Tuesday 3 October 2023

On demand: "Love Per Square Foot"

At last, a romcom with a worldview, or at least one foot in reality. Set Anand Tiwari's
Love Per Square Foot against recent Western equivalents, and it even begins to seem faintly Godardian: it scans overcrowded houses in an overcrowded city (Mumbai), before wryly noting how hard it might be to get away for assignments of a personal nature. Sanjay (Vicky Kaushal) is a thirtysomething male, with a thirtysomething male's aspirations and desires, stuck living at home with his parents while working in a bank's IT department; as we join him, he's in an altogether masochistic relationship - one that both literally and figuratively can't go anywhere - with a boss who's already seeing someone else. We soon get the picture: too many people on the scene and in the frame. At a colleague's wedding - yet more people, and a wistful sense of what could be for folks like Sanjay if they were in a higher wage bracket - our boy is introduced to Karina (a good Godardian name, proudly worn by newcomer Angira Dhar), though the promise of their first encounter ebbs away after it emerges she's the one who turned down his application for a home loan; she's also being set up for marriage with a loaded but overbearing fellow, chosen by the mother she lives with. Brick walls everywhere, and neither roof nor warm body to keep above one's head. Unlike a lot of stock romcom business, this actually happens: it's a film that makes sense of all those young couples forced to conduct their courting on the leafy fringes of Juhu Beach, but also one that might well resonate in any location where even lock-up garages are presently being rented out for a full month's salary.

The solution Sanjay and Karina find for their snafus - posing as a couple so as to access a nearby housing scheme - carries Tiwari's film into the realms of convention and convenience, yet these aren't the breezy hucksters who waft through Western romcoms, eminently capable of sustaining such deceptions. They're visibly nervy kids, doubtless more dependent for having spent so long at home, who at every twist of this plot appear out of their depth and unsettled in a dozen ways besides. (What the film locks down most precisely is the connection between domestic and romantic insecurity.) Any pleasure depends on us wanting to cohabit with the leads, and Tiwari hands himself the advantage of relatively fresh faces - performers who don't necessarily own four-storey townhouses with attached waiting staff, who retain some sense-memory of what it is to live cheque to cheque. Kaushal isn't an obvious catch, and at one point Sanjay is rude to a waiter, which raises a red flag, but his unforced and natural responses are appealing: he plays even regulation scenes in ways no established star, with their tried-and-tested array of tics, would. (Watch him underplay his big speech, while still appearing to speak directly from the heart.) Dhar, for her part, ensures Karina isn't some common-or-garden romcom kook, but - more poignantly - a sensible young woman who's done the right things all her life and still found herself no closer to Mr. Right or the home of her dreams. Tiwari keeps things snappy without ever forcing anything in the plot, rooting each interaction in character: he makes smart use of such seasoned comic players as Raghubir Yadav and Ratna Pathak Shah among his variably fussing parents, and pulls off something quietly inspired late on in having domestic upheaval spill over into first the workplace, then a shared courtyard. Everything is unhoused, and the boundaries separating private and public get comprehensively trampled over. Still, at every stage, it feels as though someone behind the camera lived through something like this, and Tiwari takes an extra care to ensure this plot's sudden flurries of intimacy - a night on the sofa, a kiss on a metro train - count double. Rare to see a romcom take so little for granted.

Love Per Square Foot is streaming on Netflix.

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