Qalandar Reviews MANMARZIYAN (Hindi; 2018)

This review contains spoilers.

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Manmarziyan opens with a shot of the Golden Temple, the sort of thing that in recent times has been one of the lazier clichés in Hindi cinema: if Sikhs are involved (and sometimes even when they aren’t), Amritsar’s sacred shrine is a given.  However, the vantage point here is a bit different, enabling the viewer to take in not only the iconic building, but also an incongruous neon sign perched on top.  One is almost tempted to say it doesn’t belong, except that in India, it sort of does.

That opening shot, if re-visited after the end credits have rolled, tells you a lot about director Anurag Kashyap’s aims in taking up one of the most hackneyed Bolly-genres of all – The Love Triangle – and in trying to give it his own twist.  That is, Kashyap scrupulously adheres to the genre’s conventions in several respects (if I still need to place a spoiler alert before telling you which hero the lady ends up with, you haven’t seen very many Hindi films), a marked departure from his reputation as the industry’s enfant terrible.  This (should I say older, more mellow?) Kashyap sees much to keep about those conventions, and if the result is a less radical form and plot than the director has sometimes aspired to, at least this Hindi film viewer found Manmarziyan a more satisfying film than a number of Kashyap efforts.

Kashyap doesn’t waste time, establishing locale and character with great economy in the film’s opening sequences.  Taapsee Pannu plays the fiercely independent Rumi, passionately in love (and lust) with Vicky Sandhu (Vicky Kaushal), who is “wrong” in all the ways relevant to a family wishing for a suitable “match” for their daughter, even one as indulgent as Rumi’s (long-suffering) clan seems to be.  Enter Mr. Right, in the form of Abhishek Bachchan’s Robbie, a London banker in town for an arranged marriage, and smitten by Rumi, the first woman he sees in Amritsar.

One cannot go much further without talking about the performances, for these make the film, sustaining it even when the writing flags.  The free-spirited “small town girl” (recently spotted in Bareilly ki Barfi, to take one example) has for years been the rather problematic fantasy of (male!) directors, exotically invested with the sort of agency and rebelliousness her big city counterparts rarely seem to possess (a sure sign that the gaze is from the outside in), but Rumi (who is, it must be noted, written by a woman, Kanika Dhillon), is rescued from staleness by Taapsee Pannu’s fresh persona.  That is to say, the improbability of Rumi is rendered plausible by Pannu’s newness and conviction, even if Dhillon’s writing strikes the occasional off-key note (Rumi’s casual recounting of an abortion was like chalk on a blackboard; I found it hard to believe that she’d undergo an abortion and be utterly un-marked by the experience, or so forgiving of the man who couldn’t accompany her because something had come up). Ultimately, Pannu’s verve and velocity is winning, and sustains a film she’s in just about every scene of, as indefatigable at the end as at the beginning.  (I wish the filmmakers had been similarly consistent: early in the film we are told that Rumi has given up hockey because of a man, but Rumi disagrees: it’s because another female hockey player has been found dead on the train tracks.  The implication, that violent misogyny is to blame, hangs in the air, discomfiting the viewer.  By film’s end, in response to Robbie’s question, Rumi affirms that she votes, breezily moving on – no discomfort is risked here, because we are never told who she has voted for; Robbie himself seems least bothered.)

Vicky Kaushal is even better: entrusted with the un-enviable task of ensuring the audience doesn’t hate Vicky Sandhu even though he will have ditched Rumi twice by the intermission, Kaushal plays his difficult role very well, evoking genuine empathy at key moments.  “Difficult” in that Dhillon and Kashyap give him only one note to hit, and he could easily have lapsed into cartoonish buffoonery.  But as Kaushal plays him, you don’t hate DJ Vicky for not being ready for marriage, and you can’t help but feel for him as he tearfully reverses his jeep before it reaches Rumi, who is waiting to elope with him, and even as your heart goes out to the woman abandoned in the middle of the night.  Indeed, by film’s end, you can’t help but feel that the newly domesticated Vicky has gotten the short end of the stick, pushed aside in favor of the film’s adults.  But not before Kaushal reminds us yet again why he is one of Hindi cinema’s most promising actors, adding to the range we’d seen in Masaan, Raman Raghav 2.0, and Raazi.

Abhishek Bachchan has made an oeuvre out of imbuing with thoughtfulness, even gravitas, characters who would seem trivial or absurd in less adept hands (his Rohan Verma, IP lawyer-and-Prince Charming, in Laaga Chunri Mein Daag; and Umraaojan’s Nawab Sultan come to mind).  He does so again here, with masterful restraint and use of pause – silence, in a film so given to talky characters, anchors the proceedings, and none use it better in contemporary Bollywood than he does. It is a brave performance, by an actor confident of his restrained craft in an industry (and public culture) given to celebrating coarseness (especially coarse masculinity): he is never rushed, and keeps his own time, until, slowly but surely, Manmarziyan starts to march to his.  All the while, he doesn’t appear to be breaking a sweat, and if Abhishek Bachchan is bothered by the growing marginalization of what he represents amidst Indian popular culture, it doesn’t show.  The one exception in Manmarziyan to this restraint – when Robbie lashes out at Rumi – is one of the film’s best scenes, even if neither director nor writer pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Robbie when he accurately observes that Rumi and Vicky are well-matched, in their narcissism and the narrowness of the circle they have drawn around themselves.  (Nor, one must concede, does Robbie: I wondered why he continues to be drawn to Rumi.)   His isn’t the most important character in this film, but Bachchan is the film’s most important actor, essential if the coming-of-age aspect of this film isn’t to be stunted, as so many Hindi film love stories are, by permanent adolescence.  I don’t know if he entirely succeeds – the film’s rather tame ending is acutely aware of a movie-going audience that insists on juvenilia – but without him Manmarziyan would have lost its best shot at an adult love story.  Just watch him as he stumbles out onto the street with the film’s best song, Halla, playing in the background.  One might think the fate of the world hung in the balance. (The rest of Amit Trivedi’s album is quite a ways below Halla, and nowhere near Dev D, but is reminiscent of the latter in its centrality to the film.  Stated differently, Trivedi’s music is the very texture of Manmarziyan, and so completely that one is hard-pressed to isolate particular songs beyond a couple of obvious examples.)

No discussion of the film’s performances would be complete without mention of Saurabh Sachdeva’s turn as a marriage broker – he incarnates a strange combination of timorousness and watchful callousness, and always manages to look more intelligent than everyone else in the frame. His back story points off-screen, and you can’t help but wonder what his story is, what his life has been like.  Many actors can do justice to their roles, but few add dimension the way Sachdeva does here.

The first half of Manmarziyan is fantastic, and a feather in Kashyap’s cap: flavorful, tightly edited, surprising (not least because the director springs Robbie on us earlier than expected), and visually impressive (the aerial shots of Vicky’s jeep being driven along a winding road are more reminiscent of the sweep of Gangs of Wasseypur’s opening sequences than of the standard-issue Punjabi love story), it perhaps should have been the film.  Heck, Kashyap even displays a hitherto unsuspected talent for staging masala-style songs in the lovable “Dhyaan kithe Dhyanchand?” video.  Kashyap and Dhillon do so well here that they run out of script at the intermission, leaving little for the second half but the wait for the inevitable bourgeois denouement we always see (think Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam).  That second half is more than a few paces off the immensely watchable first: the strong cast (no one more so than Bachchan), puts in a terrific effort, and meant that my interest didn’t flag for long, but that doesn’t change my wistfulness for what might have been had Kashyap and Dhillon continued in the vein of the pre-intermission portions of the film.

And yet there is plenty here to chew upon in Kashyap’s staging of the love triangle, in the director’s wanting to have his cake and eat it too, tapping into the conservative pleasures of the convention while subverting it from within.  The triangle in Manmarziyan is literally the only one that I am aware of in Hindi film history that does not leverage parental / societal constraint to create a space for Hero #2.  No forced marriage, no accident nor pregnancy necessitates marriage to the second-in-time male lead; here, the lovers themselves principally create the constraints, initially because of Vicky’s frank inability to commit to Rumi; and subsequently by Rumi’s impetuosity.  Indeed, it is hard to think of a more sympathetic bunch of cinematic parents and relatives than the ones in this film.  This is bolder than it seems, and I laud Kashyap and Dhillon for it.  For too long, Hindi cinema has given both, its free-spirited characters (mostly men), and its conformist audience, a free pass: in films premised on the Love Triangle, the mess isn’t the fault of the former, and the latter’s sense of order remains undisturbed because the woman ends up with the more mainstream male character.  Manmarziyan manages a double inversion: here, the mess is very much the fault of the lead characters, but the audience might not be able to derive great satisfaction from the otherwise safe ending.  By that point, Rumi’s sexual license, Vicky’s banishment without any patriarchal “assignment” of his love to his rival, and Robbie’s annulment of the marriage, all mean there is no social order, no shaadi to save; even if we presume one will follow off-camera, it isn’t clear everyone can root for this couple.  For this genre, on this terrain, that will have to be enough.

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40 Responses to “Qalandar Reviews MANMARZIYAN (Hindi; 2018)”

  1. Nice review. Reading this review is a reward. But those last sentences could have been expanded with spoiler alert. HDDCS, the ending disappointed me. Also the predecessor Woh Saath Din. Safety is a bit boring. I think Lust Stories on Netflix was much more bolder and unconventional to some extent.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Daniel Vittori Says:

    Manmarziyan is a bad film. no comparison with mukkabaaz.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent!…Bravo! What else can one say?

    The writing, this film truly deserves…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Q, Is it worth spending money in a theatre for this?

    ToH (PVR), 2point0 – Imax 3 D and Simmba are the three films in 2018 in must watch. The 3-4 hollywood movies in IMAX.
    So altogether 7-8K budget already allocated.

    So pls advise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not Qalandar but will anyway go ahead and answer it. If you love quality cinema and would like to go beyond offering lip-service to quality filmmakers, you should go ahead and watch it!

      Budgets can be taken care off, or in the least, tweaked– it’s a relatively small price to pay for appreciating good art.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah I agree with Saket — would definitely watch it on the big screen; skip one of those Hollywood movies instead 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Daniel Vittori Says:

    Manmarziyan is a pathetic failure. Anurag does not identify with Rumi in Manmarziyaan the way he did with Dev in DevD. Hence, he is unable to show her angst or confusion in a plausible way. Robbie and Vicky remain barely etched characters without any moorings. The story is going nowhere, just a love triangle that stops moving the audiences post interval….as if furious and loud acting can compensate with lack of story and plot.Whatever, symbolism Anurag tried to pepper the film with (including the twins) is delusional and can best appreciated only by its makers. Cant imagine someone who made great movies like Dev D, GOW, Gulaal and Mukkabaaz routinely comes out with sorry duds like Ugly, Raman Raghav, Bombay Velvet, That girl in yellow and now Manmarziyan…his weakest film till date after Bombay Velvet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bombay Velvet is indeed Kashyap’s weakest film. A misfire, although it does have mitigating reasons for being so. Kashyap wasn’t allowed to follow through completely with his vision. He had to make numerous sacrifices to get the film made, including casting Ranbir Kapoor in place of Ranveer Singh. A big mistake, IMO.

      That’s about the only opinion I can agree with though 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. My comment got cut off at the end:

    I generally like Anurag Kashyap’s movies and I really enjoyed this film’s visual language and soundtrack. But the plot and character development were disappointingly callow and made me lose interest in the movie mid-way.

    DJ Sandz character was compelling and lived in; I know guys like him and I’ve seen girls (who are far less assertive than Rumi) grapple with the constant frustration and disappointment that comes from loving and wishing to depend on such guys. But Rumi’s highly improbable archetype of a character was a real let down. I don’t understand why it isn’t possible for Hindi cinema to create a textured, relatable ‘strong female lead’ who feels like a flesh-and-blood person and not a brash contrivance that was created merely to subvert as many of the filmi feminine tropes as possible (crazy hair? Check! Bullet? Check! Tinder? Check! Abortion? Check! Whiskey and cigarettes? Check!).

    However, I did love one line where she said something to the effect of “Its not that I don’t have shame but I choose to put my personal happiness before my shame”. It’s a very powerful sentiment and one that I wished had been delivered to us by someone who was more of a fully-formed character and less of a caricature.

    By portraying her as such a paint-by-the-numbers caricature, I’m afraid the filmmaker has just affirmed bourgeoisie patriarchal stereotypes. Indeed, as I was leaving the cinema hall, a mother turned to her daughter and said “see, this movie proves that arranged marriage is so much better than all your modern, self destructive romance”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “see, this movie proves that arranged marriage is so much better than all your modern, self destructive romance”.

      But that is someone else’s interpretation of the movie. That’s one way of looking at things. It’s not the only one.

      The film is apparently based on Kanika Dhillon’s own life story.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Of course, people see what they want to see and their prejudices colour their perception. But Rumi was so flimsy constructed and so many of the compulsions that drove the plot were so laughably fickle (as Qalandar states, I feel we were never given a convincing glimpse at what draws Robbie to Rumi so powerfully, for example) that I felt it played right into retrograde stereotypes of ‘modern young girls’. I know that this character was written by a woman but she feels to me more like a contrivance of a ‘free spirited rebellious girl’ conjured up by someone who doesn’t know many free-thinking women. Rumi just felt “off” to me and the improbability of her character prevented me from engaging with and enjoying the film.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I think it’s made pretty clear why Robbie is drawn to Rumi. Towards the end he recounts an incident where his mischief/carelessness ends up costing his friend his leg. That’s why he turned into a Ramji ka avatar.

          Internally, he’s just like Rumi — and hence he likes her so much. Rumi herself admits to being emotionally manipulative, a trait shared by Robbie.

          One can conclude in the end that they are both very much alike. The ending can also be interpreted as Rumi manipulating Robbie to take her back (otherwise why would she go to great lengths to answer the questions he had asked her previously), in a way countering Robbie’s own manipulative phone call just after Rumi asks him to call off the wedding.

          Robbie isn’t a doodh-ka-dhula saint by any means. The person who really gets shafted in the end…is Vicky.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Well, yes… but all of these reasons for Robbie becoming infatuated with Rumi are ‘told’ to the audience very blatantly (rather than ‘shown’ persuasively) only in the finally 5 minutes of the film, which is why I didn’t find it convincing in the least. That entire scene felt so artificial, as if it was inserted purely for the sake of exposition because the author couldn’t convey Robbie’s attraction to Rumi in a more skilful manner but nevertheless wanted to convince the audience hastily so that they could bring the film to a somewhat palatable end.

            The one thing I will agree with you on is that all of them (Rumi, Robbie and Vicky) are manipulative about getting the person they covet. On the rest, we’ll need to disagree because my opinion of the film is that it is a remarkably puerile and callow script that is elevated, but not redeemed, by excellent direction and charismatic performances.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I’m also not very sure about the exposition in the end. The basic principle of film-making is: show, don’t tell. So yeah, I agree with you.

            But in the end, this is a Hindi film. And there is considerable pressure on the director to at least recoup the investment made. In that sense, I don’t begrudge the ending. One can even see such constraints in play with a film like Interstellar, which has to be dumbed down in order to make it commercially viable. A film about black holes needs a bit of romance too!

            In a different universe, or a different country even, I believe a director like Kashyap could afford to experiment a lot more.

            Liked by 3 people

          • Vee & Saket: this is a wonderful discussion. Sympathetic to both of your perspectives in different ways.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Excellent point on these characters all being manipulative in their own way… although I think someone less sunny than Taapsee Pannu might have driven that point home a bit better

            Liked by 1 person

    • Vee, I clearly liked the film more than you did, but this is a powerful and compelling reading, especially with respect to your point about female leads…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Daniel Vittori Says:

      Vee i completely agree with ur criticism about the movie. The movie is a caricature. There is no story and no character development and what makes the whole effort farcical is that without the able support of those 2 anurag is trying to become metaphorical and blend in his magic realistic touches (the twins and the bar dance where all the 3 characters seem to merge together.) sloppy work. only pros are the acting…dailogues….picturization and the anurag kashyap zing and vibe about the movie…apart from them the movie and its message of subversion is hollow and irritating in the extreme.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The one exception in Manmarziyan to this restraint – when Robbie lashes out at Rumi – is one of the film’s best scenes

    I could argue that his entire restrained act is deliberately put in place as a build up… to that key moment. Which is why it becomes so effective. For once Ramji has to break character and because it’s completely opposed to his usual demeanour, it carries significant import.

    Clever plot device by Kashyap and I guess a sign of considerable command over his craft.

    A similar scene is there in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy where a very stoic Gary Oldman breaks character and expresses his emotions about his unfaithful wife. That was the moment of that film for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. On a different note, Abhishek is so damn suave and (as this review observes) he seems capable of imbuing even unremarkable characters like Robbie with a certain amount of understated gravitas. As a female viewer who is turned off by the boorish juvenility that seems to be the hallmark of most Bollywood heroes today, it’s refreshing to see a dignified, fully-grown man playing a romantic role onscreen!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. This is such a rich piece in every sense Qalandar. A totally convincing reading of the film.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Lovely review. (Spoilers)

    I’m not completely smitten with the film – the love triangle has been beaten to death. Still can’t knock the movie too much as performances are wonderful throughout. Robbie’s parents were funny and his best friend too. Glad it stuck to its tone throughout, though far too many songs – felt like every time someone left the home a song would play.

    I actually prefer HDDCS – here Rumi is too shrill and selfish for my liking, I prefer Aishwarya’s characteristics maybe too dumb and naive. There isn’t much to like in Rumi so don’t get why 2 blokes fought for her. At least with DJ you feel more sympathetic than Salman’s character as you clearly layout he’s played it such a way in those moments of his despair and loss you route for him.

    Robbie has all the Devgnn character. The good man who doesn’t this time actively pursue his wife’s interest in another man but gives her that choice and leeway as much as he can till he reaches his own breaking point.

    Finally Abhishek walks away with the girl! That too after just annulling her. He’s played the third wheel a lot. I found the twins very pointless – more because I was trying to figure out why they were there. Were they to personify something like a good side and bad side like Jekyll and Hyde?

    I can’t see this running long at all, it’s abstract cinema – basically like some famous paintings I don’t have the bandwidth to get why they are so famous.

    Performances and direction – nailed
    Storyline – seen before in many guises (not a negative, seeing love stories should never end)
    Screenplay – okay
    Characters – I didn’t like Rumi and she’s the central character so her choices at times seem so senseless and selfish (in fact the couple of scenes where she does shots with Robbie perfectly describe her. She just knocks them back – talk and think later whereas Robbie follows this cue only after see her do it as he’s a typical bloke and doesn’t want to be shown up BUT my guess is this Robbie sips his neat whiskey rather than downing it). I didn’t find DJ like this, just immature and not ready. Robbie – anyone could identify with.
    Music – too much.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thank you for the insightful review. Your comment about an outsider’s view of a small town girl is a pertinent one. Traits like selfishness, abrupt aggression and manipulation are made to look very charming, for a colourful persona. But I wouldn’t want to spend a minute in this person’s company irl. Taapsee is great here and is very compelling to watch.

    I loved the ending. It is the sweetest ending I have ever seen from a bollywood film. That long build up with the walk, the answering of questions posed earlier on in the film, the revisiting of the facebook request trope. The long takes of the couple walking along are masterful and give a sense of a real journey beginning. It’s as if the forms of travelling that had gone on before – the jumping from roof to roof, the angry bike rides, the covert rickshaw trips – were not real and now we are here with the real form of a genuine journey – walking – where nothing can be hidden and things must unfold at its own pace.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Re: “The long takes of the couple walking along are masterful and give a sense of a real journey beginning. It’s as if the forms of travelling that had gone on before – the jumping from roof to roof, the angry bike rides, the covert rickshaw trips – were not real and now we are here with the real form of a genuine journey – walking – where nothing can be hidden and things must unfold at its own pace.”

      What beautiful lines! Genuine poetry here, as well as insight…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Superb second paragraph.. this is really the film’s Linklater moment (except for the ending).

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Watched the movie today and some scattered thoughts.

    I liked the movie overall, the music, performances, dialogues, and the atmosphere/feel of the movie all was great.

    For me the movie would have been even better if they had showed Robbie falling in love slowly, maybe if they had a longer engagement where Robbie and Rumi interact while she goes back and forth between Robbie and Vicky. To me it felt odd that Robbie falls for her so hard from just pics. Unless, in the original script Robbie had a dark streak and wanted her because she was taken and uninterested.

    Also, Rumi’s change of heart at the end seemed too quick, I think it should have been better portrayed. She changes her mind pretty quickly. A few scenes of her comparing the two.

    On music – I like it but the lyrics are hard to understand for me so I wish it had a little more Hindi (personal complaint as I want to be able to sing along). I’ve been listening to the album quite a bit

    Setting of the movie – I think it would have helped if they had shown some other characters that lived in those streets interacting with the main/supporting characters of the movie.

    Robbie – didn’t seem to have the Accent/dialect that the other characters had. It would have been better to give this character a couple more scenes to show his personality (dry humor, emotional, or anger).

    Rumi – I didn’t find her to be a likeable girl, so to me it was hard to believe that Robbie would want her so badly especially for an arranged marriage. A guy like Robbie probably would have had a lot more options.

    Liked by 3 people

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