Nothing says ‘outsider’ in the city of Mumbai, more than a red gamchha (handwoven towel). As Sanjay (played by a confident Vicky Kaushal) stands on the terrace clenching the toothbrush between his teeth, and the gamchha tied around his neck like a superhero cape – he dreams of the good life. Waking up in a king-sized bed, making breakfast in a fully modular kitchen, sipping tea in the balcony which overlooks the city’s million urban structures, while the first rays gently pierce into the living room.
Sanjay Chaturvedi is no outsider (raised in the city), but he’s spent his entire life shifting from one railway quarter to another. “Everywhere between Dahisar and Bandra,” he says at one point. He can’t stand this casual relationship with Mumbai anymore, he wants something more concrete. Literally, like his own house.
Anand Tiwari’s Love Per Square Foot is Netflix’s first Hindi feature film, and it’s a warm little movie about a young man’s journey to belong in the city. Sanjay wants to graduate from a being a tenant to a home-owner in this city of gold, where a square foot of land costs more than his monthly in-hand salary. And he finds the perfect ally in Karina (assured debutante Angira Dhar), who works in the loan department at the very bank where Sanjay is one the infamous ‘I.T guys’.
Living with her mother in a house whose ceiling keeps reminding them to move, by showering them with chalk dust, Karina is another ambitious Mumbaikar looking for her independence, in the form of a house. She’s looking to escape from the stifling routine of pleasing her mother, the local priest and the ‘decent’ Christian boy in her life Sam (Kunal Roy Kapur in another role of a boyfriend from a sitcom). Sparks fly between the two and before you know it, they’re already discussing the ‘super built-up area’ and ‘carpet area’ of prospective homes.
This film brings together two like-minded people and then tries to weave a love story around them. It’s hardly a new or a dense central plot, which is why the writer-director tries to compensate for it by including his commentary on the lack of space for two consenting adults to get cosy in, during a song. Which doesn’t come up again. He also tries to fit in a culture conflict, which lands without reminding us of 2 States, thanks to the great actors who are trusted with the job. The subplot involving Sanjay and his boss, is too feeble to drive as the film’s main conflict.
Tiwari, well known as an actor/writer/director in films, web series and for his work on stage, recruits the crème de la crème for the supporting parts – Raghubir Yadav, Supriya Pathak, Gajraj Rao and Ratna Pathak Shah. The Pathak sisters are working together for the first time since Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, and they share a delightful scene as in-laws, communicating their reticence about the impending marriage, without ever turning it into the cacophony between an Amrita Singh and Revathy. Raghubir Yadav gets a splendid moment during a parting speech on the last day of his railway service, where he talks about his dreams of becoming a singer when he came to the city three decades ago. Right after that speech when he finds a brand new harmonium gift-wrapped for him, senior Chaturvedi can’t help but beam while his overjoyed wife declares – Pa mil gaya, referring to the broken key in their old harmonium.
Vicky Kaushal is on solid ground in this film, after his fantastic debut in Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan. After trying ‘too hard’ in Raman Raghav 2.0, it is a relief to see him play the character of Sanjay with a magical, light touch. Angira Dhar has a sincere and compelling presence in the film. The climax is understandably thin which is when Tiwari tries to compensate with one-liners and some Priyadarshan-esque confusion, which is, frankly, quite unbecoming.
Love Per Square Foot is far from the best films I’ve seen recently, but it is certainly one of the most flavourful romances in Hindi cinema in recent times. I can’t remember the last Bollywood romance (apart from Vicky Donor or Socha Na Tha) which had such a lived-in originality to it. This film should surely count as a victory for an outsider called Anand Tiwari, he belongs here.