There’s a certain kind of Indian man that doesn’t get discussed a lot. He lives abroad, earns well, respects his parents – a textbook example of the (upper) middle-class success story. But he’s also about what he’s not. He lacks charm, doesn’t have an artistic bent of mind, struggles to express his feelings (unless he’s drunk). Hindi cinema, for long, has celebrated the love of painters and poets. But what about the love of those who travel across countries, meet a stranger for a few days, and get married? What about the love that doesn’t have the gift of eloquence – which, to a hardened eye, looks like a desperate lunge, a sophisticated compromise? Do we consider it inferior – does it not deserve its own space and language, the dignity of a feature film?
Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan tackles these questions head-on. It mostly does so through Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), a balm-like guy in a film where people are open wounds. Robbie, a banker in London, has come to his hometown, Amritsar, to get married. He contacts a marriage bureau, hoping to find a potential partner. But his bride-hunting exercise stops at the first photo. It is of Rumi (Taapsee Pannu), who came close to representing India in hockey. Now Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) has replaced hockey. Rumi, according to Robbie’s mother, has several flaws: she drives a bike, swears a lot, roams around with guys. But Robbie is unfazed. He’s sure what he wants.
So does Rumi. She wants to get married to Vicky, an aspiring DJ who loves her with the ferocity of a hungry wind. He jumps from terraces for her, picks up fights, takes impulsive decisions. But Vicky doesn’t want to – or rather cannot – get married. He has his reasons. His music career, his dream of becoming the next “Yo Yo [Honey Singh]”, is yet to take off. He shirks responsibilities. He lacks the foresight to plan for future. He can hardly manage himself, let alone a marriage. Robbie, on the other hand, is dependable and financially secure. The parallels between the man and the man-child – the trash basket and the litterer – are clear.
Neither of them, though, is seen through a tired lens. We’ve come across characters like Vicky, often played by Ranbir Kapoor, in many recent Hindi films. But Kaushal’s Vicky is not a result of stereotyping. He’s struggling to overcome his sense of entitlement. He even tries to play the good boy part, but his good is not good enough. Robbie, in contrast, hesitates, listens and respects boundaries. Manmarziyaan is, at one level, a comment on the dilemma of young Indian women: of having to choose between safe and charming, boring and unreliable. It is also worth noting that this film, which sees its male protagonists with remarkable sensitivity and empathy, is written by a woman (Kanika Dhillon).
Her writing is elevated by the performances. Pannu is brilliant as Rumi, someone scared of losing her first love. She is fiery and uncompromising, not afraid of giving Vicky a chance, because losing this fight would mean losing herself. Kaushal plays Vicky, a man living his life in moments, with intriguing volatility, often taking you by surprise. Unsure of his self, Vicky doesn’t know his next steps, leaving you disoriented and baffled. But if you’ve seen the last few films of Pannu and Kaushal, none of this is a surprise. They’re intelligent actors who, in the hands of smart filmmakers, are capable of outperforming themselves. The true revelation here is Bachchan.
Star kids get a lot of hate – the reasons for that are several and, in many cases, justified. Bachchan has certainly got his share. But here’s the thing: He’s not a bad actor – and definitely not deserving of so much scorn. The problem with him has always been this: He’s a character actor in the family of stars. He’s looked most comfortable in movies where he’s part of an ensemble (Yuva, written by Kashyap, instantly comes to mind, so does Sarkar Raj and Phir Milenge). Towering over others and ruling a frame was never his forte; slipping quietly in the background – using sardonic, straight-faced humour – was. His most impressive leading performance came in Guru (which had additional dialogues by Kashyap), where he played a very un-hero like role.
In Manmarziyaan, Kashyap resurrects Bachchan again. He does so by giving the actor a muted part where, playing the embodiment of a sponge, he doesn’t act as much as he reacts. Robbie enters the film quite late and even when he does, he’s not intrusive. When he’s in Kashmir on a honeymoon with Rumi, he senses something is not right with her. He lets her be. She eventually gets exasperated of his silence, and tells him, “Why don’t you ask me something?” He keeps quiet and, during the entire vacation, asks her the same question twice, “Are you okay?” Kashyap shoots Robbie with a lot of assurance and quiet finesse, eschewing the clichés of the ‘nice guy’.
Kashyap is never not interesting – even when he disappoints. His films brim, at times overflow, with ideas. In the last few years though (with the exception of his short in Lust Stories), he seems to have become jaded, rehashing his own tropes. His constant deification has also meant that he’s presumably stopped introspecting and – there’s no kinder way to say this – exposed the utter juvenility of Indian cinephiles. Kashyap is most effective when he moderates his ambition and that truly happens when he’s working with someone else’s material. His one great work, Black Friday, was an adaptation of Hussain Zaidi’s book, and with Manmarziyaan – his first as a director where he doesn’t feature in the writing credits – he has finally made another film that is a cohesive whole.
Some credit for that must go to the producer Aanand L. Rai, who changed directors and cast for the project, and Dhillon, who has written a solid story and screenplay. Because even in this movie, Kashyap’s reliance on his homegrown style is evident. Several scenes in Manmarziyaan cut to twin sisters (existing outside the film’s narrative) randomly breaking into a dance, reminding you of Twilight Dancers in Dev D. Music does a lot of narrative heavy-lifting here, informing and filling the movie that is, again, reminiscent of Dev D. When Amit Trivedi is in his elements (which hasn’t happened for a while) he, unlike A.R. Rahman, gives you the pleasures of love at first sound. Much of that happens in Manmarziyaan. The songs work beautifully in the film’s first half. But by the second half, they start to weigh the film down, mostly because their use lack imagination, and they look like an excuse to avoid uncomfortable silences.
Dhillon’s screenplay, though, is a reassuring anchor throughout. It quietly examines the institution of marriage, and the lies of the Indian middle-class, and seeks to understand whether love is fundamentally amoral. But Manmarziyaan’s true triumph lies in dismantling the romanticisation of ‘eternal love’ – a trait debasing an aesthetically pleasing film earlier this year; a feeling made prominent by popular culture, in recent times, as a defence mechanism to counter our collective dehumanisation. Manmarziyaan makes no tall claims. It is heady yet soothing; it dissects, understands and, wondrously, feels – it has the mind of a woman with the heart of a girl.