Feels Like Chalk Forced Down My Throat, but okay

A marker of a successful start to any friendship or relationship is the common ground to disliking things together. You can find joy in disliking common friends, films and TV, celebrities, sports. Whatever your grounds may be; there are people who found love in a hopeless place bonding over those, Rihanna made the rules.

In my case, this write-up is the result of mutual appreciation for cringe kink, recommended to me by a dating app match. We discussed the best of worst television we had seen recently and true to the plot of the anthology, we may have hit the right notes. He raised Feels Like Ishq (2021) to my Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, and man, was he right in hitting me up with a good cringe watch.

Cringe because Netflix in India has been focussing on generating content with the undertones of dating, romance, relationships with Originals, and non-fictional reality TV shows for the age group between 16-30. Between the international reality TV shows and the Indian anthologies that have come out of Netflix in the past year, Feels Like Ishq just fits their production template of writing about young romance with roadblocks. Never mind that half of these are so badly written, you’ll give up on love, even if you’re in a strong, committed relationship at the time of watching.

These templates include young, able, upper-caste, good-looking people who can emote and deliver lines in Hinglish (with an Indian-English accent) and get the Instagram cool people language right. They’ll be digitally literate and talk in a manner that you and your friends do, to make the web series or film seem more relatable. However, Netflix (and subsequently, this template) doesn’t give a damn that dating in India is a sub-culture so vastly different from the rest of the world, and they do no service in establishing it. For them, the template has to include socially relevant settings (big fat destination wedding, art/design job at a corporate office, lockdown with family, protest sites, running a “smol business” to make quick money, and so on) for the meet-cute to take place. Writing Feels Like Ishq seemed like an exercise in embellishing this template with puppy dog romance.

As a six-part anthology on finding love in unexpected corners, Feels Like Ishq is a collection of coming of age shorts for the Indian millennials and Gen-Z who are living between screens, apps, and the internet. Despite being capsule-sized, each short seems like a never-ending saga, especially when you stretch a good hook into a film with a dreamy song sequence and make Ayushmann Khurrana deliver Paani Da Rang's third copy track. While there is scope to feel as though you are “one of them”, there is no way, you will want to because all of the interactions seems off and cringeworthy. I had second-hand embarrassment on behalf of the characters approaching each other, especially when I watched “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not”. Can we retire copying ideas from Fleabag (2016-2019), including breaking the fourth wall narratorial voice? We don’t need it to tell a Yash Raj-esque story about finding love and pushing boundaries to attain that love with everyone looking petite and beautiful in outfits picked by an English teacher at a convent school.

I have, in the last year, lived through more complex relationship problems of people featured on Netflix than in my own life. Sometimes, I wonder if I pay my therapist and pay the Netflix subscription to tackle one problem with the other. In this grand scheme of things, Feels Like Ishq felt like a true problem, one that needs to be addressed. Take the case of “Ishq Mastana”, one of the six shorts. Kabir (Skand Thakur) is invited to join his date Mehr (Tanya Maniktala) at a protest site. Before you know, he’s been detained and he reveals that he was in it for quick gratification that he hoped he will get by the end of the date…by going to meet his date at the site of protest. It’s as though the folks who commissioned the short picked up the trending topics on Twitter and decided to write a script while being on prescriptive medicines.

While I may not touch actively on the “date” and how it “turns out”, cause you should torture yourself a little and find out yourself, I want to dwell upon the visualization of a “protest”, according to writers and the commissioning team sitting in Mumbai. The protest sites, in real life, often include resources including food, water, placards, art to hold, and all of these are prepped and distributed and made available to the attendees out of the need to take care of nourishment and supplies so dissenters don’t often waste time in procuring those. For a first-time protest attendee, this sight can be overwhelming. You expect people to be angry and mad, and yet people are calm and composed, acting in a civil manner. "Ishq Mastana" takes this and weaves into a romantic notion of how “protest sites” work in a way people are at a carnival and this is SoBo’s introduction to partying like a Leftist. Perhaps, they rubbed the JNU scholar in me the wrong way, or perhaps they were lazy with their research and production design. I had to give up and go out for a walk to calibrate myself to be able to write this. Someone, please tell commissioning honchos at Netflix that you can appropriate Indian Gen-Z social scenes without making them hard to digest, with love from one metro city to the other. Please don’t write narratives about protest sites being sooooo nice and warm and dreamy that we have Godi Media join in on the bandwagon of this image and take their flight of fancy by taking off after watching this short.

Thematically, the idea of happy-sappy stories of 20 somethings finding love and lessons, gets to you right from the first one “Save The Da(y)te” where post- Jab We Met (2007) characters Avani and Parashar meet each other at a picturesque setting against a destination beach wedding and fill themselves up with digitally literate references of “how to track a runaway bride”. Everything is fun and games until Avani (Radhika Madan) bride’s best friend (maid of honour?) decides to give monologue after another to the wedding planner Parashar (Amol Parashar) on not being a cynic when he has the choice, forgetting intermittently to trace her friend or being proactive about the runaway bride situation.

I get it, yes, this is a film on the little serendipitous moments and things and all that and grow a heart, but I have none. I’ll give it to the first short for getting the production design right, the intention right, but the execution? It reminded me of thesis films we did back in the film school where the idea and writing were all top-notch but despite everything coming together, the film itself felt forced and desperate attempt to look cool, in the execution, and god do these little capsules of love and mush took me down a memory lane of the cringe we produced together in groups under the same themes. None of what we made was picked by Netflix, but they were just awful as this one. My unstable dates have shown more consistency in character keeping than the writing in these six-part shorts and I can only hope that I find love in a hopeless place, to appreciate this brand of cinema a lot more.

Does this mean the match and I are going to take Ishq or any other thing anywhere? Absolutely not. In real life, people don’t bond with other people over couplets or singing badly written tracks while jamming with their neighbours. Love takes effort. Love takes time, and love surely does not bloom when the premise is “opposites attract”. It may all be stimulated to feel like ishq, but it is truly a fart in your head.

The series is available for streaming on Netflix in India.

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(Note: This review was written within a week of the anthology's release but since it did no service on telling the reader on other aspects and covering track on all the shorts in the anthology, I had abandoned posting this. over time I realized I don't have to give everything when the anthology doesn't offer me much to talk about other than how cringe-worthy the whole experience was.)

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.