Cast: Kangana Ranaut, R. Madhavan, Jimmy Shergill, Deepak Dobriyal, Swara Bhaskar, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub
Director: Anand L. Rai
Runtime: 121 min.
Verdict: An event. A tour-de-force. Ms. Ranaut, like Lionel Messi’s twin goals against Bayern Munich, is an absolute triumph
So my wife has alternately been complimented that she reminds them of Angelina Jolie (most often), Diya Mirza, Denise Richards and I kid you not, Kangana Ranaut. I think I might’ve forgotten a couple of more, maybe Natalie Portman, and that is not the point. And neither is that none of the aforementioned names could be thought of in terms of look-alikes. Well maybe, Ms. Jolie and Ms. Mirza. If you ask me, and this is slightly closer to the point I want to make, I think she has reminded me, and she has been reminded by, Ms. Jolie, Ms. Ranaut, and Ms. Mirza and I suppose in that order. You see, it is a two-way street in the city of the woman we love at any given point in our lives. We’re surrounded, both from within and without, by what John Berger called the publicity image, and as Hannibal Lecter once said, we covet what we see every day. Forget about the advertisements and hoardings the mere mention of John Berger seems to inspire, and for a moment consider the seventh art’s many accomplishments – Ms. Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, or Ms. Madhuri Dixit in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun – as shaping this ecosystem. It is always a dialogue – between us and the movies and our world and our hoardings – and the women we love around us actively shape our perception of the images around us as much they are shaped by those very images. These images and their aesthetics are upon which we project our ethics, to create our world of desire, and most importantly our notion of who we are. The fact that my wife is one of most beautiful women I have ever seen, coupled with the very necessary confirmation the publicity images provide – say in the form of Evelyn Salt, or the chance remark by a colleague that the wallpaper on my mobile was Ms. Ranaut when I insisted it was my wife – perform the very important function of giving me back my sense of worth the publicity images have, or had, taken away from me. Maybe, it is a roundabout way of defining what is commonly referred to as a trophy-wife, but then, our way of living insists that the vacancy created by publicity image needs to be restored by finding some sort of replacement and find within their eyes the sense of our worth. As the monograph in Certified Copy says – Forget the Original, Just get a good copy.
Easier said than done, I say. Or, let me put it this way – my perception of Ms. Ranaut is being shaped by my wife just as much. You wonder who’s the original here. I loved Ms. Anushka Sharma’s performance in Bombay Velvet because her mannerisms often reminded me of my wife. And before I run away to digressland with this chain of thought, the point here is that all of these images help to create the image of me. We all need that, through our conversations, our declarations on social media and everything else, including this review here, we’re all creating an image, or an idea of ourselves. A single durable idea that can double up as an identity. Hence it is a no-brainer that Mr. Rai chooses to open his film with the archetypical image of any marriage – the marriage video. It belongs to the family of instruments that serve the one supreme purpose of marriage – providing the imaginary ideal the couple need to aspire to within the context and narrative of the society that provides and confirms their identity. In other words, a marriage is after all a relationship which works best when it reinforces the image of ourselves we prefer to show to the world.
The sweet everyday charms of that video give way to a positively surreal all-blue room, and the marital consultancy slash mental asylum provide for an abstract unhinged moment. Well, almost, because Mr. Rai lets his colors and lighting do the talking while his camera assumes the role of a standard real-world shot-reverse-shot observer sugarcoating all of it in everyday humor. He seems to belong to the plausible-expressionistic band of filmmakers, like for instance Mr. Christopher Nolan, whose surroundings seemingly stay in the background while you’re in there and come to life the next morning. There’s a Gone Girl this-is-the-story-of-every-marriage vibe to the ensuing proceedings, where Manu Sharma (Mr. Madhavan) is retained in the asylum, and Tanuja Trivedi (Ms. Ranaut) flies back to Kanpur, and you get the feeling the couple have stopped reminding each other who they are supposed to be and complaining who they have become. The actions are spiteful, and yet within the logic of a marriage – when she calls his friend to pick him up from the asylum – it feels strangely romantic. I would want to believe that Mr. Rai, within the span of those few moments, gets the dynamic of a husband-wife fight down pat, on how it could either explode into something really mean and vengeful, or how it could be the beginning of a stronger bond.
That is what the film is essentially about – the story of a couple who have seemingly lost their images, and hence their identities – both individual and collective. It is a moment of crisis in a marriage, a moment of dissonance, and as Michael Sicinski notes in one of the best I’ve ever read, we assume either of two roles – we become what we believe is “ourselves”, i.e. erect an ego-barricade, or replicate the best version of ourselves. These guys, Tanu and Manu, dawdle around both. She assumes her publicity image, complete with aviators, and in what reminded me of The Dark Knight Rises’ valedictory Batman, she cruises through every guy who ever fantasized about her, trying to sum it all up into, and well you said it, a single image of herself. He meanwhile seeks acceptance in the eyes of the image he loves (reminds one of Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter doesn’t it) to reinforce his worth and his identity. She is the image of a celebrity, he the image of the fan robbed of his sense of worth, and you wonder the dynamic gender brings to the table. They are lost, and in terms of narrative resolution, they need an event and all its accompanying drama to reestablish their collective identity, i.e. the marriage.
Mr. Rai causes Datto here (Ms. Ranaut), a seeming manifestation of Manu’s ethics projected onto his desires. I mean, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun with Ms. Sunny Leone wouldn’t exactly cut it just as Baby Doll wouldn’t with Ms. Madhuri Dixit. We collectively cause and provide the publicity image its narrative, and I suppose that is why it is seldom radical and almost always democratic. In other words, conformist? I won’t let patriarchy be the elephant in the room in this paragraph, which makes me wonder about Ms. Ranaut, who has, I suppose, been more towards the Ms. Leone end of the spectrum than Ms. Dixit and only recently started the journey to the other end. I might be wrong here, but when she made Tanu Weds Manu her radical image was the extra-narrative factor for the audiences. Cut to now, and in a move that kind of surpasses all irony, her Tanu’s blown-up non-conformism (also militant feminism) contrasted with her Datto, who is a more palatable (read: urban/liberal) version of the non-conformist/feminist kind essentially renders her a screen goddess. I think I’m confused.
And I do what I do best, which is to change paragraphs. Mr. Rai initiates a neat little conversation – between Tanu the aesthetics and Datto the ethics, each’s characteristic defining their other. Datto becomes increasingly beautiful, or at least three of the people who loved Tanu end up falling straight for her. It is a lovely touch from Mr. Rai, not isolating the image-obsessed ala Vertigo but making everybody share it – from Manu, to Raja (Mr. Shergill) to Chintu (Mr. Ayyub) – thus highlighting not the psychosis but the consumerist aspect of it. There is something tremendously humane when filmmakers resist the urge to isolate behaviors under a microscope, rather spreading it across a collection and uniting them all in the process. As I have said elsewhere, not since ever has there been a character as Raja, who performs the functions of being both a moral reference point as well as a source of understanding while always being one of the principal participants. Mr. Rai, and his writer Mr. Himanshu Sharma have written such a wonderful character, that all they need to do in any given situation is to merely cut to him, and forget. We laugh and we are moved.
Coming back, they decide to place the two entities – Datto and Tanu – side-by-side, figuratively speaking that is, and via the narrative see who absorbs what from the other. I classify them as aesthetics and ethics with reference to the masculine/consumer viewpoint here, i.e. Manu. It is worth reminding ourselves once again of the two roles we assume even during as much as a simple quarrel, and how the choice might explode into something vengeful, or evolve into something even more meaningful. Both Tanu and Manu want to be the best version of each other, a reminder of their co-narrative, and Mr. Rai mischievously manipulates events into making them choose the other. If you think of it, a simple sorry from either probably wouldn’t create a lasting co-image, right? Tanu, under her confusion, presumes her identity is to be the object of desire. She becomes bare-bones aesthetics in a search of a narrative, moving from one ex-flame to another, discovering that each one of them has found a placeholder for his ethics. She asks the rickshaw guy is he ever thinks of her, and strangely when she meets her husband again she has the same question. But until then, her value as a publicity image has been blown to smithereens, and her doppelganger has replaced her as the publicity image.
I speak of the doppelganger, and Datto starts of as just that. A readily available placeholder, a repository of ethics (old school girl) offering the prospect of a certified copy of the ideal. While Mr. Rai chips away through the veneer of Tanu, the sediments seem to deposit on Datto, so much so that when she fights her relatives off as the class A consumer that Manu is looks on, you feel the transition, from wherever to whatever, is complete. It is remarkably earned moment, and Mr. Rai is aware enough of it to underline and highlight the transformation of the narrative from the off-beat quirky real-life little movie to the grand melodramatic event we seem to have so few of these days. We remember the big movies – the Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenges and the Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’s – and their one-thing-at-a-time narration. In the best of these, there was drama, and there was comedy and all of the different threads and multiple characters provided for the flood of human emotion to wrap up it all up with a bang. They felt events, cornerstones of our culture, and it is hardly surprising that most of them chose the Grand Indian Wedding as the setting to provide for the emotional wallop. You see, there’re few other occasions that make life a contact sport, a readily available stage for catharsis, and when Mr. Rai’s narrative arrives at Banno, you finally realize that Tanu Weds Manu Returns is an evolved product – one that marries the observational aspirations of these small militant indies with the operatic gestures of the big film. The former are breezy and forgettable, while the latter are long and hammer you into yielding your memory. Mr. Rai mixes and matches, trading the one-thing-at-a-time of the latter with the economy of the former, pasting jokes and events within the same moments, all the time accumulating threads. I suspect there is a lot of reward to be had in the manner in which it absorbs the ironies of the indies into the very fabric of its narrative - Tanu’s song-and-dance of self-pity in those big movies would have had the bystanders be cues for us to cry, here the bystanders are essentially palming their faces.
I get the sense I ought to be afraid that I have been mostly speaking in terms of abstractions and archetypes, and I do not intend to suggest in any which way that any of the folks here are drawn out of rectangular boxes and arrows. Guided by some unbelievable actors, led by Ms. Ranaut (and I feel like I am describing Lionel Messi’s Barcelona), we have a whole bunch of full-blooded characters. Their collective arcs is what Mr. Rai is gradually piecing together into a narrative whole, and once they reach Jhajjar, the film unleashes it all. It is a flood of raw sentimentality, and amidst four songs, it provides us for the kind of epic product image of a love story those big movies regularly installed within us. He surrounds us with an atmosphere – of little streets, of tiny shops, of marriage pandals, of the night and its bulbs – we can sink our teeth in. Sorry was never the resolution, and this was the marriage video, Mr. Rai believes, Tanu and Manu deserved. Come to think of it, what’s more romantic for a wife to see her husband essentially seeking her doppelganger, and reassuring for a husband to be see the publicity image dance around him. It is a declaration in front of the world, a story for the ages, and hence an image sketched in gold. The product and the consumer have mutated to create a new image of the ideal. She is only ever guided by love, for what is love but the narrative about us we prefer the most, and this one with all the smash and bang just about sounds right. You might argue that she has managed to market herself around a new set of ideals. You might wonder about Datto and she is just as much an instance of a notion defined by its appearance as Tanu is, and all she wants is her own narrative and not somebody else’s. They are products of an image, and before you pull out your feminist arguments (and I’m not confused anymore), note that Manu gained access to Datto via an image he possessed of his wife, and probably broke his wife by the image he possessed of Datto. It is a giant supermarket, and when the marriage video loses its capacity to remind us who we are, we all wonderful husbands-and-wives need the ideal defined by Tanu Weds Manu Returns to create a new one.
And I got to mention Ms. Ranaut. What a beast she is! With some of these actors, like Mr. Denzel Washington, like Mr. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, their totally unexpected reactions accumulate into a sense that what we’re seeing is merely the tip of the iceberg. She plays Datto not with overelaborate expressions as somebody as unimaginative as Ms. Priyanka Chopra would, but rather brings the kind of authenticity one of those non-professional actors in Under the Skin or Gomorrah did. She is strange, her expressions often hard to pin down, and I suspect we haven’t seen the likes of her in a long time. So I hope we celebrate her, and just as Mr. Tom Cruise runs and Mr. Brad Pitt eats, I predict we shall have several little moments of the Kangana Ranaut walk. By god, she walks like a proper motherfucker.