Sunday, September 16, 2018

MANMARZIYAN (Hindi; 2018)

Manmarziyan opens with a shot of the Golden Temple, the sort of thing that in recent times has been one of the lazier clichés in Hindi cinema: if Sikhs are involved (and sometimes even when they aren’t), Amritsar’s sacred shrine is a given.  However, the vantage point here is a bit different, enabling the viewer to take in not only the iconic building, but also an incongruous neon sign perched on top.  One is almost tempted to say it doesn’t belong, except that in India, it sort of does.

That opening shot, if re-visited after the end credits have rolled, tells you a lot about director Anurag Kashyap’s aims in taking up one of the most hackneyed Bolly-genres of all – The Love Triangle – and in trying to give it his own twist.  That is, Kashyap scrupulously adheres to the genre’s conventions in several respects (if I still need to place a spoiler alert before telling you which hero the lady ends up with, you haven’t seen very many Hindi films), a marked departure from his reputation as the industry’s enfant terrible.  This (should I say older, more mellow?) Kashyap sees much to keep about those conventions, and if the result is a less radical form and plot than the director has sometimes aspired to, at least this Hindi film viewer found Manmarziyan a more satisfying film than a number of Kashyap efforts. 

Kashyap doesn’t waste time, establishing locale and character with great economy in the film’s opening sequences.  Taapsee Pannu plays the fiercely independent Rumi, passionately in love (and lust) with Vicky Sandhu (Vicky Kaushal), who is “wrong” in all the ways relevant to a family wishing for a suitable “match” for their daughter, even one as indulgent as Rumi’s (long-suffering) clan seems to be.  Enter Mr. Right, in the form of Abhishek Bachchan’s Robbie, a London banker in town for an arranged marriage, and smitten by Rumi, the first woman he sees in Amritsar.
One cannot go much further without talking about the performances, for these make the film, sustaining it even when the writing flags.  The free-spirited “small town girl” (recently spotted in Bareilly ki Barfi, to take one example) has for years been the rather problematic fantasy of (male!) directors, exotically invested with the sort of agency and rebelliousness her big city counterparts rarely seem to possess (a sure sign that the gaze is from the outside in), but Rumi (who is, it must be noted, written by a woman, Kanika Dhillon), is rescued from staleness by Taapsee Pannu’s fresh persona.  That is to say, the improbability of Rumi is rendered plausible by Pannu’s newness and conviction, even if Dhillon’s writing strikes the occasional off-key note (Rumi’s casual recounting of an abortion was like chalk on a blackboard; I found it hard to believe that she’d undergo an abortion and be utterly un-marked by the experience, or so forgiving of the man who couldn’t accompany her because something had come up). Ultimately, Pannu’s verve and velocity is winning, and sustains a film she’s in just about every scene of, as indefatigable at the end as at the beginning.  (I wish the filmmakers had been similarly consistent: early in the film we are told that Rumi has given up hockey because of a man, but Rumi disagrees: it’s because another female hockey player has been found dead on the train tracks.  The implication, that violent misogyny is to blame, hangs in the air, discomfiting the viewer.  By film’s end, in response to Robbie’s question, Rumi affirms that she votes, breezily moving on – no discomfort is risked here, because we are never told who she has voted for; Robbie himself seems least bothered.)

Vicky Kaushal is even better: entrusted with the un-enviable task of ensuring the audience doesn’t hate Vicky Sandhu even though he will have ditched Rumi twice by the intermission, Kaushal plays his difficult role very well, evoking genuine empathy at key moments.  “Difficult” in that Dhillon and Kashyap give him only one note to hit, and he could easily have lapsed into cartoonish buffoonery.  But as Kaushal plays him, you don’t hate DJ Vicky for not being ready for marriage, and you can’t help but feel for him as he tearfully reverses his jeep before it reaches Rumi, who is waiting to elope with him, and even as your heart goes out to the woman abandoned in the middle of the night.  Indeed, by film’s end, you can’t help but feel that the newly domesticated Vicky has gotten the short end of the stick, pushed aside in favor of the film’s adults.  But not before Kaushal reminds us yet again why he is one of Hindi cinema’s most promising actors, adding to the range we’d seen in Masaan, Raman Raghav 2.0, and Raazi.

Abhishek Bachchan has made an oeuvre out of imbuing with thoughtfulness, even gravitas, characters who would seem trivial or absurd in less adept hands (his Rohan Verma, IP lawyer-and-Prince Charming, in Laaga Chunri Mein Daag; and Umraaojan’s Nawab Sultan come to mind).  He does so again here, with masterful restraint and use of pause – silence, in a film so given to talky characters, anchors the proceedings, and none use it better in contemporary Bollywood than he does. It is a brave performance, by an actor confident of his restrained craft in an industry (and public culture) given to celebrating coarseness (especially coarse masculinity): he is never rushed, and keeps his own time, until, slowly but surely, Manmarziyan starts to march to his.  All the while, he doesn’t appear to be breaking a sweat, and if Abhishek Bachchan is bothered by the growing marginalization of what he represents amidst Indian popular culture, it doesn’t show.  The one exception in Manmarziyan to this restraint – when Robbie lashes out at Rumi – is one of the film’s best scenes, even if neither director nor writer pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Robbie when he accurately observes that Rumi and Vicky are well-matched, in their narcissism and the narrowness of the circle they have drawn around themselves.  (Nor, one must concede, does Robbie: I wondered why he continues to be drawn to Rumi.)   His isn’t the most important character in this film, but Bachchan is the film’s most important actor, essential if the coming-of-age aspect of this film isn’t to be stunted, as so many Hindi film love stories are, by permanent adolescence.  I don’t know if he entirely succeeds – the film’s rather tame ending is acutely aware of a movie-going audience that insists on juvenilia – but without him Manmarziyan would have lost its best shot at an adult love story.  Just watch him as he stumbles out onto the street with the film’s best song, Halla, playing in the background.  One might think the fate of the world hung in the balance. (The rest of Amit Trivedi’s album is quite a ways below Halla, and nowhere near Dev D, but is reminiscent of the latter in its centrality to the film.  Stated differently, Trivedi’s music is the very texture of Manmarziyan, and so completely that one is hard-pressed to isolate particular songs beyond a couple of obvious examples.)

No discussion of the film’s performances would be complete without mention of Saurabh Sachdeva’s turn as a marriage broker – he incarnates a strange combination of timorousness and watchful callousness, and always manages to look more intelligent than everyone else in the frame. His back story points off-screen, and you can’t help but wonder what his story is, what his life has been like.  Many actors can do justice to their roles, but few add dimension the way Sachdeva does here.

The first half of Manmarziyan is fantastic, and a feather in Kashyap’s cap: flavorful, tightly edited, surprising (not least because the director springs Robbie on us earlier than expected), and visually impressive (the aerial shots of Vicky’s jeep being driven along a winding road are more reminiscent of the sweep of Gangs of Wasseypur’s opening sequences than of the standard-issue Punjabi love story), it perhaps should have been the film.  Heck, Kashyap even displays a hitherto unsuspected talent for staging masala-style songs in the lovable “Dhyaan kithe Dhyanchand?” video.  Kashyap and Dhillon do so well here that they run out of script at the intermission, leaving little for the second half but the wait for the inevitable bourgeois denouement we always see coming (think Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam).  That second half is more than a few paces off the immensely watchable first: the strong cast (no one more so than Bachchan), puts in a terrific effort, and meant that my interest didn’t flag for long, but that doesn’t change my wistfulness for what might have been had Kashyap and Dhillon continued in the vein of the pre-intermission portions of the film. 

And yet there is plenty here to chew upon in Kashyap’s staging of the love triangle, in the director’s wanting to have his cake and eat it too, tapping into the conservative pleasures of the convention while subverting it from within.  The triangle in Manmarziyan is literally the only one that I am aware of in Hindi film history that does not leverage parental / societal constraint to create a space for Hero #2.  No forced marriage, no accident nor pregnancy necessitates marriage to the second-in-time male lead; here, the lovers themselves principally create the constraints, initially because of Vicky’s frank inability to commit to Rumi; and subsequently by Rumi’s impetuosity.  Indeed, it is hard to think of a more sympathetic bunch of cinematic parents and relatives than the ones in this film.  This is bolder than it seems, and I laud Kashyap and Dhillon for it.  For too long, Hindi cinema has given both, its free-spirited characters (mostly men), and its conformist audience, a free pass: in films premised on the Love Triangle, the mess isn’t the fault of the former, and the latter’s sense of order remains undisturbed because the woman ends up with the more mainstream male character.  Manmarziyan manages a double inversion: here, the mess is very much the fault of the lead characters, but the audience might not be able to derive great satisfaction from the otherwise safe ending.  By that point, Rumi’s sexual license, Vicky’s banishment without any patriarchal “assignment” of his love to his rival, and Robbie’s annulment of the marriage, all mean there is no social order, no shaadi to save; even if we presume one will follow off-camera, it isn’t clear everyone can root for this couple.  For this genre, on this terrain, that will have to be enough.

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