Director: Anurag Kashyap
Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Vicky Kaushal, Taapsee Pannu, Akshay Arora
The romantic musical is a contested thing in Bollywood, seen alternatively as an exaltation of complex feelings or an exaggeration of them. Brokering peace between the two, since 2009's electric Dev.D, is the duo of Anurag Kashyap and Amit Trivedi. In the years that have passed, the director and the composer have both steered away from -- and come home to -- the confines of a love story. (Bombay Velvet, their last collaboration, was mounted and dismounted as a wishy-washy gangster epic, but it had a heart that still beats to the sound of Dhadam-Dhadam).
Manmarziyaan hits a bittersweet spot. At once, it is Jules and Jim and Dhadkan; Casablanca and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. For every messy note, there's a song to clear up after. For every furtive glance, there's an exclamation to lean back upon. Imagine the Gen-X slackers from Reality Bites breaking into song every 15 minutes. This is that film. But more.
Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) is an orphaned Amritsar girl who supposedly quit hockey because of her wayward lover. "No," she retorts, "I quit because a National hockey player was found dead on the railway tracks of Haryana." (This happened in 2017, when 21-year-old hockey champ Jyoti Gupta allegedly committed suicide by jumping before a moving train.) One is tempted to buy into Rumi's reasonings, precisely because of the authority with which she says them, but the film stops short of taking her word for it.
This is held up by her relationship with Vicky (Vicky Kaushal ripping off Punjabi pop star Sukh-E in Snort Grunt and Jim Morrison t-shirts). At any given point, Rumi assumes a moral leverage on Vicky, rebuking him for climbing rooftops for her but not asking for her hand in marriage. Their unbridled romance soon crumbles under pressure: the all-important Fyaar (a colourful compound of love and sex) is replaced by the near-important Pyaar (still colourful, but wanting of commitment).
Enter Rajbir Bhatia aka Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), a banker from London straddling a very Indian line between responsibility and modernity (in his intro airport scene, Robbie quickly drapes a turban around his head before walking out to great his parents). Later, he confides in his mother, "I have agreed for arranged marriage, but won't sell my soul for it."
Trust Kashyap to put these stuck-ups through the wringer. He spins them off as walking contradictions (in circles, back and forth) but never condescends their individualism. Where you expect an outburst, he makes do with a sniffle. If Dev.D was a satire on self-pity and indecision (songs like Duniya Bari Gol Hai and Emotional Attaychar lent a mocking air of detachment to the plight of the characters), Manmarziyaan is an embracing celebration of love's labour lost (the song Daryaa, sung by Ammy Virk and Shahid Mallya, speaks of love as a fierce, all-consuming choice).
What's held over from the Dev.D-verse is the world-building: The zoot-suited Twilight Players are replaced by blinged-up twin sisters; a crucial sequence has a drunk Abhishek Bachchan throwing his arms around in a neon-drenched pub. The quirky insertions, right down to the marriage bureau agent's golden tooth, are observant and entertaining.
However, for all its rich cultural detailing, Manmarziyaan acquires the tedium of a circular puzzle. Taapsee takes centre stage in this riddle, torn between boy and man, but investment in her character comes at the risk of outguessing her motives. Vicky shines bright as the unhinged manchild, but Kanika Dhillon's script never affords him an angle to surprise. Abhishek, too, is reassuringly understated and (dare we say) a 'discovery'. But coming back to the heart of it, Manmarziyaan works because of its soundtrack. The 14 breathtaking songs, all penned by Shailender Sodhi, bring us back to the pent-up, jolting-forth romantic aggression we had started to miss in Trivedi's oeuvre. These blistering tracks (from the impish Grey Walaa Shade to the mercurial Dhyaan Chand) are works of buzzing, pulsating genius. Kashyap's sights play catch-up, but the sounds win.