Director: Anurag Kashyap
Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Taapsee Pannu, Vicky Kaushal
Manmarziyaan, as per its title, does as the heart pleases. Kanika Dhillon’s script has a reckless individuality to it in which, unlike many of director Anurag Kashyap’s previous undertakings, the world is a mere bystander. “What will people say?” is a mythical question. Lovers elope, but return because they don’t know whom they’re running from. This is the kind of rebel-without-a-cause, selfish and inelegant blueprint of tier-2 love that the country’s elders might gleefully cite as a ‘cautionary tale’: see, this is why you kids need us to control your choices.
The families recognise that it is futile to intervene. Friends indulge the whims of an imperfect storm. They all seem to have watched enough new-age Bollywood romances to know that the young lover’s greatest conflict today is internal. Take away the villains, and there is no hero or heroine. With a girl named Rumi at the core of the triangle, it shouldn’t be surprising that this battle is all music, all feeling. And so the others watch, disgusted and spellbound, as their entitled children evoke the inherent Tamasha of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi in pursuit of cinematic togetherness.
They watch as Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) and Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) love, leave, love, leave and drag visiting NRI Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan) into their volatile tsunami of small-town obsession. They wait as she makes up her mind, makes mistakes, changes tracks and turns the town upside down in search of her own happily ever after. Her irrationality – everyone’s irrationality in here – drives the film’s priorities. Kashyap’s trademark obsession with the unpredictability and eccentricities of human nature – traits that seem indulgent in concise thrillers – work better within the structure of messy love stories. If there’s one emotion that cannot be explained, criticized or appropriated, it’s desire.
Even 155 minutes of characters making dubious decisions might not need the kind of reasoning a gangster or killer merits. Manmarziyaan might therefore, on the surface, look different from the rest of his filmography – trust me, this is no “rom-com” – but it is essentially a story about people infected with love: that is, unhinged people who crush hearts instead of bodies. Low-functioning psychopaths, if you may. When the film’s many songs keep dotting their highs and lows, it may appear excessive and distracting to us. But to them, it’s the soundtrack of their minds that determine their tone of thinking. It’s this self-inflicted drama they thrive on. It’s their unreasonableness that makes Manmarziyaan a worthy example of method moviemaking – a style in which we are meant to sense the choppy undercurrents of love rather than see them. A style in which love is a time, rather than a person.
Taapsee Pannu, at times, may act like she is forcing her physicality onto a scene, but her contradictions blend in with Vicky Kaushal’s remarkable sense of reacting
The reason I mention Tamasha and Rab Ne is not so much the plot (or Amritsar as the setting) as it is Manmarziyaan’s examination of middle-class duality. In Kashyap’s hands, this is more of a theme than a narrative device. Rumi blows hot and cold; her rage is awful, her spirit, infectious. Rumi and Vicky sway between passionate and spiteful within the same moment. She insults him to improve him. Rumi is an orphan, but also the star of the extended household. Vicky loves her, but doesn’t want to marry her. They look toxic to us, but appear pure to each other. They’re everything or nothing. Vicky is a DJ who remixes music, Robbie a banker who calculates risks. Robbie is the saint to Vicky’s whirling dervish – the Surinder Sahni to his Raj Malhotra, the Ved to his wonky Don. A honeymoon happens in Kashmir, the ultimate land of dualisms. The double-ness even manifests itself visually – twin sisters in identical outfits are seen dancing in the many of the songs’ backgrounds, twin brothers are seen drinking kahwa in Kashmir’s valley.
Ironically, we sense it in the performances too. Taapsee Pannu and Vicky Kaushal are terrific in roles that could have easily turned one-note. Pannu, at times, may act like she is forcing her physicality onto a scene, but her contradictions blend in with Kaushal’s remarkable sense of reacting. Notice him when he isn’t speaking, when he is listening or is at the receiving end of her many outbursts – his face is a story of adult reluctance shacked within the confines of man-child attachment.
But it’s Abhishek Bachchan’s Robbie that is by far Manmarziyaan’s most interesting character. He isn’t your usual ‘third wheel’; there are shades of grey lodged deep within his magnanimous (“Ramji,” she calls him) personality. Here is a man who agrees to marry a girl for all her manic-pixie clichés – ex hockey player, firebrand, drifter, orphan – despite knowing that she isn’t over Vicky. He is conditioned to be measured and strategic. In an Aditya-Chopra-ish touch, he even turns a blind eye to her transgressions so that she comes to value his calm over Vicky’s hot-headedness. But there’s more to his self-sabotaging aura – he wants to feel something, anything, after being dormant for so long. This tortured complexity seems to be missing in the grand men of his spiritual lineage (Ajay Devgn in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, R. Madhavan in Tanu Weds Manu).
Unfortunately, one can’t say the same about Bachchan’s performance. He is simply adequate, and struggles with these hidden nuances of his character. His demeanor makes it appear like he is participating in a social experiment – amused, more than intrigued, by Rumi’s existence. Fascinated, more than envious, by Vicky’s extremes. The film has been marketed by highlighting his two-year sabbatical from acting, and it very much looks like he has returned to a competitive setup in which he is slightly out of depth. There’s a stillness to his face that sort of defeats the charm of Manmarziyaan’s moodiness. Of its Patiala pegs, paneer pakoras and post-coital cigarettes.
Maybe, on some twisted level, his limitations suit Manmarziyaan’s playful penchant for contrasts. You’d rather have a kind-looking actor overplay a version of himself rather than explosive actors underplaying the notion of madness. Either way, trust the refined man’s eyes to light up when he notices an alert that reads: “Rumi has sent you a friend request.” How’s that for duality?