Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Manmarziyaan: Review

Manmarziyaan is the least violent Anurag Kashyap film imaginable. No one gets their head bashed in, no one shoots their arch-rival dozens of times; even hockey sticks are wielded more as a threat than as an actual weapon. Yet, in a step forward for the director, Manmarziyaan explores other kinds of violence, like the sort of verbal and emotional wounds dealt to each other by young people in love. It also looks at the healing power of forgiveness—again, not what one might think of as a Kashyap theme.

For a director whose narratives are propelled more by dramatic incident than by character psychology, Manmarziyaan represents a bit of an experiment. Though the film is perpetually busy over its 150-odd minutes, there’s little forward movement, and a lot of sideways shuffling. Halfway through, you might wonder if anything has “happened”, the way we so often do with films and so seldom with life. This is a rare film built entirely on indecision, on characters second-guessing themselves, spinning their wheels.

In funky, dusty, colourful Amritsar, Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) and Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) are entwined in fyaar (carnal love) and, possibly, pyaar (the deeper stuff). After they’re discovered sneaking around by her family, she’s told it’s time to select a husband and settle down. But Rumi, ex-hockey player and perpetual hothead, doesn’t like being ordered to do anything, and she manages to brazen her way to a compromise: Vicky will turn up the next day with his family to ask for her hand in marriage. If he doesn’t, she’ll marry the first suitable boy they choose.

Of course, Vicky doesn’t turn up. Rumi sticks to her word, offering few protests as her family arranges her marriage to Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), a banker recently returned from England. But she can’t shake Vicky any more than he can shake her. There’s an incendiary scene with the two of them in a jeep by the highway, Rumi letting the cocksure DJ absolutely have it over his lack of finances, prospects and future plans. Vicky looks scared (as he should – Pannu works herself up into a righteous fury) but eventually retaliates, reminding her it wasn’t his idea to run away. On and on it goes, until Rumi and Robbie are married.

Manmarziyaan reminded me of Millennium Mambo, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2001 Taiwanese film about a wilful girl with a complicated love life. Both films have dazzling surfaces; Kashyap, working with screenwriter Kanika Dhillon, composer Amit Trivedi and cinematographer Sylvester Fonseca, loses himself in the food and graffiti and youth slang of Amritsar. Like the magnificent kulchas of that city, it’s sometimes a bit overstuffed. The dancing twins who show up in the musical sequences feel gimmicky after the first few times, and the nature documentary about the simian mating season that plays on TV during the couple’s first night would be a smart gag in a dumber movie.

It’s through Robbie, a contender for the nicest nice-guy in Hindi film history, that Manmarziyaan tries to feel its way toward an emotional breakthrough. Even when Rumi starts to warm to him (it takes a drunk scene that’s a step beyond Bachchan), Robbie is gently insistent that she investigate her feelings. “I’m happy in this relationship,” she argues. “Why are we discussing this?” “Because discussion is a good thing,” he replies – perhaps the most sensible thing said in a Hindi film this year.

It all leads to a remarkable final scene. No possibly fatal punch, no unveiling of a decomposed body, no bullet-riddled corpse – just an extended walk-and-talk. In a film with near-constant music, the soundtrack only registers ambient noise. Some issues are resolved, others wisely left alone. It’s so beautifully written and acted that when the music swells briefly at the end and there’s a slo-mo shot, it feels like a betrayal of the mood.

Mukkabaaz, which released earlier this year, was a hard film with a soft centre. The unexpected tenderness of the central romance in Kashyap’s boxing drama is carried forward to Manmarziyaan. Despite the barbs thrown at Vicky, we’re never asked to see him as a jerk, and there’s never any doubt about the depth of his feelings for Rumi (or hers for him; at one point, she tells him how grateful she is that he was her first love). And despite all the hurt, sweetness suffuses the film, from the gentleness of Robbie’s drinking scenes with his dad to the rough poetry of Shellee’s lyrics (lovers necking becomes “chonch ladiyan” – beaks meeting).

Hindi cinema has struggled to depict app-age romantic relationships, with Befikre (2016) a particularly glaring example of an older director trying to guess what kids are like today. By showing how already complicated systems of young love in India are both simplified and made more complex by technology, Manmarziyan feels closer to messy reality. The central couple hook up on Tinder and delete the app from each other’s phone; the third wheel plays a waiting game on Facebook. And a song urges: “Zamana hai badla/ mohabbat bhi badli/ ghise pite version nu/ maaro update” – times have changed/ love’s changed too/ antiquated versions/ need to be updated.

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