September 14, 2018
Taapsee Pannu, Vicky Kaushal, Abhishek Bachchan, Arun Bali, Ashnoor Kaur, Neelu Kohli, Vikram Kochhar
Hindi and Punjabi
When Anurag Kashyap hits the ball out of the park, he has the ability to get it across an ocean and over to another continent. When he is good he is so smashingly good, it becomes hard to remember the occasions when he is not. His last two films – Raman Raghav 2.0 and Mukkabaaz – were gripping to such a beautifully excruciating degree, that it hurts to acknowledge how tepid Manmarziyaan is (except when its killer humour rears its head).
Kashyap’s new film – with a story, screenplay and dialogues by Kanika Dhillon – is about the tempestuous relationship between Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) and Vicky (Vicky Kaushal). She is a hockey player who helps in the family’s small business in Amritsar, he is a deejay. Their sexual escapades are barely hidden from the elders in her family and since poore Amritsar ko pata hai about them, she is under pressure to marry him. Vicky loves Rumi but is not ready for that step. Furious at him, she agrees to an arranged marriage. Enter: London-based banker Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan). Vicky, however, refuses to exit the picture.
The commitment phobia (in some cases marriage phobia) of the young has been a recurrent theme in Hindi cinema of the past decade. Bachna Ae Haseeno, Love Aaj Kal, Break Ke Baad, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani – the list is long. At first it was interesting to see contemporary films examining the reluctance of India’s urban youth to “settle down” in the conventional sense, until it became clear that when push came to shove, each of these filmmakers was on the side of convention. Shakun Batra’s Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu was among the honourable exceptions that had the courage to be truly different. Manmarziyaan’s bid to be more open-minded than the rest translates into some rather odd interpretations of liberalism, among them the portrayal of Robbie as a modern-day Maryada Purushottam Ram (quite literally – Rumi even asks him, “were you like this from your childhood, a Ramji type?”), not just glossing over Lord Ram’s decision to ditch his wife at the first whiff of gossip about her, but also somehow interpreting male goodness as a willingness to forgive a woman for repeatedly being an absolute jerk with you.
It is tough to buy into Robbie’s decency, more so his love for Rumi which seems to have taken birth at the sight of her photograph and survives her complete lack of consideration towards him and his family. The Rumi-Vicky-Robbie triangle loses steam before that though, when Vicky’s characterisation is neglected by the writing and Rumi’s is bathed in clichés. I enjoyed the energy of the first 30 minutes or so of the film, the heat between Rumi and Vicky, the quick succession of songs, actor Vicky Kaushal’s unrestrained dancing and Dhillon’s hilarious, earthy dialogues made all the better by the excellent comic timing of the cast. The humour is all that thrives till the end.
Among other things, I am trying to remember the last time Bollywood has pointedly projected a female character as tough and independent-minded, without writing her as a smoker, a consumer of alcohol, sexually wild occasionally to the point of being promiscuous and/or socially brusque to the point of being mean, and without choosing to underline these aspects of her as signifiers of her strength and rebellion. This is not to say that women – those who are tough and those who are not – are never any of the above, but that writers and directors who equate these specific habits and qualities with forward thinking, modernity and courage in the female half of the population would be well advised to examine their (possibly subconscious) conservatism that causes them to struggle to portray a woman’s inner strength. Shashanka Ghosh got it right in Veere Di Wedding when he was able to shock the living daylights out of a conservative Indian audience by showing a woman masturbating on screen, yet not making that her defining characteristic nor allowing that episode to overshadow her internal journey. He is an exception. The norm though is Aanand L. Rai whose Tanu is defined by her rude, boorish, foul-mouthed, alcohol-swilling ways. (Not surprisingly, Rai is a co-producer of this film.)
Interestingly, although writer Kanika Dhillon fails to rise above the routine with her female lead, she manages to portray the Sikh community minus Bollywood clichés. Clearly then, she has it in her to be more nuanced than the overall film would suggest. This is evident again in small touches such as the fact that all of Amritsar is gossiping about Rumi, her family too is well aware of her reputation, yet Vicky’s family knows nothing of what is going on, reminding us – without feeling the need to spell it out – that people are always far more preoccupied with a woman’s sex life than with a man’s. There is also an appealing warmth in the relationship between Rumi and her grandfather (Arun Bali). Over and above everything else is Dhillon’s sense of humour.
Abhishek Bachchan is sweet as paavam-bechara Robbie, though a little dull. Vicky Kaushal nails the externals of his character with great pizzazz, but has little to chew on in terms of who the man really is. Taapsee Pannu too cracks the many moods of Rumi up to a point, but cannot rise above the tired, unimaginative characterisation. You know there is a problem when the stand-out memories from a film just hours after having watched it are the crackingly funny verbal duels between two supporting characters (both members of Robbie’s household played by Neelu Kohli and Vikram Kochhar). For its stomach-achingly comical conversations and the infectious verve of Amit Trivedi’s music, Manmarziyaan gets a thumbs up. The storytelling deserves a big thumbs down though.
Rating (out of five stars): **
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost: