Atrangi Re Review: The Ambition Is Big, But It Doesn’t Translate

 A story this complex required both – sharper writing and a lighter touch
Atrangi Re Review: The Ambition Is Big, But It Doesn’t Translate

Director: Aanand L Rai
Writers: Aanand L Rai, Himanshu Sharma
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Dhanush & Sara Ali Khan
Cinematography: Pankaj Kumar

Editor: Hemal Kothari

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

The thing to admire about director Aanand L Rai and writer Himanshu Sharma is that they are always willing to go out on a limb.  In their attempt to create soaring, sweeping, aching tales, they wilfully flirt with the ridiculous. Like fearless trapeze artists, they don't look down to see if there is a safety net or not. Which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

You recall their last collaboration Zero in which the story begins in Meerut and somehow makes its way to Mars. Atrangi Re has the same DNA. Here, they concoct a love triangle which isn't what it seems. The story takes unexpected turns. It hopscotches across the country and touches on myriad subjects including groom kidnapping in Bihar, honour killing, mental illness, magic. This film is about the transformative power of love. Aanand and Himanshu celebrate the purity of the emotion and the beauty in being atrangi or eccentric. The ambition is laudable but the result is a bit of a mess.

The tone of the film veers toward fantastical.  Akshay Kumar plays a magician named Sajjad whose signature trick is lighting himself on fire. Some sequences are set in a circus. In one scene, he is trying to make the Taj Mahal disappear. Aanand and Himanshu aren't too interested in logic and having a character who is a conjurer gives them more leeway. The sequences with Sajjad have a fairy tale-like quality. The lights and colours pop off the screen – the cinematography is by Pankaj Kumar who also shot the stunning Tumbbad.

The flamboyance extends to Rinku, a fierce, headstrong girl who is forcibly married off by her family to a stranger. She asks him his name the morning after. Rinku is impetuous and aggressive – her introduction scene has her flinging soda bottles – but also lost. Her parents died when she was a little girl. She has grown up hankering for affection. Her husband Vishu attempts to heal her scars.  Though the speed at which he gets over his abduction and comes to care for his new wife is startling. This is a story about a love so intense that it transcends notions of reality and illusion.

The trouble is that the film is unable to transcend its own silliness. A story this complex required both – sharper writing and a lighter touch. It also required a much more sophisticated understanding of mental illness. Here we get Vishu's friend Madhu repeatedly declaring: I'm a psychiatrist. I know women. In one scene, he casually clubs together schizophrenics, patients with bipolar disorder and others. It's an ignorant and dangerous portrayal.

Though the film is centred on Sara Ali Khan, it is Dhanush who does the heavy lifting.  The actor expertly pulls off comedy, longing, desperation, frustration and heartbreak.  There is a lovely scene in which Vishu rants in Tamil to Rinku. Neither she nor many of us understand what he is saying but his eyes reveal the depth of his feelings and his anguish.  Dhanush is terrific. Though inexplicably, once again, Aanand and Himanshu push the actor into Raanjhana stalker territory – at one point, Vishu is breaking bottles on his head to prove his love. And some of it is played for comedy. As is mental illness.

Sara Ali Khan attacks her role with sincerity but this is a tough one to pull off. Rinku is grappling with serious issues including emotional abuse by her extended family. But the film's treatment of these issues undermines the gravity of her situation. Rinku comes off as the love child of Geet from Jab We Met and Bobby Batliwala Grewal from Judgementall Kya Hai. Sara also has to deliver on the glamour quotient so she dances – like a dream – in the fabulous 'Chaka Chak' song and goes through the film wearing Manish Malhotra-designed lehenga cholis, which give us a peek at the sculpted abs. Meanwhile the Bihari accent comes and goes as do the expressions. In scenes of heightened emotion, her face reveals the strain.

Akshay Kumar helicopters in and out of the story, like a celestial saviour. There isn't much he has to do except turn on the elder statesman charm. And despite the big twist in the tale, there are scenes that allude to romance between him and Sara, which are uncomfortable to watch because there is a 28-year age gap between the two. The real star of Atrangi Re is A. R. Rahman.  His beautiful songs – especially 'Rait Zara Si' – help to smoothen the many bumps in the story.

In Zero, Shah Rukh Khan's character Bauaa Singh says: sapne size dekh kar nahin aate.  Like that film, here too, you can feel the maker's intent and his commitment to dreaming big. But it doesn't translate.

You can watch Atrangi Re on Disney+ Hotstar.

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