Monday, May 25, 2015

Very fragmented notes on Tanu Weds Manu Returns

-- What a goofily ungrammatical-sounding title. Reminds me of the famous promotional tagline for The Birds, which got pedants all worked up: “The birds is coming” (with the “B” deliberately in lower-case).

-- As must already have been noted hundreds of times elsewhere, Tanu Weds Manu Returns is a triumph for Kangana Ranaut as well as for an ensemble of supporting performers, including Deepak Dobriyal, Swara Bhaskar, Eijaz Khan and Jimmy Shergill reprising their roles from the first film. This is one of those rare times where I wished a sequel would expand into a full-fledged franchise, so we can keep revisiting these performers in these roles, not necessarily to see where they will end up (chances are this lot will keep going round in circles, creating new complications for themselves), but to eavesdrop on conversations, observe shifting equations, and see more of those crowded family functions where the less predictable facets of small-town Indian life may be revealed.

-- This film belongs to the tradition of what Stanley Cavell called “the comedy of remarriage” – a reference to the many wonderful screwball comedies in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood where married couples broke up and explored other possibilities as a necessary prelude to the realisation that they couldn’t do without each other in the long run. (And this was something that most people around them could usually see before they could. Though in some cases there was also a subconscious little waltz going on, centred on the thrill of waiting it out, playing the game without quite acknowledging it.)

Classics in that subgenre include His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story and My Favorite Wife. Cary Grant was a vital force in all of those films, and I think this had a lot to do with one of his most distinctive qualities as an actor, which David Thomson drew attention to in a once-infamous essay: Grant’s ability to tap into the light and dark shades of his personality simultaneously, never allowing one to drown out the other. That quality was particularly effective in films like His Girl Friday, where, despite the generally manic tone, you always got a sense of an internal conflict: the man battling with himself, both drawn to and put off by (or intimidated by) the woman; the playing out of that conflict, up to the realisation that one feeling carries more weight than the other. 

In contrast, the Manu of Tanu Weds Manu Returns is bland, hard to read, and something of a non-entity, both at the script level and in R Madhavan’s pleasant but workmanlike performance. And this may have been deliberate. Both Tanu Weds Manu and its sequel often toy with the complexities of gender equations in a seemingly conservative society: how women can be the ones to take initiatives or assert themselves in contexts where you wouldn’t always expect it. But I wonder if the current discourse about empowering and giving more agency to women characters in our cinema is about to lead to a situation where the men in some films have almost no agency or personality. (See the Rajkummar Rao character in Queen, for instance.) Manu is a cipher here; the viewer gets very little sense of what is going on in his head. 

 -- Delightful though it is on many levels, I’m not sure TWM Returns works too well as a remarriage-comedy in the sense that Cavell used the term. One problem being that I was less than convinced by the Tanu-Manu romance in the first film: first a dreamy-eyed NRI falls in love with a sleeping girl, then the girl (who turns out to be a madcap whenever she is awake) falls gradually in love with the idea of someone being so much in love with her. If you find that unconvincing, it isn’t so easy to invest in the sequel’s conviction that these two people have to get back together, so what if a vulnerable young college-goer gets caught up in their courtship dance.

The opening of this film pointedly contrasts the noisy camaraderie of a large middle-class Indian wedding (I can’t get “Sun Sahiba Sun” out of my head now) with cold and gloomy England, where Tanu
– who draws so much of her energy from being around people only has pigeons and raccoons for company. If you were truly deeply moved by the Tanu-Manu romance in the first film, you’re supposed to be shaken by what they have turned into, by this dark winter of the soul (which can only be healed by a return to sunny, clamorous India). But the quarreling couple we see in the asylum scene is pretty much how I would have expected the two people from the first film to wind up a few years after their wedding. (My wife is bipolar, Manu tells the doctors, and we are invited to read this as a manifestation of his resentment rather than as a balanced diagnosis. But one thing that neither film has ever addressed full-on – though Kangana’s performance screams it out in nearly every scene – is that Tanu is a bit of a nut, and possibly dangerous too. Her expressions during the bonfire scene in the first film still make me shiver.)

-- Though the supporting cast, and most of the dialogue, in TWM Returns is so sharp that the pace is never allowed to flag for long, it comes close a few times: notably in the exasperating scene where Datto’s brother gives a little lecture to his family and community about the need to value women. Again, a byproduct of the New Indian Cinema where the need to be self-consciously progressive and socially responsible is sometimes prioritised over narrative flow or internal credibility. (But since Anand L Rai is the director who got so much flak for Raanjhanaa, I won’t go on about this. Perhaps he just felt the need to spell things out.)

-- There is also a nod to the great cinematic theme of obsessive remaking, casting a lookalike in the mould of your idealised love – a theme that has anchored films as otherwise disparate as Hitchcock’s Vertigo, V Shantaram’s Navrang and Yash Chopra’s Lamhe. Tanu Weds Manu Returns briefly flirts with the idea, as in the scene where Manu scrutinises Datto when she tries on the earrings he has given her; in a different sort of film, this might have been close to the creepy scene in Vertigo where Scottie waits for Judy to emerge from the bathroom, made up as Madeleine. But again, Manu is such a blank slate that you can’t ascribe many such motivations to him. And the film, being essentially lighthearted in tone, isn’t trying to go down that particular vortex; it remains a sidenote.

(But I’ll still use this opportunity to link to this terrific Adam Gopnik story about death, replacement, love, pet fish and Hitchcock’s blondes. Read.)

-- Having begun this post by mentioning pedants, let me be one myself. People, stop calling Tanu Weds Manu the “prequel” to this film. (This means you too, Wikipedia.) A prequel is a specific sort of sequel – it isn’t a synonym for “precursor” or “predecessor”. Look it up. Yes, I know we are living in a world where “anyways” will soon replace “anyway” in the OED, but let’s beat back the gathering ravens for as long as we can.


  1. Radhika Oltikar6:05 PM, May 25, 2015

    "Tanu weds Manu" hadn't worked for me at all, so was planning to give the sequel a miss. But everyone's been raving so much about Kangana and the crackling dialogue that I've changed my mind. Also pleased to report that I knew the difference between "prequel" and "predecessor." However, still learnt a lot from your post, the least of which was the accurate meaning of "cipher" :)

    1. I have a strong feeling the meaning of the word will be revised (or "loosened") in the near future, to accommodate the flood of misuse. Many professional writers I know use it interchangeably with "predecessor".

  2. Quote...the pace is never allowed to flag for long, it comes close a few times: notably in the exasperating scene where Datto’s brother gives a little lecture to his family and community about the need to value women. Again, a byproduct of the New Indian Cinema where the need to be self-consciously progressive and socially responsible is sometimes prioritised over narrative flow or internal credibility. Unquote.

    Dear Sir,

    Just before the above scene, the lead actors are in a very desperate situation and are facing a real risk of getting lynched/burnt by the extended family of Datto they are surrounded with. The plot "requires" a saviour. The plot "demands" someone who can come and not let the tied-up guys get burnt/hurt.

    The "dialoguebaaji/gyaan/bhasanbaji" met out by the "big-Jaat-bro" makes it clear to the audience that he sacrificed the "perks of the life of a Pehlawan in the village" and moved to the big city and holed himself up in a small house" to get away from the "orthodox/regressive society he was born in. This is his personal pain. And therefore, he shares the hopes and aspirations of his younger sister,Datto, and let her use his own small house(shaving in the balcony facing the street and climbs on electricity pole in need) in the city to become a renowned national level athlete.

    In fact, most of the male/female athletes from Haryana do have a saviour and a mentor.

    So the narration - progressive or unprogressive and socially responsible or irresponsible - shows nothing but the on-the-ground reality. You can not accuse the narrative of prioritising the self-consciously progressive and socially responsible image over narrative flow or internal credibility simply because these deytilas bring depth to the narrition without bloking the flow.

    PS: You are more than a cinephile and critique, and you wield a scholarship the kind of which is not seen in the mainstream film-media. Forgive me for the mistakes i might have made.

    1. Amit: thanks. All good points, and possibly I didn't think enough about the brother's back-story and place in his sister's life. My only real response to your comment would be that I thought that whole scene (starting with the father's behaviour and ending with the brother's speech) was pat and caricatured, and put a spoke in the wheel of what is mostly such a breezy narrative. It held things up and switched the tone of the film, and I can't help feel that the main reason for that was to make a politically correct point.

  3. That is one of my fav scenes in the movie and I can watch it again and again! Kangana is marvellous in the scene when after getting hit by her brother, she retorts that she is not like his wife who stays down after getting hit but will get him into jail and she will not cower infront of her dad also if he was doing something wrong. I am sure this scene and the one with her brother's logical monologue is going to inspire or atleast make a good number of people think in their lives!

  4. "Tanu is a bit of a nut, and possibly dangerous too."

    Although I loved the film for the sharp dialogues as well, I too found that it didn't work too well for me. It was not so much about finding love all over again in a marriage, but (was it intentional or not?) the way it portrayed how a dysfunctional couple (or one dysfunctional person as kooky as Tanu) functions as a unit at the end of the day, and how the insecurities of a warring couple can often drain the life out of friends and family surrounding them. For instance Tanu's stubborn self destructive behaviour and insistence on attending the marriage festivities and the wedding ceremony. The initial self-denial and numbing of what could well be her own need for re-examination, by flirting with her old Kanpur flames. Her decision to act only when she realised she could well possibly lose someone who she treated badly and expected would come back begging to her. And simply, the way Kusum and Raj get caught in Manu and Tanu's refusal to cope with their own marriage in a level headed fashion. Even Jassi, Pappi, and Payal are caught in this self-consuming bonfire which is so well demonstrated when Tanu is dancing to Jo Na Karna Tha at the baraat and everyone is simply exasperatedly looking on while the couple stubbornly pushes ahead with its own agenda. TWMR was so much more about all the other characters, and how the psychosis of Manu and Tanu's respective personalities and a withering marriage is projected on the others, who altruistically participate along in their mania, and sucked dry. Neither party ever stops to engage with their own friends' issues. Even when it comes to telling her husband at Dhatto's home "Usne mujhe itna zaleel kiya", when she herself provoked Dhatto into reacting, but Dhatto does well by standing up for herself. I loved how the film showed Dhatto walking into a secluded space after she calls off the wedding and breaks down to show that she wasn't merely being this benevolent almighty (Which someone like Kiara in Khoobsurat portrays by letting Yuvraj leave her for Milli) but was seriously played with for a Manu's personal gain.

    Also found the "If Tanu is bipolar, then by that logic all women in the world are bipolar" scene in the asylum a big generalisation (then again, the two characters really belong in an asylum, let alone need a marriage counsellor). Perhaps works well for the laughs, but it brings one back to your statement, that Tanu can well represent someone who is narcissistic and toxic when it comes to a relationship or people around her.

  5. I haven't seen the previous film TWM

    I do not understand how can some-one return to a spouse who put you in a mental asylum for 5 days
    There is also no insight into why a college girl would fall for a would-be-divorcee

  6. I might actually like the movie better it Tanu doesn't wed Manu at the end. Sometimes we like someone for an instant, and then realise that the differences are too many. And that's fine. I wouldn't mind a sequel to a romance that lets the protagonists realise they are better off without the other! (Simran, that Raj is an immature impulsive idiot!)

  7. Hi Jai, did you really see the rajkumar rao character in Queen as a cipher? I thought his motivations rather perfectly captured a particular kind of (Indian) male who gets transformed the moment he so much as flies over a western country. That he returns and calls Rani medieval and not up to his expectations is something I have observed in other cases too.

    1. Vikram: yes, someone else made the same point on my FB status - and the comment (and my reply to it) has vanished now because she has temporarily deactivated her account. Will need to see Queen again to think about this - possibly the RKR character isn't a cipher in the sense that I was using the word. (Maybe he's a bit of a MacGuffin actually - to use Hitchcock's term - a pretext for the growth of the Rani character.)

      Also, what I was trying to say was that I find the whole "lack of agency" argument a little simplistic and over-stated in conversations abut popular cinema. Have tried to address this in my book about Hrishikesh Mukherjee too. But more about that another time...

  8. I could not relate to either Tanu or Manu characters. I thought Madhavan was sleepwalking through this role and I just could digest his romance with Datto. You are right, Manu is a non-entity in the script.

    The movie was held-up due to two characters - Datto and Paapi bhai. I am from Haryana and Datto is the kind of girl I will always root for - determined, straightforward and honest.