From “Black Friday” to “Raman Raghav 2.0,” the majority of Anurag Kashyap films never attempt to conceal their fondness of exploring the dark side of the human psyche. They revel in interrogating the morally grey nature of their characters to suggest that even the seemingly most unhinged people may have reasons, valid or invalid, to carry out their crazed behavior. In his latest film “Manmarziyaan,” Kashyap reiterates this love for grey shades, with Amit Trivedi’s terrifically funky and unsubtle “Grey Wala Shade” greeting the audience to it’s “updated world of a traditional romance” (these are the English translations of the lyrics of the song). But, for the first time, the director expresses this much of a liking also for the lightest possible shade of that grey — one perhaps filtered closer through the lens of producer Aanand L. Rai’s films (“Raanjhnaa,” “Tanu Weds Manu”). For the most part, Kashyap succeeds too, managing to pull off a tricky feat of updating the old -school black-and-white love triangle with a new shade of grey that respects the conventions of that genre of films, while also managing to add its own rough edges to it.
The most organic of these updates to the traditional romantic comedy comes in the character of Rumi (Taapsee Pannu), the female protagonist of the film. Generally constricted to being the object of desire in these type films, Kashyap and writer Kanika Dhillon side-step that cliche by making her character arc the front-and-center of the film. Conflicted between choosing the guy who dominantly gives her the much required “fyaar” and the one who promises “pyaar,” Rumi is brash one minute, and vulnerable the other, embodying the grey at the heart of the film perfectly by consistently being so inconsistent and indecisive. It also helps that Taapsee breathes fire into this character, igniting a sense of volatility and unpredictability in her that allows Rumi to be likable even when she makes the most questionable mistakes repeatedly in the film.
Her relationship with Vicky, (Vicky Kaushal managing to imbue the brat character with surprising emotional poise) too, possess this almost aggressive push and pull between the need for sex and the requirement for responsibility, reinforcing the consistently conflicting nature of desire that the film wants to reveal. Kashyap, with the help of Trivedi, and cinematographer Sylvester Fonseca, colors majority of their love story in a slightly more bold manner to suggest that this relationship exists closer to the “fyaar” than to the “pyaar.” The consistent preference of a louder, and a more pulsating soundtrack consisting of some tracks in the film (“Dhyanchand,” “F For Fyaar”) with bhangra beats, and bass coupled with Fonseca’s cinematography highlighting the neon-lit DJ room of Vicky remind the audience that this relationship is closer to a fling as opposed to a marriage. However, Kashyap beautifully contrasts these moments with some brutally honest moments (“tu banda sahi hain yar par zimmedari ke naam pe hag deta hain”) in which he lets both the music and cinematography take a backseat and lets his two characters talk. The discussions between Rumi and Vicky about the former’s desire and the latter’s unwillingness to mature in their relationship add that layer of complexity to their relationship, making it much more than a pure Romeo and Juliet style love relationship between the two lovers.
The other Kashyap-isms that inflect the film’s traditional narrative, and work tremendously well are minor touches the filmmaker adds to inform the film’s world with a sense of authenticity. The highlight being a sub-plot involving Robbie’s mother and the house-help that pierces through the hypocrisy of traditional Indian families by providing a hilarious conversation between the two about pay, the process of selecting girls for arranged marriage, and the idea of the honeymoon. The other consistent thing that Kashyap explores, rather interestingly, is the increased role of mobile devices in the lives of all the characters. Several times in the film, the director, hinges crucial emotional moments of the movie on characters lack of verbal communication and increased connectivity through textual messages. Is the director trying to comment on the expanded role of social media in people’s lives? Maybe. But, this is not a comment made directly to the audience and works well as merely a device that provides sweet and honest moments between the characters in the film, notably Rumi and Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan).
The director, however also indulges in not merely winking at the audience about what type of film he is making but waving his hands at them to recognize the cleverness of direction involved in certain scenes. These touches, while amusing at first, begin to feel repetitive and slightly too self-consciously clever for a film that would work just fine in the other ways Kashyap has applied his shade to a conventional plot. The inconsistent appearance of doppelgangers is the most prominent example of this. In the beginning, Kashyap introduces two girls in songs that both serve a purpose of signaling to the audience that the world of the film exists in a slightly heightened reality and that the director wants to put a twist on the musical numbers in this film to add his flavor to it. However, it becomes clear, through the inconsistent and jarring re-appearance of these doppelgangers through the rest of the film’s narrative that Kashyap isn’t using them in a fun way. He wants the audience to see them and recognize the twins as significant plot progression points and shout to them, “Look duality! Do you get it?” Additionally, the film also features a rather clunky scene between Robbie and Rumi that throws out some Hindi film references (“Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge,” “Sholay”), possibly again signaling to the audience about “Manmarziyaan’s” inspirations, and reminding them about the twist it puts on that type of a narrative. The music from Trivedi and characters themselves, however aptly provide the audience with all these meta-clues, and this post-modern, almost breaking the fourth-wall technique feels tiresome, and frankly, a little smug, frequently distracting from the drama of the film.
The bigger problem that plagues the film, however, is that the relationship between Robbie and Rumi never quite has the same complexity or emotional resonance that Vicky’s has with her. The film, replicating the confused and repetitive nature of its protagonists, repeats itself in the second half but begins to wilt because the traces of greyness in Robbie are easily observable. This inorganic duality in his character is partly due to Bachchan slightly overplaying the gentleness and goodness of Robbie, and partially because Kashyap and Dhillon don’t give the two characters enough scenes together that beautifully contrast their warm encounters with their awkward conflicts. A pivotal scene near the end of the film hints at the same complexity in this relationship, and Kashyap wisely drops Trivedi’s softer music that underscores much of Rumi and Robbie’s track and opts for more extended takes to let the scene make an impact. But, for large sections of this dynamic between the characters, the conflicts appear far whiter than the blurred blackness at the heart of the conversations between Vicky and Rumi, and hence more conventional and forgettable.
Despite this weaker second half, “Manmarziyaan” works well on the strength of its strong performances and fresh updates on the traditional romantic comedy. Kashyap and Dhillon create full-bloodied characters, who are flawed, indecisive, and affectionate all at once, and place them in a familiar narrative framework to appeal both to a commercial audience and cinephiles looking for more grey shades in their cinema.