience brush of attraction that happens to be set in the first Covid-19 lockdown. It is a story of a young Sikh boy Maninder (Mihir Ahuja) who develops a crush on his new neighbour (Kajol Chugh).

Their story plays out like a 90’s romance, peppered with problematic tropes that Kashyap is intelligently aware of. Maninder uses his mother’s phone to interact with her. The girl is made to believe that she is talking to his mother, while it is Maninder on the other side of the chat. His inability to understand what’s wrong with this is innocent and yet implausible. His realization of the fact that he is wrong mirroring as an entire generation of boys who learnt stalking as a step of love, only to unlearn that terrible romanticization of stalking.

The way he stumbles across his wrongdoings (an intelligent comment on how the world is an oyster in 2020-21) defines the moment when he takes his first steps towards maturity. The girl feels betrayed, but the story ends with hope. Hope of Maninder learning with time; hope of stalking being erased over a period of time as an accessible, acceptable expression of love. Tahira Kashyap and writer Gazal Dhaliwal play out the story smartly, never making it feel pushy, but also doing their bit to change the dominant narrative of men crushing over a girl in a small but smart step towards a better tomorrow.

‘Star Host’ starring Rohit Saraf and Simran Jehani as a make-shift owner of a B&B and a visitor, respectively, is a clichéd but largely enjoyable story of the girl’s coming-of-age after a break-up, after which she comes on a solo-trip (Queen vibes? Thankfully no). Their story is smooth and Saraf eases into his role quite easily. With picturesque views and a story that is designed to remind viewers of the pre-pandemic world of traveling to hilly terrains.

The fourth and the only same-sex love story (which speaks a lot about where we stand vis-a-vis representation of same-sex romances) is a cheerful, urban story that may well be the most important short film in this anthology, if not the best. Written by Sulagna Chatterjee and directed by Danish Alam, the story revolves around a bisexual woman (Sanjeeta Bhattacharya) falling for the new gay colleague (Saba Azad). This short suffers from a strange obsession to portray the story in the form of the protagonist breaking the fourth wall repeatedly. Apart from the brilliant Fleabag, this style of visual storytelling almost never works out in the final product. The creative decision to depict this same-sex love with a constant breaking of the fourth wall and a few unconvincing dialogues hinders it from being a standout same-sex story on an Indian platform.

Chatterjee’s exploration of toxicity in same-sex relationship and a deliciously cute confession in the midst of Mumbai’s traffic, though, makes ‘She Loves Me She Loves Me Not’ a breezy affair, while also an incredibly important story that ends with two women kissing each other against the picturesque view of Bandra-Worli Sealink.

The most simplistic and rewarding piece in this anthology is ‘The Interview’, where a Muslim woman (Zayn Marie Khan) and an anxious Malayali man (Neeraj Madhav) develop a rare, ethereal dynamic while vying for the same job. Director Sachin Kundalkar speaks about a lot more here than the first steps of this relationship that may or may not brew beyond this one day. It speaks of another dynamic that “feels like ishq” – the relationship between middle-class desires and the city of Mumbai.

He does so without letting the narrative feel too thick, making it breezy as well as poignant at the same time. By far the best of the lot, ‘The Interview’ is a reflection of the chance meetings that may be the cradled beginning of a longer, more complex relationship. Madhav’s brilliant screen presence and Khan’s easy charm only make it work better.

The final short is about a date in a protest march. Much like in the first one, here again we find two individuals who are poles away in their politics. The girl (Tanya Maniktala) is a powerful, politically vocal individual who saves herself in her attempt to save the world, and a privileged man (Skand Thakur), who is just looking for a hook-up after a break-up.

The short is a little too idealistic, and a touch too simplistic, but this anthology expected that from us. Their pairing as characters is odd, and their future is bleak, but one wonders if even that little spark of curiosity would lead to that final snapshot of a shared smile. ‘Ishq Mastana’ bites more than it could chew for its runtime, making for a decent but limiting viewing experience.

Feels Like Ishq is imperfect and at times a tad too sugary for my liking, but it has enough moments to smile at. It delivers on what it promises, giving an anthology that is sweet and likeable while also occasionally pushing the envelope of visual tropes of romance on screen.

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