“Tanu Weds Manu Returns”… A romance that struggles to measure up to its heroine’s performance

Posted on May 23, 2015


Spoilers ahead…

What an odd title: Tanu Weds Manu Returns. Considering the audience just needs to be told that this is a sequel, was Tanu and Manu Again unavailable? Tanu Weds Manu Returns sounds like Tanu weds and Manu returns. The blue-penciller in me kept wanting to insert a comma midway. Though, really, it’s Tanu who returns. As the film begins – this, too, is directed by Anand L Rai – we see the Tanu-Manu wedding which was promised in the earlier film. Soon, we are told it’s four years later. The festive Indian colours give way to chilly Western ones. Tanu (Kangana Ranaut) and Manu (R Madhavan) are in England. Their marriage is on the rocks. So they do what every troubled couple does. They go to a… mental rehabilitation centre. Yup. Clearly, marriage counsellors are so last century. He says she’s bipolar. She says he’s boring. He says she’s a flirt. She says he’s a pervert, alluding to the best scene in the first film, where he took a picture of her as she lay sleeping. It was a creepy-cute moment that made you wonder where things were going. Nowhere special, it turned out. Anyway, Tanu gets Manu committed and returns to her hometown, Kanpur.

This is an awful, outlandish contrivance and I could never get past it. I see what this scene is doing. It’s trying to remind us how impulsive Tanu is. But why not think up something more plausible to tell us the marriage is over? I would have believed it if Tanu had simply woken up in the middle of the night, packed her bags and headed to the airport. Because she is that way. That’s why we like her. That’s why we are maddened and frustrated by her. And it’s easy to see why Manu feels all these things too. What’s not so easy to buy is the whole marriage. The fact that they are separated after four years is less surprising than the fact that they lasted that long. She’s a firecracker. He’s a bath towel. It might have helped if we’d seen a few scenes from their marriage.

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Once Tanu is back in Kanpur, the film picks up speed for a while. Rai is the anti-Zoya Akhtar. He thinks in Hindi. This isn’t just about the great lines dripping with ghee (I howled when a translator went from “[night]club” to “Gymkhana”), or the rooted, small-town atmosphere. It’s that his reference points are all from Hindi cinema. He likes to feature old songs. Tanu Weds Manu Returns begins with Sun sahiba sun playing over the wedding. And near the end, we get a song sequence where a heartbroken Tanu dances at Manu’s wedding – he’s back in India too, and he’s getting married to Kusum (Kangana again), who looks like Tanu. Through the song, I kept thinking what a strange, Pakeezah-like moment this was – Sahibjaan dancing at Salim’s wedding – and sure enough, a poster of Pakeezah is glimpsed a little later. The lookalike, of course, was a staple of Hindi films of a certain era – you could point to Sharmilee, say. (In a Zoya Akhtar movie, you’d have pointed to Vertigo.)

And somewhere in between, we have a nod to another love triangle, Aar Paar. Ja ja ja ja bewafa plays on the soundtrack, and it could have been written for this film. Tanu accuses Manu of bewafaii, infidelity. That’s not a word you hear very often in the post-multiplex Hindi movie. This stretch of song is lovely. It’s night. There’s Geeta Dutt’s voice. And Rai stages nice little bits. Tanu, a glass of whiskey in hand, stumbles upon a beggar. She steps into a beauty parlour and tries on a wig that makes her look like Kusum. But the song comes out of nowhere. This level of sadness, this level of longing needs to be built up to. I was reminded of last week’s Bombay Velvet, where Dhadaam dhadaam erupted out of nowhere. Songs this big need the grounding of equally big emotions. Think Tanhayee in Dil Chahta Hai. It works because it’s the culmination of a journey; it’s the epiphany the film has been building towards. This film uses its equivalent of Tanhayee as if it were just another song, as if it were Jaane kyon log pyaar karte hain. I was relieved when O saathi mere – sung exquisitely by Sonu Nigam; my favourite in a very strong soundtrack by Krsna Solo – was simply used as background music; otherwise, we’d have been wondering at what point Manu was feeling what Sonu Nigam was feeling.

It’s understandable that Rai doesn’t want to get too emotional, he wants to keep things light and entertaining – but the premise is anything but. Or maybe I should say premises. There’s a lot in here. Empowerment messages. A subplot about artificial insemination. A khap-panchayat scenario. There are many characters and they keep cluttering up the plot. Of course, this gives us the chance to see a lot of good actors – Swara Bhaskar, Deepak Dobriyal, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, and especially KK Raina, who plays Manu’s father and has a standout scene where he advises his son about marriage, even as his wife keeps screeching in the background. But these characters are given very little to do, and you wish more time had been devoted to Tanu and Manu. Early on, he refers to their sex life. Wouldn’t that have been something to see? Tanu blindfolds Manu and he thinks there’s been a blackout. Or something.

Even Kusum is a bit of a cipher, though Kangana plays her beautifully. (Tanu and Kusum truly seem to be portrayed by two different actresses. It isn’t just the externals. This is acting from the inside out. I hope that the fact that this is a “light” movie doesn’t prevent Kangana from being recognised richly for her work.) Manu answers our question when he says he doesn’t know why he’s fallen for Kusum, though it’s clear that he loves the idea of Tanu and because he can’t seem to live with the version he has, he’s looking for a close-enough replacement. But we know he’s going to end up with Tanu – and besides making the film extremely boring after a point, this makes Kusum collateral damage. (She’s got Jimmy Shergill’s Raja for company. He, too, is hurt in the crossfire between Tanu and Manu.)

But maybe this is what makes Rai’s films at least a little special. Whether in Raanjhanaa or in his Tanu-Manu outings, he isn’t afraid to show us unlikeable, borderline-crazy people – and this is unusual in a mainstream love story. People get hurt in his films. People die. The Abhay Deol character in Raanjhanaa was killed in the crossfire between Dhanush and Sonam. Kusum and Raja just happen to be in a lighter movie, with great sight gags like the one where we see Sardars dancing the dandiya. Remove these gags and you have the push-pull romance between two terribly self-absorbed people. Despite his stolidness (and solidness, I must say; Madhavan is doing for heroes what Bhumi Pednekar and Vidya Balan are doing for heroines), Manu is as much a flake as Tanu is. He seems to care more about his promise to Kusum that he’ll marry her (again, a Hindi-cinema thing, that whole vachan concept), even after Tanu re-enters his life and makes him re-evaluate his feelings. For the first time, I felt that he did belong in a mental rehabilitation centre.

At least Tanu is more fun. She’s a magnificent flake. When she returns to Kanpur, she sees an old friend – an old flame, maybe – who’s now a rickshaw-wallah.  She hops in and asks him, “Meri yaad aati hai? Kab?” This question is as impulsive as the hug she gives him when they reach her home – her parents look on horrified. Another lovely scene has her wondering if she should call Manu and say she’s sorry. As if it’s all a game. But Rai grounds Tanu, he tells us why she is this way – because her father (Rajendra Gupta) has spoilt her, not raising his voice ever. He’s someone else I felt the movie could have used more of, because when a couple splits up in the India of Anand L Rai, the smaller towns and cities, the parents end up as collateral damage too.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi