“Manmarziyaan”… This lighter outing from Anurag Kashyap is still a ferocious, stream-of-consciousness narrative

Posted on September 18, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

For the second time, after Dev.D, Anurag Kashyap tackles a love triangle — and Manmarziyaan, too, follows a Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay template, established in Swami (which became a 1977 film, with Shabana Azmi and Girish Karnad). A headstrong, liberated girl falls for a caddish youth, but gets married to a man with the patience of the saints. Will she cling, stubbornly, to memories of the lover, who matched her temperament, or will she slowly learn to appreciate her husband? This question has been asked in numerous films, from Woh Saat Din to Andha 7 Naatkal to Nenjathai Killathey to Mouna Raagam to Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam — but for the most part (the ending, I’m afraid, is a bit of a cop-out), Kashyap and his writer, Kanika Dhillon, transform this story from a plot-based melodrama into a ferocious stream-of-consciousness narrative.

The film is dedicated to Amrita Pritam — her wrist-slittingly passionate Main tenu phir milangi (“I will meet you yet again”) is acknowledged, as are her Punjabi roots (Manmarziyaan is set in Amritsar), and perhaps her stormy personal life, too. Manmarziyaan is about pyaar (love) and fyaar (lust) — and Amrita Pritam wrote about both, emotional as well as physical nakedness. Kanika Dhillon appears to have channeled that forceful voice. In a conversation Rumi (an explosive Taapsee Pannu, giving the performance of a lifetime in the role of a lifetime) has with the London-based Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), both pyaar and fyaar come up. He thought she was hot, first; only then, that she was a good person. For her, it was the other way around. Another person might have thought twice before telling someone that their physical appearance was not the biggest draw — but Rumi is unapologetically self-absorbed. The most surprising — and feminist — aspect of Manmarziyaan is that the film doesn’t apologise for her, either. There’s no great humiliation or fall or lesson that awaits her. In fact, everyone recognises this about her, and goes out of their way to accommodate this flaw trait. It’s not just refreshing. It’s revolutionary.

The character’s very name, that of a Sufi mystic whose gentle musings are often found in Facebook statuses and Imtiaz Ali movies, seems to be a knowing joke. Looking at the tall and wiry Taapsee, it’s as though Rumi’s lava-hot intensity has melted away all fat and taken residence in her red-dyed hair. Rumi smokes. She drinks. She screams at the pani puri wala because the sauce is not hot enough. (Much later, we discover that when she’s angry, she prefers really spicy chutney.) She sleeps with Vicky (Vicky Kaushal, who got squeals from girls at the Chennai theatre I saw the film in), her former flame, even after marrying Robbie. She may be the most fascinating mainstream heroine since Geet, from Jab We Met — only, she doesn’t undergo a personality-altering penance to atone for her Tinder-era recklessness and independent-mindedness. During their honeymoon, Robbie asks her which side of the bed she wants, left or right. Her reply is as much a response to his question as her own T-shirt slogan: “Always right.”

This me-me-me obliviousness is often horrifying. Rumi treats Robbie awfully. When the folks call to ask how their honeymoon is going, she gets into graphic details about condoms, which shocks Robbie.  And she can bring herself to talk or have sex with him only after a drink or three. She doesn’t even bother to remove the price tag on her lingerie before slipping it on. Soon, we see that the only reason Rumi wanted to sleep with Robbie is so she can message Vicky and mess up his mind. She feels she has the upper hand. She smiles. But the smile fades when, a little later, Vicky sends her a clip of him with another woman. One of the most interesting aspects of Manmarziyaan is how it treats sex. With Vicky, it’s just a need, like peeing or taking a dump. With Robbie, it’s a weapon for one upmanship. Never is it just this gauzy, tender, veil-lifting moment on a flower-festooned bed we’ve seen in countless movies.

Here’s the other fun fact about the film. In the earlier variations of the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay story (or at least, the template), the arranged marriage is brought about by some kind of family pressure. Here, too, Rumi’s family wants her to “settle down,” sure — but they aren’t exactly against Vicky, whose affair with Rumi becomes open knowledge soon enough. And because her family won’t create the drama, Rumi creates her own drama. Vicky’s vacillations — he doesn’t feel the need to get married, and he isn’t the “responsible” type — drive Rumi to Robbie. (Vicky Kaushal is superb as this man-child who wants Rumi like he wants a favourite toy, something he can play with when he wants but can also put back on a shelf when he wants.) In a superb scene, she tells Vicky, “I wouldn’t have brought up the topic of marriage if we hadn’t been found out, but now we have, and so…” This isn’t a teary ultimatum. She’s smiling. How deeply she wants this man is evident from how furious she gets every time she tries to knock sense into him. With Vicky, she’s like: “Why the fuck don’t you get it?” With Robbie, she’s like: “Well, whatever!”

One of the problems with Manmarziyaan is that Rumi is a fairly fleshed-out character while Vicky and Robbie are merely types, defined mainly by too-easy contrasts. Sexy job (dijjay) versus conventional job (banker). Jim Morrison tees and punk hair versus sedate colours and a turban (even if Robbie wears it only after landing in India). Intense and infantile versus sedate and mature. Even their scenes around their “mummies” are contrasts. Vicky won’t think about eloping because he’s asked his mother to make gobi ke parathe while Robbie patiently explains to his mother why the girl he chooses has to be not so much a nursemaid for her but a life partner for him. Abhishek plays serenity well. He pauses two beats before lines when only one is necessary. Put differently, unlike Vicky and Rumi, Robbie thinks before he acts. When Rumi asks, “Bachpan se Ram ji type ke ho?”, it sits well on him. I found that I, too, wanted to ask that of him. The exasperation we feel at Rumi’s flip-flopping between these two men — between what she wants and what she knows is “good for her,” between first love and husband material — is part of the film’s design, and if Kashyap and Dhillon don’t engage with the psychologies of their leading men, they at least respect them. We don’t get cheap scenes where Rumi realises the worth of one man by how differently he reacts to something than the other man did. It’s only about what Rumi wants.

Still, I wish Manmarziyaan had spelled out why Robbie would marry Rumi (he knows about her and Vicky) as opposed to waiting it out for her to make up her mind. (The night before the wedding, she calls it off, because she is eloping with Vicky. And yet, he agrees to marry her the next day, after Vicky fails to show up?) Why would a “rational” person do such a thing? He keeps saying — after marriage — things like “the choice is yours” and “take your time,” but wouldn’t he have said this before? When asked, he says he’s a banker. “Return ki guarantee to main bhi nahin deta” — but that’s too flip a line, under these circumstances. The film tips its hand very early when we see Rumi berating Vicky for being so utterly irresponsible. I felt that, in the Kashyapian universe, Rumi would have ended up with Vicky (who practically disappears post-interval), or better yet, undecided. The walk-and-talk last scene is fantastic, but it also feels like Rumi has been tamed. We see Rumi mind-wrestling between two men but we don’t feel it. We don’t wrestle along with her. I’d be interested in a Part 2, about the post-marriage years. SCENE 1: Sitting in her perfectly manicured garden, Rumi is bored. She calls Vicky, and…

But elsewhere, we do get classic moments from the Kashyapian universe — when Vicky and Robbie “meet” without really meeting, or when a pair of twins acts as a sort of Greek chorus. Anurag Kashyap has, over the years, carved out his own brand of mainstream cinema, and he picks the most amazing collaborators. That wonderful pre-interval stretch where Rumi’s wedding to Robbie is bookended by scenes of Rumi still waiting for Vicky — was that written, or was it editor Aarti Bajaj? The constant camera movement around Vicky/Rumi, the sober shots capturing Rumi/Robbie — was that Kashyap, or cinematographer Sylvester Fonseca? Even with Amit Trivedi’s sensational soundtrack, there’s the sense of a collaborative vibe. Every composer bows to the demands of the script and the director, of course — but with Trivedi and Kashyap, the scenes, the lines, the lyrics and the non-stop music seem inextricable from each other. Consider how the exuberant version of Darya is used for Vicky, and a more plaintive rendition for Robbie. But there’s more. The song plays during Rumi’s mehndi ceremony, on the terrace, and stops abruptly (giving way to more “naturalistic” music, the raucous singing and dhol beats you’d normally associate with such an occasion) when she goes into a room and bolts the door, as she wonders what to do about Vicky who’s waiting on the street wearing a woeful puppy-dog expression. The emotion needs the song. The action needs the silence.

In terms of the love triangle, the soundtrack is probably a better emotion-conveyor than the screenplay — but there are many, many individual moments that paint a vivid world. I laughed when Robbie says he doesn’t want to meet five or six girls (he just wants to pick one photo and be done with the selection process), his mother protests: “Ladki ko bhi lagna chahiye na ki humne usey chuna hai!” Who else but a woman would know what another woman might feel like in these circumstances! And yet, Manmarziyaan is a big up-yours to the “shaadi kara de, sab theek ho jayega” sentiment. It says that sex and love and marriage are all very different boxes and maybe it’s folly to expect a single relationship to check them all. Or maybe it just takes the time it takes to get to this stage. Rumi thought she wanted to marry Vicky, with whom there was both pyaar and fyaar. But now? But even after marrying Robbie, she doesn’t sign her life over to him. The marriage doesn’t fix anything. She has to resolve the messy stuff first. She has to feel she wants Robbie. And then, the old marriage, built on lies and secrets, has to be “destroyed” in order for a new, more mutual arrangement to evolve. All of this is a far way from Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. In other words, even when Anurag Kashyap tackles a template, he makes it his own.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi