Atrangi Re is a baffling creature. Rarely has illogical wonder paired so compellingly, yet so abrasively with romance and drama. Like watching a kite burn in the sky, you can’t help but watch till it is an ashen heap. Forgoing a big theatrical release, the film premiered on Disney+ Hotstar on December 24 to mixed reviews. It was described as both riveting and reckless. Regardless, within the first three days, it clocked 8.8 million views. Another 11.7 million views the following week.
Directed by Aanand L Rai, and written by frequent collaborator Himanshu Sharma, the film begins with a Tamilian, Vishu (Dhanush) being abducted in Bihar and forcefully married to Rinku (Sara Ali Khan). Rinku’s family wants to dust themselves off her responsibility, for she keeps trying to run away with her lover, a magician named Sajjad Ali Khan (Akshay Kumar). The twist to the tale, the titular atrangi quality, comes from not just Vishu’s growing affection for Rinku, a kind of open-air Stockholm Syndrome, but also Sajjad Ali Khan being a figment of Rinku’s imagination. Seeing her parents burned alive in front of her eyes and spending years in a trauma-induced house arrest has made Rinku hallucinate her father as her lover, and thus seeing herself in the image of her mother. How does one even begin to unravel this heap-like mess of a character?
Writer Himanshu Sharma helps, breaking down the narrative choices he made, the conviction one must have as a writer, while also responding to the backlash the film got for its cavalier depiction of mental health.
Where did this idea even come from?
During my college years, Raj Shekhar (lyricst on Tanu Weds Manu, Tanu Weds Manu Returns) narrated a poem by Alok Dhanwa. It goes like this:
“Phir aa raha hai December,
Phir ghar se bhaagengi ladkiyan,
Zaroori nahi ki jab ek ladki ghar se bhaage to ek ladka bhi bhaage
Kuch ladkiyaan keval mann mein bhaagti hai.”
These lines really stayed with me and I wanted to do something around it. It was a couple of years back when I thought of the story.
There are a few ‘social issues’ here — groom kidnapping, mental health, honour killing, and a Tamilian trying to integrate into the Hindi mainstream — but none of it is dealt with in the way social issues usually are in films. There is a casualness to it. It is clear you are not looking to educate the audience. Just entertain them. Is that a correct assessment?
I am just interested in telling my story. That’s it. To tell that story honestly, and execute it. Whatever means I have, I will use them. It is not that I wanted to touch upon these topics. It is just that by default, I used these issues to speak to a bigger picture, a bigger theme.
When does Aanand L Rai come into the picture?
He is always there in the picture. (laughs) While we are working on one story, I will narrate another story. I can just walk up to him and ask him what he thinks of an idea, a story, a character. Because I am with him from the conception of the story till its release, I keep bouncing off ideas. I don’t remember a particular date when I narrated this story.
Were you not afraid of being logically reckless, again, after Zero’s failure?
One thing which I never want to be is afraid. I am an outsider with no formal training. I am just a guy from Lucknow. What it takes the most to be and survive in this industry is to not be scared. When I was succeeding, I was never bothered by it. Then why should I be bothered by failure?
Anything you learned from that failure?
You learn as much from your success as much as your failure. When you sit with an audience in the theater, you know what works and why, or where the edit should have been. There is always a scope to learn. The audience is a better judge. They know it by instinct. They are honest because they paid money for it. Zero has not taught me anything more than what Tanu Weds Manu or Raanjhanaa has taught me about writing or filmmaking.
Coming to Atrangi Re, you have three characters, two of whom are introduced in this grand manner. Akshay comes sliding down an elephant’s trunk, Sara Ali Khan has an AR Rahman soundtrack introducing her. But Dhanush is just walking out of a train. Was this conscious?
It was very conscious. We have these grand ideas of romance and put those expectations on real people we might be in love with. That is the difference between Akshay Kumar’s and Dhanush’s character. Akshay Kumar’s character is a figment of imagination. He can be as grand as possible. But Dhanush is for real. He has to come into the story in the most real way possible. No frills, no trumpets.
One of my favourite scenes is when Vishu asks Rinku whether or not she wants to come to the wedding. It is the first time we get a glimpse of Vishu’s love. What goes into writing such a scene?
It is just a hint of it. In most of my films, I don’t have this one definite moment when the character falls in love with someone. It has to be gradual, it should unknowingly hit you. At the end, it just slips out of him, “Yes, yes please come”. It is when even Dhanush’s character realizes that he wants her around.
But that is also one of the criticisms of the film. That we don’t know when exactly Vishu and Rinku’s love began and grew. It felt sudden.
In both Tanu Weds Manu and Tanu Weds Manu Returns also there is no particular day or moment you can put a finger on and say, “This was when they fell in love!” These are the things that make your film real. Otherwise it would be clever and crafty writing, which I don’t like. I really put an effort to make sure my writing doesn’t come across as clever. There is nothing cerebral here. It is more of an instinctive call.
Tell us about the Tamil dialogues. You wrote them in Hindi and got them translated?
No. I would tell Dhanush the larger picture, and what the character should communicate, and then he would put them in his words in Tamil and deliver it. I would never know what lines he was saying. Once he would deliver lines, what a fantastic actor…. we were done in two takes. Scripts are not supposed to be read but seen. Once you find the truth in a scene, then just let it be.
A lot of the initial scenes with Sara Ali Khan felt odd, like her teasing, her intense gaze, her dancing ‘Chaka Chak’. Why is she being so intense and intimate with Vishu when she has another man, Sajjad Ali Khan waiting? These only made sense once the “big reveal” happened.
See, I also wanted to create a juvenile quality about this girl where her actions are not governed by social norms. She would live in a moment. She has her own shortcomings, never thinking of consequences. That is why even Dhanush says, “Chipak ke naach di… Shaadi toot gayi.” She had no reason to dance chipak-ke but she did it because she was having fun after the longest time. After spending 22 years in that house, that environment, she is now seeing Delhi, then Madurai. She doesn’t care for limits.
This movie is very musical. How does that have a bearing on your writing process?
I don’t consider A.R. Rahman as just a music director. I always say that if not for him, I would have written 35-40 pages more, because there is so much between the lines he conveys through music. He fills those gaps so beautifully. He is a great help in terms of writing. I would have a situation with a few moments, and he would come up with a dhun.
Like the nazm, ‘Teri Aankhon Mein Jhaankne Wala’. Irshad (Kamil) bhai came up with the lines, then the music got composed, then I came up with the situation, and reworked the screenplay. It is a nazm which tells the whole story in a nutshell. I just needed the song. That back and forth happens a lot with me Aanand, Irshad Bhai and Rahman. Even with Raanjhanaa we changed a lot when the songs came in. Rahman is a storyteller, a writer, not just a composer.
Tell me about that Taj Mahal sequence. Even in Zero you put this grand scene where you promised us magic but the character couldn’t deliver. What is the allure of this idea of promised but undelivered spectacles?
Whenever you are dishonest, the magic will go away. That is a fear I have as a writer. This fear of losing your ability to create something you have been doing for a while.
Why the Taj Mahal?
The Taj is a symbol of love. If Sajjad Ali Khan fails at this place… it just made more sense. There is no other monument I can think of that is as grand and is as much about love.
“Do you have to learn everything from films? Maa baap ne paise kharch karke school bheja hai? Vahan se bhi thoda seekh lo. I am only responsible for my characters, my story.”
At a screenplay level Atrangi Re is very tricky. The film has a lot of explaining. Entire scenes just play out, trying to explain how Rinku is hallucinating, or whom or why she is hallucinating, or how to treat her, or whether the treatment is working or not working. Were you worried this would get too much for the audience?
It is a tricky film, especially this whole idea of a person in love with her own father … it is quite tricky, because I wanted to land that in the most innocent way possible. For that I required that explanation, otherwise it wouldn’t reach you.
See, at the end of the day it is not about how the story is unraveling. It is about “Are you interested at all?” People will forgive a lot of things if they are enjoying the story. That is what I keep in mind. No story is perfect. But do people want to know what happens next?
Tell us about the names. Take Vishu. The way Rinku keeps saying Visoo, you are constantly reminded of the North-South schism. Baradwaj Rangan in his review suggested that perhaps Sajjadd Ali Khan was chosen because the initial — SAK — is a nod to Saif Ali Khan, Sara Ali Khan’s father?
I loved his review. He is so good. He got each and every symbol as though he had made the film. He sees a film for what it is, its intent. Choti moti galtiyaan… yaar, theek hai. As long as you are enjoying the story I don’t see the problem.
But that wasn’t the reason. It’s what Rahman saab calls ‘shabd ka vazan’, the vibrancy. I liked the weight of the name Sajjad Ali Khan.
Why is the hero’s best friend character so important in your writing? He is there in almost all your films.
When people call such characters “secondary”, they might be secondary in the story, but not to the hero. They also have a track, and take the story forward in their own way. In all my films, be it Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub Khan in Raanjhanaa or Zero, Deepak Dobriyal in Tanu Weds Manu, they have to play an important part.
You have spoken about being true to the world you are writing your characters in. They are often doing odd things, like slashing wrists and breaking bottles on their heads, Dhanush being the stalker in Raanjhanaa, or administering medicines without the consent of Rinku in Atrangi Re. This might be true to the world they are in. But were you ever worried that being true to a cinematic world might come across as validating certain kinds of violent behaviour here, in our world?
No! Do you have to learn everything from films? Maa baap ne paise kharch karke school bheja hai? Vahan se bhi thoda seekh lo. (laughs) I am only responsible for my characters, my story. There is a lot of love I have towards Kundan (from Raanjhanaa) or Vishu. It is okay to make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean we are bad human beings. Vishu is doing these things to himself. See how drunk he is in that scene, and the mental space he is in, dealing with an imaginary character as a competition in love. It was an organic thing, and fun, too, ya. We have loved Kill Bill. If that is not promoting violence, then what is?
And if truly people learned from cinema, if tomorrow I make a movie on Gandhi can you guarantee that kal duniya sudhar jayegi? Balls! Look at Twitter. Are they using the language from movies? No. That is who they are. So let us not put the responsibility of fixing this world on cinema.
There was an immediate backlash about how the film discussed mental health. In an interview with Indian Express you said you “used [the] mental issue as a tool, a sugar-coating, through which [you were] telling [us] about even deeper things” What are these deeper things?
As I said, the basic thing was an idea of what we think of love theoretically vis-a-vis what we get in life. We have these grand thoughts, definitions of and about love. We live by those definitions, and then, when we have to deal with a real person, we have to learn to live with that. It is like saying, “Yaar, boyfriend ya pati hona chahiye Shah Rukh Khan jaisa”, but what you have is some Vinod Kumar type person. But that Vinod Kumar can at least go and buy you paracetamol. That imaginary love can’t help you. That real person is there. Flawed, but they will stand by you.
Of course, there is also how trauma can create a void within you which love can fulfill. These were a few things I wanted to speak about in the garb of mental illness. It is not that I am saying mental illness is not there. But while maneuvering a story, you have to prioritize. What do you want to put forward? In that process, some things take a back seat. That does not mean you are not aware of it or don’t care about it. You do. But the primary story is important. It should be fun to watch.
Is it odd that the title isn’t referenced anywhere in the movie or the songs?
Salman (Khan) sir had this title registered by his company. Aanand called him. Salman asked only one thing, “Are you directing it?” When Aanand said yes, he gave the name. I never thought of why it didn’t appear in the dialogues. That would perhaps have been a clever thing to do. But as I said, I avoid clever things.