I really surprised myself with how much I liked this movie. And I think you should all give it a chance because you might have a pleasant surprise too!
I hate most Anurag Kashyap movies. Some I can recognize as high quality but don’t particularly like them myself because they are not to my taste (for instance, drug scenes make me nauseated, so Dev D involved a lot of pressing fingers to temples and holding of breath), but then there are others that I just plain don’t think are any good (Bombay Velvet).
(All credit to Aanand L. Rai as producer, managed to bring this in on time and on budget and on point, all three things Kashyap has been known to struggle with)
I also think he is terribly overrated because of the particular kind of film he makes. A movie about violent men doing violent things is going to trigger a kind of fantasy wishfulfillment urge in non-violent men who do non-violent things like write movie reviews, and therefore get a lot of positive feedback from reviewers. A movie about woman falling in love is going to trigger a fantasy wishfulfillment in woman who don’t always feel loved and get a lot of positive feedback from them, but unfortunately they don’t get to write movie reviews. That’s not Anurag’s fault, but I still resent his films for getting all the support and press and so on that they do while other films that are equally good but with different topics do not. Dear Zindagi, for instance, got a lot of critical acclaim but not half the budget that Bombay Velvet did. And Bombay Velvet was a recordbreaking flop, and yet Anurag has made 2 more movies and a short film since then, while Gauri Shinde is still trying to dreg up support for another movie despite a perfect record of two solid hits.
All of that is to explain that when I saw I liked this movie and I think it is a good movie, it is not because of my prejudices but in spite of them. I went into it with a mind reluctantly wedged up but ready to slam shut at any moment, and this film won me over. It’s good. It’s really good.
It’s not great. It’s not Dev D, that’s still the best thing I think Anurag has done (my constant urge to throw up was proof of that, he really captured the druggie vibe which is what the story required). And it doesn’t have ambitions to being great, it’s not “epic” or meaningful or a statement on society or any of that. It is simply a story about 3 people. A really really well-told story about 3 people.
(Anyone else want to sit very very still and pinch your lips together? No? Just me?)
The visuals of the film are very much a throwback to Dev D, Anurag’s brilliant breakdown of the Hindi film style. It has the same stripped down slightly surreal song numbers, the same bright colors but in everyday life (t-shirts and salwars, not dozens of saris), and the same sort of abrupt style, taking us from one point to another without giving us time to catch our breath, one scene hardly landing before the editing wrenches us on to the next.
And that’s because it’s the same kind of story, really. Messed up people and their messed up emotions around love. It’s surreal and abrupt and there is no time to catch your breath as your heart drags you from one place to another. A different director would have made this story “pretty”. Heck, plenty of directors from Raj Kapoor to Yash Chopra to Bhansali have told this exact same story and told it in a very pretty way. But Anurag doesn’t do pretty. He does strong instead.
Taapsee is the center of this movie and she isn’t pretty either. Her character, inside and out, isn’t pretty. She doesn’t wear saris and tons of make-up and relax her hair. She won’t smile just to make you like her. And she won’t be nice to her relatives or think of the other person before herself or think of tomorrow instead of today. She’s is angry and impulsive and thoughtless and ugly inside and out. But she drives the whole film, the two other leads (Abhishek and Vicky Kaushal) only exist in this plot because she brings them into it. It’s Taapsee’s story, not theirs.
That’s the big glaring obvious difference between this film and Dev D. Devdas, and all the many many variations on him in Indian film and literature history, is selfish and weak and flawed and everyone suffers because of him and everything happens because of him. The women are there to be a part of his story, not to have stories of their own. But this movie, it turns that around. This is Taapsee’s world and all the other characters are just living in it.
I wouldn’t have trusted Anurag to make an honest film from a female perspective. But this is the first movie he is directing from someone else’s script. Kanika Dhillon, who worked as an Assistant Director, then wrote the script for Ra.One, then Size Zero, and she has this one and Mental Hai Kya and Kedernath coming out next year. She’s on her way up and I can see why. This is a good story, original solid well-designed characters, and some great dialogue.
It’s the combination of Kanika’s script with Anurag’s style that really makes the film something different. Here we have some great characters clearly defined struggling through a difficult emotional period. With actors who dig in and bring out those characters, not through lazy tricks but through hard careful work. And it is all filmed in this kind of surreal and real at the same time way, supported by songs from Kashyap’s longtime collaborator Amit Trivedi, which just adds to the tension in the audience, the disorientation, forces us to feel what the characters are feeling.
It’s the tension that really carries the film through. I don’t want to oversell it, there are a fair number of problems in this movie. The biggest being that it gets pretty long and pretty repetitive. But because I was so stressed and worried over what would happen, I didn’t notice until thinking back on it later. While in the theater, I just wanted to know what would happen next, even if it was something I had already seen happen in a slightly different way just a few minutes earlier. If this had been made by a different director, it could have been a better movie, a tighter more focused film. Or it could have fallen flat, left us going “well, why bother watching that?” I don’t know, but I can say that the movie we ended up with, the one I saw, was the first Anurag Kashyap movie that I felt was actually made for me, actually made me feel something besides nausea.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
Vicky Kaushal and Taapsee Pannu have been having a sexual relationship for a year. He lives next door and hops terraces to visit her. Her cousin who she shares a room with knows, and her aunt and uncle and grandfather that she lives with suspect. Finally her aunt catches them together and her family throws him out and tells her they want her to get married. She goes to Vicky and gives him an ultimatum, says he has to come to her house and propose or she will agree to an arranged marriage. He doesn’t show up, and in anger she tells her family to find her a groom. Meanwhile, Abhishek has just arrived from London trying to find a bride. His family shows him pictures and he is immediately drawn to Taapsee. He looks her up on Facebook and asks around and gets a good sense of who she is (former Hockey player, angry, messy romantic past) and is still interested. Taapsee and Vicky have made up again and now are planning to elope. Only once they are on the road, she realizes he isn’t really ready for this and has him turn the car around. Instead, they agree he will come by her house and just arrange an engagement, not a marriage but an engagement to hold her family off. Only, he doesn’t come. In anger, again, she agrees to the arranged marriage and meets Abhishek. Abhishek can tell she is distracted and not thinking about him, and is confronted by Vicky in a club that night, but still wants the marriage. Vicky then goes and attacks the marriage broker, Taapsee finds out about it and goes to his parents’ house and begs them to keep their son away from her. The night before the wedding, Vicky has a change of heart and stands outside the house until she finally comes down and talks to him, and they decide to elope again. She goes to tell Abhishek she won’t be marrying him the next day, and Abhishek decides to call Vicky’s parents, see if he can get them to break up that way. Vicky’s parents try to talk him out of the elopement by convincing him he isn’t good enough for her, he doesn’t know what he really wants, it’s just immaturity. Taapsee waits for him, but he doesn’t come. The next day, Abhishek and Taapsee get married. INTERVAL
Taapsee is miserable and heartbroken over Vicky. She spends the wedding night watching TV all night, then they go to Kashmir for a remote honeymoon and she goes for a run by herself and cries, then comes back and ignores Abhishek. Until that night when she puts on a negligee and asks him to have sex with her. Abhishek asks if she is sure, she says yes. And the next morning she texts Vicky that she had sex with Abhishek. He sends a message in return claiming that he has moved on and is having sex with someone else (a fake, it is his friend’s girlfriend). Taapsee is distracted and asks Abhishek to take her back home. She takes off to visit Vicky as soon as they arrive, telling him to leave her alone but also clearly still attracted to him. Back home, Abhishek is slowly getting to know her, drinking with her and joking with her and making her laugh. She tells him she is done with Vicky and wants to be in this marriage, he tells her not to hurry, to take her time. And then Vicky meets with Abhishek, in a suit, and tells him everything. Taapsee is furious, but Abhishek tells her it was nothing he didn’t already know, and he doesn’t care. So long as she is honest with him. Taapsee is touched and invites him to have sex with her again. And then the next day she goes to talk to Vicky and they have sex too. Afterwards she immediately regrets it, goes home and cries on Abhishek’s shoulder but doesn’t tell him what happened. She goes to Vicky again to say good-bye and this time Abhishek follows her. He sees her talking to Vicky and the chemistry between them, and Vicky asks her if when she is with Abhishek, she keeps her eyes closed and pictures Vicky and it is clearly true. Abhishek is hurt and spends two nights out drinking while Taapsee stays up waiting for him. The second night, he explodes at her, tells her he saw them together, he loves her so much and put up with all of this, but she is never going to grow up and they deserve each other. He calms down the next day and apologizes and tells her they should get an annulment. Taapsee goes back home, sadder than ever, all the gifts are returned and the marriage canceled, Abhishek takes the blame. Vicky and his parents are now talking to Taapsee’s family about marriage, but she is distracted thinking of Abhishek. Finally at the formal “first meeting”, Taapsee takes Vicky aside and breaks up with him, tells him he was a wonderful first love but now she is moving on. She sees Abhishek again at the annulment in the court, he doesn’t soften and signs the papers but offers to walk her home afterwards. On the walk, she babbles, telling him all about herself, opening up, trying to get him to open up too. He finally responds in turn, telling her more about himself. She says good-bye, but she keeps calling after him, not able to let him leave. Until he finally turns around and says that they still have some free meals pending in Kashmir, might as well go back, and she runs into his arms. The screen goes black just as they go in for (possibly) their first kiss.
I gave all those details partly so I could remember it all and try to sort the wheat from the chaff. But the thing is, it’s all chaff. Or else it’s all wheat. The basic plot is kind of nothing, Vicky and Taapsee are in love, she marries in a fit of anger at him, and then she gets over Vicky and learns to love her husband. It’s the same thing we’ve seen over and over again. But in the middle of it is so much drama, so much back and forth, so much emotional turmoil. None of which ends up mattering, because Taapsee stays with Abhishek after all.
What’s radical about this movie isn’t in the plot itself but in how it is presented, the way the film sees what is happening. That this film doesn’t shy away from all the messiness of the Taapsee-Vicky break up, and still treats it as a break up. They sobbed and hurt and fought and made love, yes, all of that is true. But that doesn’t mean forever. Sometimes love just runs its course.
By an hour into this movie, I was already having a mental mantra of “please don’t redeem this character, please don’t please don’t” because Vicky was just so horrible. And yet I could see that he made Taapsee happy. She laughed with him, she was free with him, she was herself with him. But he didn’t show up to propose, over and over again he just didn’t come. And there was a comment about how he didn’t go with her when she had to have an abortion because he was “busy”. He’s not evil, he’s not abusive, but he is also not a great boyfriend. Or a great human being, spoiled and immature and incapable of thinking of others. And I was terrified that the movie would say “well, tough luck Taapsee, he is your first love and first love is forever so you are stuck with this worthless guy”.
And then she married Abhishek and my mantra switched to “please don’t make it bittersweet, please don’t make it a sacrifice, please don’t make it a compromise”. Because that’s the other story we are used to, that first love is wonderful and perfect but somehow doesn’t work out and instead the woman sadly marries someone else and spends her life just a little bit broken inside. Blech!!!!
But what I realized as I was watching the movie is that in the other films, we the audience assume the woman is a little bit broken inside because we never get to see her journey. We cut straight from the happy first love, to the happy days of marriage with no transition in between. This movie shows us that. The entire film takes place during what in Jeet or Kabhi Kabhi or Sangam was handled in the course of one song. Those tricky first few honeymoon weeks of marriage while she is still in love with someone else.
Other movies just accept it as a given “and then after marriage she learned to adjust”. This movie digs in and asks “what does that mean? What does that feel like? How does it happen?” And it’s messy, is the answer. Messy, but far better this way than if Abhishek had pressured her or hurried her. Taapsee had to work through her emotions about Vicky before she could be fully open to Abhishek. And if she hadn’t had the time to work them through, she never would have been fully open to Abhishek.
The sex scenes are the most disturbing. Taapsee is initiating them, Abhishek is giving no pressure to her. But he is also obviously giving her no pleasure. Or receiving much himself, he seems no more relaxed and happy post-coitus than he was before. Yes he asks over and over if this is what she wants, but no matter what she says, her body language so clearly states that it isn’t what she wants that it feels wrong for him to do it. It feels like he should have said no, should have waited until she truly wanted him. Even if that was taking away her choice in the moment. He had the right to make that choice for himself.
But then, the sex scenes are important if this is going to be a different kind of a story. In the traditional version, sex fixes everything. The husband is happy, the wife is happy, everything is good. But this movie wanted to take that and show how wrong it was. Sex is nothing, sex is meaningless. Abhishek isn’t satisfied with that, he wants a real relationship. And Taapsee isn’t magically changed by it, it’s everything besides sex that can change her.
What makes this even more meaningful is the contrast with the relationship with Vicky. Usually in Indian society/films that human instinct to conflate sexual satisfaction with love is used to keep the arranged marriage system churning along. If the couple are sexually compatible (a big “if” obviously) than the first few years of marriage, heck just the first few weeks of marriage, became much more manageable. They are bonded together immediately, and by the time the glow has worn off, they have learned to live with each other outside of the bedroom as well.
But in this film, it is Vicky and Taapsee who have the great sex while that is not a part of her relationship with Abhishek. That is why they are “in love”, Vicky even challenges her at one point that she can’t do without him because she will go crazy without “fyaar” (their word for sex) twice a day. And his description of the greatest love, is to hop terraces to her when she is horny.
But they don’t talk. Abhishek talks to her, jokes with her, wants to get to know her. They have everything but sex. And, eventually, Taapsee discovers she misses that “everything but” much more than the sex. Discovers that sex can improve, but conversation can’t. Her first time with Abhishek is bad and just in revenge against Vicky. They next time is better, she still makes him turn out the lights but she initiates it because he touched her and she felt something. And the third time, she turns into him and lets her hold her while she cries.
That’s why the film ends with their kiss. A kiss is that special thing that brings together sex and everything else. We never saw her kiss Vicky. They had desperate quick encounters in hidden rooms, but they didn’t kiss.
And it’s why, right before the kiss, they finally talk. The structure of this story is so interesting, because we learn a lot of the most important things in the last 5 minutes. But we saw the result of those things in the rest of the film. Taapsee’s only question for Abhishek at their first meeting is if he is on Tinder, why is that? Abhishek is so patient and saintlike in how he forgives Taapsee, and so sure that her relationship will end, why is this? Taapsee’s family is ridiculously indulgent of her, why is that?
And it finally comes out at the very end. We, the audience, finally get to fully understand these two characters at the same time they are fully understanding each other. Just like them, we were fighting our way through the haze of Taapsee’s love for Vicky, the stress of early marriage, everything else that hid the real people, and only know that they have annulled the marriage, come out clean and clear on the other side, can they face each other honestly.
And the backstory is good too! Logical and makes sense with what we have seen of these characters. Taapsee’s parents died when she was young and she moved into her aunt and uncle’s household. They let her run wild because they feel sorry for her, and she knows that and takes advantage of it and then feels bad later. She clings to her grandfather because she feels he really loves her, is really hers as much as anyone else’s. She played hockey because it reminded her of her father. She met Vicky on Tinder because he was next door. And everything falls into place once she explains it, her whole character in the rest of the film. Someone who doesn’t feel like she belongs, like she fits in, looking for sex because sex is good and then building it up to be a grand passion and love story because she wanted someone and some thing that was just her own. And now finally coming out of that haze and returning to herself and discovering what she wants for herself, not in reaction to what she doesn’t have.
Abhishek’s is the far more important story because we got so little of him in the rest of the film. Abhishek does a great job with his performance, all three leads do. Vicky doesn’t hold back on disappearing into the character of this immature impulsive worthless type. Taapsee handles with grace the need to let us see what she is thinking through her face because she will never talk to anyone directly. But Abhishek has to let us see and understand and trust him, without fully knowing him. And he does it, we believe he is a nice solid guy who is struck by Taapsee, intrigued by her for reasons we don’t fully know but can still accept. And forgiving enough and wise enough to let most things go. But the movie would be far inferior if it was left at that, if we never got any explanation for why he is this way.
But, at the very very end, we finally do. Without them bothering to underline it and say “and this is why I love you and forgive you”. Abhishek had his own wild past. He kissed a girl on her wedding day after jumping terraces to get there and away again. He did the wild in love thing just like Taapsee. And then when he was 24 he got in a driving accident and his friend lost a leg, and ever since then he hasn’t done anything wild. So, there it is. He didn’t want to marry a “good girl”, he wanted to marry someone with a similar past to himself, a similar personality. And he could forgive almost anything she did, because he knew he was no better, he had permanently hurt a friend through his own carelessness.
As I said at the beginning, read the spoilers if you just can’t stand the tension. But don’t, if you want the tension as you watch it for the first time. The filmmakers want you to have that tension, they set up Vicky and Taapsee as “True Love” in the first half and make us wait to see if it will work or not. Then in the second half they set up Abhishek and Taapsee’s marriage as totally over and make us wait to see if it will be saved. And most of all they make us wait until the last few minutes of the film to fully understand what is happening in these characters’ heads. It’s a very different structure, keeping us guessing all along as though it was some kind of spy thriller instead of a relationship drama.
What I am curious about is if the film will hold up on a second viewing, without that tension to keep it going. I think it will. The dialogue is so fun, and performances so entertaining, and the songs so great that it will keep you going, even knowing how it turns out.
Oh, one final thing. The subtitles on this film are, once again, frustratingly terrible. In particular there is a scene where Abhishek and Taapsee are both drunk and Taapsee challenges him to shout from the rooftops. Naturally he falls into the “soo-i-cide!!!!” speech from Sholay. And then they switch to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai quotes. Which the subtitles, naturally, change to be at first just almost literal translations (not exact, they try to make the drunken mumbling of the speech into something logical, making it no longer a quote) and then into Titanic quotes. WHY?????? Why not just leave it as the words they say and let the audience either appreciate them as nonsense from drunk people, or recognize them as quotes from movies they know. Why this whitewashing of Indian references? This assumption that everything can be translated to western culture because nothing is truly unique?
Oh, and the far far far FAAAAR more important translation problem, the use of “husband material” for the title “Manmarziyaan”. I barely speak Hindi, and even I knew that was ridiculous. Ridiculous to the point of changing the meaning of the film. “Mann” is heart-soul-inner being. “Marzi” is wish. “Yaan”, I’m not sure about, it might just be a word ending. The point is, the title means “heart’s wish”, or “heart’s desire”. The movie is not about Taapsee finding a man who is “husband material”. It is about Taapsee coming to understand her own heart and what it wants. In the first half, she wanted Vicky. But in the second, Abhishek. Her heart changed and she follows it, not anything else. That’s what this movie is about, finding and understanding your hearts’ desire.
(That’s why the recurring fantasy element is the twin female dancers, Taapsee’s spirit animals showing her emotions. It’s about Taapsee’s heart, not anything else)