Thinking through Manmarziyaan…



In what is possibly Manmarziyaan’s most splendidly elliptical moment the two rivals for Rumi’s affections meet and the encounter has already taken place. We never really learn about their exchange though Vicky has apparently mentioned ‘everything’. Rumi is everywhere in the story but somehow absent when this important sequence unfolds. Robbie is the reliable observer or witness of this world but we cannot gain access to his perspective at this crucial time. This tantalizingly elided scene contains the key to the film’s architecture as well as Anurag Kashyap’s sly purposes.

Manmarziyaan is in a literal sense the reinvigoration of the love triangle genre through a feminist lens but more profoundly it is a meta-fiction in conversation with an entire archive of commercial Indian cinema. A dual film therefore that not only offers contrasting love stories but also serves as commentary on the paradoxical relation between the untamed social energies of erotic love and the domestication of the same in marriage. In a different register one might think of it as the tension between revolutionary fervor and institutional politics. Kashyap’s elliptical instincts serve his ambitions well as his film is very much about the impossible and yet necessary passage from one to the other. His two very differently constructed visual halves index this dichotomy along with Vicky and Robbie who in turn represent each set of values. Rumi appropriately is forever transitioning between these two worlds.

The entire first half of Manmarziyaan might be considered an extended montage. Kashyap brings extraordinary economy to this portion of the film. There is no time wasted on introductions, all the ‘fat’ associated with this genre is vacuumed out, we are simply in medias res. The director puts on a masterclass with his shot selection, editing, naturalistic flourishes to take the story forward with a velocity that matches the madly erotic exuberance of the lovers. The very same holds for the dialog that is in sync with the speed of the proceedings. The lovers operate breathlessly and the audience is sucked into their vortex. If one of the fascinations of this film is to discover just how Kashyap keeps reordering some of the genre pieces one of the chief examples in this context is Robbie’s introduction early on in this half and his subsequent, sparingly calibrated moments. The natural pace of this section of the work cannot incorporate too much of Robbie. For exactly converse reasons the second half has limited segments with Vicky who is now much more deflated and therefore less outlandish a presence, in essence matching the energy levels of this part of the story. This is again the crucial aspect of the film’s structure. Kashyap has referenced this in an interview but each half offers a correlative to the respective male character. The editing changes quite significantly when Robbie becomes the central male character as do the shots. The camera, so restless and frenzied in the initial half of Manmarziyaan, becomes much less obtrusive, more unhurried to record what is essentially the quieter chamber drama of the second. The more delicately textured, intimate moments of the often awkward relationship are filmed with appropriate reserve. But this is not a matter of simply slowing things down. It is about an interplay of two different visual palettes and two different economies of movement.

Even if these two halves are unified by the film’s thematic concerns, even if they are sequenced cumulatively in the story, and even if their aesthetic mappings feed off each other, there is for all this the connecting glue of Amit Trivedi’s superb soundtrack. In Kashyap’s handling the music is immaculately integrated with the ‘storytelling’ of the film. The score is so impressively attuned to the naturalistic sounds of its setting, so effectively deployed in both diegetic and non-diegetic ways that the film instantly seems canonical in this respect, worthy of comparison with the best of the past. Kashyap in this sense gives Manmarziyaan a near-operatic mood at very many points which then isolates the silences of the film that much more potently.

In a related vein Taapsee Pannu’s and Abhishek Bachchan’s are the contrapuntal performances of the film. The former’s central character is the propulsive force of the film and the actress comes up with one of the very significant lead acts of Hindi film history. Her instincts as an actor are also wonderfully recalibrated for the later portions. Vicky Kaushal marvelously matches her electric rhythm in the first half and his physicality is especially impressive along the same spectrum. But the film’s most intriguing, even slightly mysterious performance belongs to Abhishek Bachchan. His measure and poise resist the narrative’s more naturally chaotic energies. The actor summons up an economy of restraint that is necessary to the transitions effectuated in the movie. In a way his is the only performance that is also keyed in to Manmarziyaan’s meta-fictional conceits. He is both a character in the story and also its privileged witness. In a film that draws so much of its momentum from colloquial riffs and abundant lyric his silent expressiveness offers important pause. Rumi and Vicky have complementary energies but Rumi and Robbie have to match scales improbably. It is certainly Kashyap’s triumph as well that this delicate balance is preserved when the film most requires it. Bachchan’s assured control is most emphatically on display when the story ends with a beautiful Linklater-like wistful, somewhat anti-climactic exchange that Robbie might himself have fashioned!

Manmarziyaan is not merely a love triangle depicted with stylistic panache by its director. Reminiscent of aspects of Godard (and Leone) and nearer to home the late career of Mani Ratnam, Kashyap’s work offers homage to a longer tradition by subverting it at every turn. But this deconstructive mode often comes at a cost. For such a work to do ‘double duty’ it must secretly restore what it is always in the process of undermining. Otherwise the story becomes just a vehicle to enable an essayistic critique of genre. This is not automatically an invalid choice but in a commercial medium it entails certain consequences. Very few directors get this equation properly. Tarantino is a cautionary tale in this context with Django being a counterexample where the appropriate synthesis is finally achieved. Kashyap himself has not always neatly navigated this duality in the past but in Manmarziyaan he is more solidly grounded than ever before.

Kashyap saw the film as Rumi’s story when he initially took on the project. More recently he elaborated on the ethical underpinnings of the film when he suggested it was his intention to make a completely non-judgmental work, specially with respect to Rumi’s actions. To further this aim he placed Rumi in Vicky’s and Robbie’s worlds successively and established visual templates for each half that represent the differing energies of each. It is indeed accurate that the men in her life never judge Rumi. But what would a film look like in which Rumi occupied her own world? It’s fair to insert here, and despite the director’s contention, that Vicky’s world is also Rumi’s. His volatile energies are also hers. But on these terms is not the second half a tale of relative domestication? Rumi’s wilder streaks have to be tempered for her to be permanently housed in Robbie’s world. This is where a more open-ended resolution would have better fulfilled Rumi’s character arc as well as the overall logic of the work. The nod to commercial expectation is understandable, however the film’s elliptical ambiguities are too marked for such an easy compromise this late in the game. Perhaps out of the same commercial considerations Kashyap eschews what is the authentically radical conclusion one might draw from his film. That Rumi might not be suited for marriage at all. She realizes this with respect to Vicky late in the day but could one really imagine her settling down permanently in Robbie’s serenely controlled environment? For whatever reason, uncontemplated or compromised, Manmarziyaan’s otherwise well-intentioned feminist impulses deny Rumi this one possibility of truly supreme agency.

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13 Responses to “Thinking through Manmarziyaan…”

  1. Satyam, this note is an education in itself — a powerful reading of Manmarziyan as the work of an auteur. I must confess I don’t see the subversion of the genre to the extent that one sees in Leone or Godard (I mean in the sense of the requisite stylistic “distance” from the genre one is subverting), but then again Kashyap is a director in a different register. Truly superb piece here — especially agree on the point that “[f]or such a work to do ‘double duty’ it must secretly restore what it is always in the process of undermining”, and that is a challenge Manmarziyan has to navigate as well (and no one does it too successfully: when pulled off seamlessly, the resulting work can be cold (much of Tarantino, or the greatest Leone Western, “Once upon a time in the West”), and when NOT seamless, then perhaps in-sufficiently subversive (and yet more satisfying to the audience — eg The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly)). Manmarziyan is more on the latter terrain…

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    • thanks much Qalandar, too generous as always!

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    • “(and no one does it too successfully: when pulled off seamlessly, the resulting work can be cold (much of Tarantino, or the greatest Leone Western, “Once upon a time in the West”), and when NOT seamless, then perhaps in-sufficiently subversive (and yet more satisfying to the audience — eg The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly)”

      this is precisely what I was trying to get at. But the Godard of Breathless has a bit of this as well. In fact reading your note it strikes me that between this film and the later Pierrot le Fou we might see a similar oscillation. The earlier film plays with the conventions of noir and of course its disruption of classic Hollywood continuity editing is signature Godard (or what we know since then as such). The later film though is a more involved work where deconstructive distance isn’t always maintained. I prefer the former’s balance. The latter somehow seems like a regression. Nonetheless it illustrates the problem you’ve highlighted with those examples. Indeed those two Leone films are even better examples. The Good… (incidentally one of my very favorite films.. as an aside it also informs the climax of Dum Maaro Dum, this other hopelessly underrated, even ignored film which in its own way is also part of the very logic we’re discussing) is a perfect film. It subverts all kinds of American pastoral pieties but it’s epic moorings are still too definite for it to be much more radical than an interesting ‘update’. The colder opera of Once Upon a Time is really the logical end of Leone’s efforts on this terrain, it is easily the most interesting of the four Westerns he made, and yet the film can never completely make up for the loss of the earlier film’s commitments to transcendence. (symptomatic here is the loss of Eastwood, though interestingly it was the actor who wanted to move away from this genre, with him this final Leone effort would have been a very different movie). The Henry Fonda villain, quite a jolt for audiences at the time since he was one of the ultimate nice (and ethical) guys of classic Hollywood cinema, is of course a transcendent villain and needs his Eastwood counterpart. In the semiotics of such a film you would have two somewhat irrelevant overmen in a vanishing world no longer able to house them. But the film as it stands has the complete antithetical Charles Bronson. It’s a bit of an imbalance even as it otherwise underlines the same point. The heroes of this universe have all disappeared, the villains should as well! The slaughter of the beginning of the film, a masterful sequence in every sense, of course lends Sholay its central traumatic moment as well (though Sholay makes it singularly its own by adding on to it the aftermath of the arms being chopped off). Sholay too is a summation effort in certain ways, a great homage to all sorts of classic Hollywood moments from the Western to Ben-Hur) but in this context what is fascinating here is that Sholay also tries to ‘end’ that which had never begun, at least in an Indian context. Needless to say the film does its own double duty, it is certainly invested in ‘masala’ registers but the Jai character here is in a different sense a ‘man with no name’. He is the film’s only deconstructive character. We have with him and Gabbar something Leone would have liked. Intriguingly (and to repeat an older point) gabber and jai never really have any sort of meaningful exchange. Gabbar is still too much a self-mythologizer while Jai just sees this entire posture as so much hot air. This is not too far from Bronson’s sense of Fonda. In the world of the Western all that matters is who draws the fastest gun, never mind all those homilies about family values and moral considerations and justice! But Jai nonetheless designs a great romantic end for himself. And once more the world of DMD as well as its lead detective can be indexed here. The latter could be a Jai descendant. He has a back story, his own trauma, a bit of a false move on the part of the director, on the other hand he dies a ‘ridiculous’ arbitrary death (itself a repetition of LA Confidential by way of Satya and more to the point Company but in the context of this note the device means the most in Rohan Sippy’s film) which then leads on to its Leone-like (the good, the bad..) revelation.

      And so back again to Manmarziyaan where a similar sort of tension holds. It too is a moment in what one might call an economy of homage. Kashyap pushes the coordinates of this world very far. It just occurs to me that the film’s first half is in a way more properly Godardian (the editing here often plays with time) whereas the second more ‘relaxed’ half is Truffaut-like. Perhaps that old classic debate between those two auteurs is staged here in a certain sense. Is it more subversive to play with form or is it the case that you can maintain older continuities but keep tweaking things within to nonetheless comparable (if not greater) estrangement. Notice how many reviewers who otherwise gave positive reviews to the film seem to have had problems with the second half. Godardian techniques are all too natural to us, there are too many archives of global cinema that testify to this. Truffaut’s wager remains the road less traveled (though by no means uncommon). Precisely when the viewer expects to be anchored in the second half of Manmarziyaan the film keeps things unsettled along a different set of registers. The first half is very fresh but perhaps ‘predictably’ abnormal, the second more ‘predictable’, sedate half yields new uncertainties. There is no third option here. Which is a long way of saying once more that the film might have ended with Rumi nevertheless looking for the latter. In a way the film has really been about options that don’t really exist. This is differently true for all the characters. But these options that don’t exist are not less real. And therein lies the rub…

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  2. Kashyap must be feeling so happy with these accolades he is getting from SS. Hope he comes out with a bolder movie as you said at the end and watch how that is received. Perhaps part 2 where the girl strays like in TWMR.

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  3. The observation on pace and correlation to each male is spot on. I don’t think she’s ‘wife material’. Frankly Robbie ‘knows’ she’s ‘cheated’ on him and that itself is a pretty big deal breaker. I also loved the annulment scene, Kashyap makes me feel like both don’t want to sign it, they are both waiting for each other not to sign it (least that’s how I felt).

    Also the drunken scene on the rooftop. The film has memorable moments like these but I found it a one time watch.

    This is very well written!

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  4. Extraordinary review! Read it twice…I think I will come back to read it again in the future.

    It requires a film like Manmarziyan to bring out the best critique of contemporary Hindi cinema…and that itself is the film’s reward.

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    • That is extraordinarily generous Saket. I appreciate it deeply but really this piece is undeserving of such accolades (saying it with complete sincerity). Thanks so much..

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  5. An interesting (admittedly a Badiou reference always makes me happy!) nay-saying ideological take on the film (also check out the other piece referenced in the piece):

    https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/anurag-kashyaps-women-a-woke-mans-manmarziyans/317435

    I am sympathetic to a great deal of the argument here though I do think the author is misreading the aims of the film.

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    • Much of it doesn’t make sense to me. There’s hardly a word about the film itself — the aesthetics, the directorial flourish etc.

      What I can say about a movie-verse (cinematic universe) is that you don’t question the logic of its existence. If a river flows upstream in a movie, you take it, as is. So if Rumi doesn’t have friends in the film or Robbie doesn’t speak enough Punjabi, I don’t take it as a sign of weakness in writing. It is what it is. It’s not a Netflix series but a movie! And even otherwise, Rumi is shown to be quite close to her cousin sister, someone who might be doubling up as her best friend.

      The complete article is based upon Tapsee Pannu’s feminist label attached to Anurag Kashyap. The allegation that Kashyap is marketing the feminist tag is a bit naive as well — he’s certainly not getting enough people to watch his films because of it.

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