If nothing, I admire the cojones on Atrangi Re. The nerve. The guts. The unflinching audacity. It’s the kind of bewildering disaster (the title translates to “funnily weird”) that nearly turns failure into an artform. It’s so single-mindedly confident in its ideas – of romance, cinema, humans, emotions, psychology – that I was almost impressed by the delusion of it all. Colourful analogies come to mind. Imagine passing off the Titanic as “the magical science of sinking.” Imagine passing off the Berlin Wall as “an icon of personal space.” Imagine selling death as “the opportunity to be reborn.” I can go on. But you get the gist. In all my years of film watching, I’ve rarely been as repulsed and riveted at once. It’s one thing to push the boundaries of storytelling; it’s another to pour acid on the boundaries, vaporize them and pretend like they never existed to begin with.
Atrangi Re opens with a chase and a forced wedding in small-town Bihar. Rinku (Sara Ali Khan), a serial eloper, is drugged and married off to Vishu (Dhanush), a random Tamilian visitor who’s abducted by her family and plonked into the ceremony. The ‘couple’ is then packed off to Delhi, back to his medical hostel, in a train. The train is where they hyperventilate, chat, connect, equate true love with violence, and decide to go their own ways with their respective long-distance partners. His engagement is in two days; her man is busy learning magic in Africa. But conflict ensues; Vishu soon develops feelings for this strange girl who behaves like she’s the lovechild of Tanu Weds Manu’s Tanu and Jab We Met’s Geet. He falls for her because he must. So far, so Aanand L. Rai and Himanshu Sharma.
Midway through the film, there’s a twist so ridiculous that it dwarfs the lofty ambitions of even Zero, the last “What is love if not insanity/disability persevering?” ode by the writer-director combo. The problem is, I can’t really criticize the film without giving away – or at least touching upon – this twist. It’s frustrating. But I’ll try. To be honest, I saw the twist coming from the trailer and the discourse around it. The trailer suggested that Atrangi Re is an unusual love triangle. It looked like Raanjhanaa but with the jarring addition of a magician – and not Abhay Deol – as the third wheel. Social media had a field day about Sara Ali Khan being paired with the much-older Akshay Kumar, a superstar who spent most of the 1990s partnering Sara’s father Saif Ali Khan in a bunch of action comedies. It seemed too easy, like a ploy, almost as though the makers wanted viewers to notice and slam the age gap. If you think about it, though, the 54-year-old actor’s presence alone is a spoiler – a hint that there might be a social-message angle to what looks like yet another edgy romantic drama. In a purely meta-Bollywood sense, then, the twist is smart, as is the illusion of Akshay Kumar playing a Muslim lover named Sajjad Ali Khan. But that’s where the smartness ends. That’s where everything ends.
In context of the world we live in, the twist is willfully ignorant and offensive, especially given the fact that the second half commits to it with unsettling resolve. There are no half measures, which is why the writing takes us to a doomed place stranded between the philanthropic comedy of Lage Raho Munna Bhai, the self-serious nobility of Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara and the philanthropic dramedy of Ayushmann Khurrana movies. It’s not an unfamiliar trope. Marks for effort, sure, but scars for execution. All I can say is that the last thing we all need in 2021 – on the back of the two toughest years in modern history – is a commercial Hindi film infantilizing mental health disorders and trauma in the language of old-school romance. It’s easy to misinterpret this stance as whimsical and brave. This does also offer a ready-made excuse to justify the film’s over-the-top acting. But madness is too often used as a ruse for method and mediocrity. Here, too, it’s worn like a shiny jewel or a glittering dress: as a physical accessory, not a psychological ailment.
A.R. Rahman’s music marches to its own beat; it’s fine as a standalone album, but it becomes such a desperate narrative crutch by the film to commodify passion that it sounds divorced from the story, which in turn looks proudly divorced from reality. The extras in Vishu’s college – a college full of dodgy medical students and casual enablers – are an enigma, too. They reminded me of the hero’s hostel mates and clueless background figures in Aap Mujhe Achche Lagne Lage (I can’t go a year without mentioning this film, I know), which is fitting, because Sara’s performance here – like Ameesha Patel’s there – confuses histrionics for depth. She seems to be playing a role derived from movies watched rather than life lived. Dhanush, on the contrary, doesn’t look convinced by the narrative he’s driving. He’s normally excellent at conveying the moral fluidity of love, but Atrangi Re escapes his grasp early on and refuses to return. Cue Titanic violinists joke.
It won’t make sense to view Atrangi Re as an isolated misfire. It’s important to investigate how we got here, like detectives hoping to locate a pattern to arrive at the absolution of a crime scene. Logic is an extra, and love is both an illness and a cure, in most of Aanand L. Rai’s filmography. The Tanu Weds Manu movies, Raanjhanaa and Zero, all merged literal stigma with figurative ones; the results were mixed, yet there’s no denying that uncomfortable truths were revealed with creative candour. In fact, I’m all for the lunacies of love – I even bought into the toxic excesses of the Rai-produced Haseen Dillruba earlier this year. But Atrangi Re not only drops the ball, it kicks the ball into outer space and calls it a star. It goes too far to celebrate the irrational overtones of love, mining mental illness for comic chuckles and making the actors look silly by sugarcoating disability for the sake of entertainment. I don’t even have to be woke to notice this; it’s just a glaring problem in a film that ceases to exist beyond its twist.
Atrangi Re does end on an encouraging note though. The “A film by” slate flashes not just the director’s name, but also his primary collaborators: the writer, cinematographer, music director, editor, production designer and lyricist. It’s a great precedent in an industry averse to credit. But given the nature of the film, it also feels like a confession that says: It’s everybody’s fault, not just mine.