Director: Harish Vyas
Cast: Sanjay Mishra, Ekavali Khanna, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Anshuman Jha, Brijendra Kala, Pankaj Tripathi
Somewhere in Harish Vyas' Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain, there is a mature, observant film about love merely being a cultural form of co-dependence; about how marriage, for better or worse, transcends our perception of gender dynamics and toxic masculinity; about why it's never too late to customize the 'habit' of companionship. The film's central theme – the breakdown of a middle-class, middle-aged couple's 24-year-old marriage – is a worthy one, and one that is designed to suggest that the opposite of traditionalism is not always modernity.
It is somewhat reminiscent of Pushan Kripalani's unreleased drama, The Threshold, about a frustrated housewife (Neena Gupta) who decides to leave her long-time husband (Rajit Kapoor) – a patronizing North Indian man who, despite his flaws, loves her dearly – the night after their son's wedding. In between fretting about the prospect of sudden loneliness and blackmailing her with "what will people think?" rants, the sixty-something man starts to feel the indispensable value of the woman he takes for granted. His over-reliance is a perverse version of trust. In Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain, too, it's the matter of their teenaged daughter's wedding that wakes the parents up to the discrepancies of their own frayed partnership. There is, after all, nothing like the disappearance of 'responsibility' and goalposts to force most couples to finally look within.
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Kripalani's chamber piece was a heartbreaking portrait of withered emotions and 'autopilot' marriages; Vyas' Varanasi-based film, however, in pursuit of reflecting its crowded emotional environment, isn't quite so organic.
Even though the mood of this couple and their conflicts go against type, the treatment forcibly imbibes the quirky templates of a 'family entertainer'
This one is told from the perspective of the husband, Yashwant Batra (Sanjay Mishra), because it is invariably the man's entitled vision that tends to define the arranged-marriage setup. As he begins to realize that his inherent sense of chauvinism has turned his equation with Kiran (a fantastic Ekavali Khanna) into a device of duty, the frequency of his voiceover reduces. It sounds less accusatory. He notices other points of view. He turns to the written word perhaps because he barely heard her voice when she spoke.
It's a nice touch to present him as a postal service employee – a man whose job it is to enable personalized communication between people across the country is unable to personalize his own outdated levels of communication with those in his house. As with most men who expect their wives to pour them a drink at the end of a long day, he mistakes convenience for love.
Unfortunately, Vyas is too tone-conscious. He insists on telling us that the story of the common, unglamorous man makes for as much of a "movie" as the younger, starry fairy tales. He insists on diluting the theme's adulthood with juvenile cues of accessibility. As a result, even though the mood of this couple and their conflicts go against type, the treatment forcibly imbibes the quirky templates of a 'family entertainer': a sketchy background score, humour that tries too hard, brooding playback songs, overplayed characters (her brother belongs to saas-bahu hell) and bursts of fragmented pulpiness. The second half, especially, has a clunky collection of scenes in which Mishra – otherwise impeccable as an irritable, society-molded patriarch – plays a buffoon who sets out to express his feelings in order to save his marriage.
Despite this sudden descent into second-rate comedy, I understand the idea here. Yashwant is surrounded by reminders of what he is losing – a man (Pankaj Tripathi) caring for his terminally ill wife, a daughter (Shivani Raghuvanshi) who dares to marry the boy (Anshuman Jha) of her dreams, a good-natured widower (Brijendra Kala) who would kill to have arguments with his wife again. He tries to employ a little of all these different languages, these different genres, of appreciation to win Kiran back, but it doesn't come naturally to him – it takes him a while to realize that there is an individuality to each relationship that cannot be imitated, no matter how noble the intentions.
But this idea is misconstrued as the physicality of "expression," of grand gestures, goofy situations and lonely boat rides across the Ganges. Yashwant is made into a bit of a caricature by the end; Mishra's face is at the mercy of the systematic devices inserted to humanize him – as if he were a hero distinctly aware of his presence as the movie's flawed everyman.
There is an airport ending, too, but not in the classical sense. Again, the thought is pragmatic and sensitive; distance, at times, is the only way to create space for better engagement. And then you hear his voice, "Not all stories have heroes called Shah Rukh Khan…" – and you instantly know why a movie that thrives on inverting the angrezi of love isn't as novel as it should have been: it is too busy flaunting its humble grammar.