But male privilege proves strong enough to sink a promising script in Anand Rai's sequel to ‘Tanu Weds Manu’.
Tanu Weds Manu: Returns
Director: Anand L Rai
Starring: Kangana Ranaut, R Madhavan, Jimmy Shergill, Deepak Dobriyal, Swara Bhaskar, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub
“Haalat dekhi hai? Adrakh ho gaya hai yeh aadmi! Kahin se bhi badh raha hai.”
“Haan, toh shaadi ke pehle Hrithik Roshan tha kya?”
The opening scenes of Anand L Rai’s sequel to his 2011 hit Tanu Weds Manu are as ridiculous as they are uproariously funny. The laughs begin with the credit sequence itself, a kitschy video of the climactic wedding from the original film, replete with tacky special effects and a cheesy track playing in the background (‘Sun Saiba Sun’ from Ram Teri Ganga Maili).
Cut to four years later, and our happily-ever-after isn’t so happy—we’re at a mental institution in Twickenham, London, where Manu (Madhavan) is trying to convince a trio of specialists that his wife Tanu (Ranaut) is suffering from bipolar disorder. She’s so unpredictable, doctor! You never know when she’s happy or angry! (Leading to the obvious sexist joke: by that logic, says the conveniently Hindi-speaking doctor, all women are bipolar.) Tanu retorts that Manu is the most boring loser ever, who’s dragged her away from her “happening” life back home to the slow, painful death that is the existence of the bored housewife in the lonely exurbs.
It’s captivating stuff: exposition through bickering, your attention (and sympathies) flitting from one to the other as they play verbal tennis, charges and counter-charges being traded through hilarious zingers like the one quoted above, building up to the inevitable punchline of Manu being taken away by orderlies after getting too agitated. Tanu decides to leave him in there, but soon realises that he was the only person she knew in the country. Her solution is not to get him out, but go back to India. On the flight home, though, feeling a pang or two of guilt, she asks Manu’s best friend Pappi (played by the excellent Deepak Dobriyal) to go fetch him from the paagalkhana.
Convinced that their marriage is over, the two protagonists with the situation in their own ways. Each of them is convinced they are in the right; they’re marking time, waiting for the other to come and apologise.
Convinced that their marriage is over, the two protagonists deal with the situation in their own ways. (None of which include attempts at reconciliation.) For Manu, that involves moping about the breakup while downing pegs with his father and Pappi (another hilarious scene). For Tanu, it involves digging up the men from her past, gallivanting around the city, scandalising prospective suitors for her sister. Each of them is convinced they are in the right; they’re marking time, waiting for the other to come and apologise.
The film, it seems, is also marking time, waiting for the endless series of convolutions and misunderstandings that characterise Bollywood’s comedies of errors. It does so with great aplomb, thanks to Himanshu Sharma’s taut script, with some great dialogue. New characters are introduced, while old ones are dusted off and thrown into the mix. Tanu meets Chintu (Ayyub), a law student squatting in her room, who she takes on as a chauffeur/sidekick and drinking partner. Manu, meanwhile, falls head over heels (literally) for Kusum, a Delhi University student-athlete who bears a strong resemblance to Tanu (which makes sense, since she’s also played by Ranaut). You take the good as it comes, mostly in the form of some great dialogue and sublime performances, hoping against hope that the second half won’t let the movie down.
The great triumph of Tanu Weds Manu—by all accounts, an above-average, but flawed, comedy—was Kangana’s portrayal of a woman asserting her right to seeking pleasure without being judged, a female character who seized her agency and protected it against all comers. By and large, the film didn’t portray her lifestyle as anything other than fodder for comedy; neither celebrating it (like Queen) nor condemning it (like Cocktail), leaving the subtext for the gender-studies student. Sometime during the second half, however, as all the story arcs combine into the giant hodgepodge that sinks an otherwise promising script, that subtext becomes too large to ignore any longer.
The “all comers” Tanu was fighting off largely represented the patriarchal institution of arranged marriage—in the form of would-be suitors and her own family, eager to marry her off—to which the independent streak she demonstrates is antithetical. She’d been “tamed”, so to speak, by the diffident, awkward Manu, who’d approached as a suitor but morphed into a potential lover using as much trickery as discernible charm. The film’s climax had been Manu and Raja (Shergill), the rivals for her hand, both setting out with their respective baaraats to claim their bride, ready to use violence if necessary. It was only when he saw that Manu wasn’t afraid of him that Raja “allowed” the two to marry, despite Tanu having already decided which of them she preferred. Not the most empowering image; not marrying, after all, was never a genuine option for Tanu.
From that perspective, Tanu’s initial behaviour in this film, which might seem self-serving, makes a little sense. In any case, as she says to Manu, he should have seen it coming. His behaviour, on the other hand, can’t be similarly explained away. Sure, his initial anger is understandable—she had him locked up in the loony bin, after all—and he does think she’s filed for divorce—thanks to Chintu throwing a spanner in the works—but giving up on her and going after someone new as fast as he does after breaking up a happy couple to get her in the first place? Some would call that a dick move.
The “all comers” Tanu was fighting off largely represented the patriarchal institution of arranged marriage, to which the independent streak she demonstrates is antithetical. She’d been “tamed”, so to speak, by the diffident, awkward Manu, who’d approached as a suitor but morphed into a potential lover using as much trickery as discernible charm.
The “someone new”, Kusum, is the great triumph of the sequel. Unlike most Bollywood double roles, it isn’t obvious that Kusum and Tanu are played by the same actor: they look, sound and feel like two different people, testimony to Ranaut’s immense talent. Despite a thick faux-Haryanvi accent, she imbues her character with authenticity. As a self-made woman with a college degree, she presents a counterpoint to Tanu’s unabashed-hedonism-as-feminism. She’s the only person with something more than ego at stake; she must make it as an athlete in order to escape being forced to marry against her wishes. She has no time for the frivolities of love.
All of which makes her story all the more tragic. After all, for her to risk all her hopes and dreams on a man she’s not allowed by society to marry, for her to have to stand up to patriarchy instead of fleeing it, to defy death itself, you’d like the guy in question to be more than a creep who stalked her for weeks just because she reminded him of his ex-wife. That is what happens, however, and it doesn’t help matters when Tanu shows up demanding her man back.
It’s a problematic climax, especially in the context of the feminist commentary that permeates the film in some progressive, if eventually half-baked, subplots. One of them deals with the equation of masculinity with sperm count through the reaction of one character to the news that his kid was a test-tube baby. Another shows the territorial nature of men, two of Tanu’s suitors engaging in a pissing contest. (When Raja asks Chintu who in the blue blazes he is, the lawyer responds he is from the biraadari of the kandha—“Jab ladki dukhi hoti hai to hamare paas aati hai.”)
Kusum is the only person with something more than ego at stake; she must make it as an athlete in order to escape being forced to marry against her wishes. She has no time for the frivolities of love.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that Rai and scriptwriter Himanshu Sharma have the courage to people their film with characters who are all fundamentally flawed and unlikeable (except Kusum, of course), a great change from the inauthentic goody-two-shoes Bollywood usually rams down our throats. It is the consequences of being flawed that I have a problem with.
Despite his infidelity (no, “We were on a break!” doesn’t apply when you’ve not even tried to rectify the situation), Manu is rewarded by two strong, independent women fighting for the privilege of being his wife, despite one of them knowing exactly how unappetising the prospect is. Sure, the ending is about as progressive a solution as any to the situation—one that doesn’t victimise Kusum, helped again by a fantastic scene by Ranaut—but it is a situation you spend most of the second half dreading, hoping against hope that the filmmakers would come up with something different, something more courageous, something less regressive than the free spirit rediscovering the attractions of holy matrimony. But no such luck. NRI doctor must have a bride; either Kangana will do. Male privilege, it seems, is too strong for even a feminist movie script to overturn.