Cutty Snark: Manmarziyan and Amrita Pritam

I’ve started a weekly column for the Hindustan Times’s Mumbai edition and it’s titled Cutty Snark. When I have my editor hat on, I’d say 650 words is more than enough to flesh out an idea, but as a writer who isn’t used to the constraints of word counts, it was devilishly difficult to keep to the word count. Ultimately, I chopped what I’d written to less than half it’s original length, all the while remembering an ex-boss who used to say, “There is no copy that can’t be cut” and telling myself that I’ll get better at this business of being succinct in the coming weeks. On the plus side, I got a grateful grin from my colleague who was making the page (“It fits perfectly! I didn’t have to do anything!”). So here’s the first Cutty Snark on Manmarziyan and Amrita Pritam, and below is the column’s unedited version.

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A few days before Anurag Kashyap's new film Manmarziyan released, a matrimonial ad went viral. It was for a 37-year-old, Mysore-based "bachelor industrialist" who boasted of a "Rig and Atharva vedic background". Scholars may point out that not including Samaved was the writer dropping a clue that he is tone deaf, but the bachelor underscored this point by clarifying that he wanted a bride who is below 26, a non-smoker, good cook and "non-feminist". When someone emailed this bachelor with a prank response to his matrimonial, he replied with a rape threat in which he also felt the need to inform the emailer of how long his erections last. He signed off the email as "Masculine warrior killer" (sounds suicidal given he took pains to mention in the ad that he’s from the warrior caste) and "Rapist of all feminists" (which, aside from indicating criminal aspirations, suggests self-assessment is not this man’s forte).

One can only hope that in a parallel universe, the arranged marriage circuit leads the Mysore-based bachelor to a meeting with Manmarziyan’s Rumi (played by an incandescent Tapasee Pannu) who is a hockey player in the sheets and a daayan (virago) in the streets. At one point, when a pani puri seller has the temerity to tell her how much spice she should eat, Rumi tells him, "Jalaana hai mujhe. Dragon hoon main (I want to burn it all down. I'm a dragon)." When her boyfriend tries to unbreak her heart, Rumi literally beats him with her hockey stick for having failed her earlier. Later, her way of showing affection to her husband is to stuff snow down his shirt, which proceeds to melt, leading to ice-cold water making its way down to his crotch. They walk back to their chalet with her giggling and him walking like a penguin while flaunting a strategically-positioned wet patch.

Mr. Masculine Warrior’s bluster wouldn’t stand a chance against Rumi (especially if she’s accompanied by her very hot brother Babloo, played by Mr India Rupinderjit Singh. What? We must grab all the eye-candy we can and hello, allyship is important).

There's a lot more than Singh’s looks and Pannu’s acting that's beautifully on-point in Manmarziyan. For instance, Kashyap's decision to use twins as a motif throughout the film is inspired. They’re present right from the very beginning, in sync with each other and whether they’re the two dancing girls in Amritsar or the kahwa-sipping, bearded men in Kashmir, they’re strikingly memorable. More than a reminder of Dev. D, it’s a clever bit of quirk that subtly clues you into the fact that Manmarziyan is about people who have two sides to their personality. Only, unlike the twins, the three lead characters are struggling to find balance and symmetry. Sylvester Fonseca’s cinematography and the excellent production design make sure you see an unvarnished old city (the film is set in Amritsar) where the walls are stained and the colours are bright. Kanika Dhillon's story, script and dialogues are filled with perceptive details and the three leads are as confused, insecure and conflicted as real people tend to be. Rumi’s boyfriend Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) gets the roughest deal. He’s a pampered, directionless brat who loves neither wisely nor well. Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan) is a banker in London who comes home to Amritsar for an arranged marriage. And then there’s Rumi, a blaze of feminine fury.

Rumi, Robbie and Vicky are wonderful, messy characters. Dhillon folds into their conversations throwaway lines that hint at layers and secrets. For instance, it’s almost at the end of the film that we learn Rumi met Vicky through Tinder, one of those acts of everyday resistance from a woman who ostensibly has nothing holding her back, but who can feel the constraints imposed upon her by society. Pretty much everything falls into place in the film, but for one detail: Even though Manmarziyan is a love triangle, what it’s missing is love.

That tug to the heartstrings is there in the script and it's definitely intended in many of the scenes, but when Rumi and Vicky smash their lips against each other in what is meant to be an epic kiss, all I wondered was whether their teeth were gnashing. When Robbie was watching Rumi, you felt for him and you hurt for her, but there was no longing to see them come together. Despite being well-made, there wasn’t one tingly moment of romance in the film that made you want to linger with Rumi, Vicky and Robbie.

This is particularly ironic because Manmarziyan is dedicated to Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam, whose life and work crackle with romantic intensity. Just before intermission, we hear a verse from Pritam’s unforgettable poem, “Main tenu phir milangi” (I will meet you again) in Rumi’s voice, but while watching Rumi, Vicky and Robbie untangle their emotions, it was a different Pritam poem that I remembered:



PUL

Kal asaan dohan ne ik pul jalaya see

Te ik dariya de kande vangu nazeeb vande.


THE BRIDGE

Yesterday you and I

Burnt a bridge

And divided our destinies

Like the two banks of a river,

Shook our bodies

Till one body had the solitude of one bank

And the other the solitude of the other.


Manmarziyan is better as a collection of portraits that show the solitariness of people in a rapidly-changing, urban Indian societies than it is a love story.


Pritam wrote “Main tenu phir milangi” for her partner of almost five decades, the artist Imroz. The love story that she is best known for is the one between her and the poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi. When the two met in the 1940s, Pritam was unhappily married and establishing herself as a poet. The two fell in love, but Ludhianvi, much like Vicky in Manmarziyan, just couldn't bring himself to commit to Pritam. (There’s a circle of hell reserved for Kashyap and Dhillon, for making me imagine Ludhianvi with the hair ‘art’ that Vicky sports in the film.) Their relationship would eventually leave both Ludhianvi and Pritam with broken hearts, and bleed into Pritam’s poetry. In Imroz, Pritam found the companionship she needed because Imroz wasn't threatened by her passion for Ludhianvi. "I only knew he accepted me, my madness," Pritam said about Imroz. It’s easy to see shades of Imroz in Bachchan’s Robbie, who is patient, dogged and keenly appreciative of the space that Rumi needs from him.  

And yet, none of the longing that you can feel when you hear of Pritam putting her lips around the cigarette stubs that Ludhianvi left behind is there in Manmarziyan. The film is refreshingly open about sex – for once, no one has any hang-ups about virginity and Rumi casually mentions even an abortion at one point – without doing anything that would upset the tender sensibilities of the Central Board of Film Certification. Yet, for all the bed-hopping and “fyaar” (pyaar = love, fyaar = lust/ sex), Manmarziyan doesn’t ever feel sexy and this is a problem for a love story.

It’s tempting to place the blame on CBFC’s moral policing, but chemistry between an on-screen couple has very little to do with the obvious displays that earn the censor’s snip. There's a lot that is laughable in vintage Bollywood, but for all their bobbing dahlias, those old folk knew how to create and sell romance. Logic was rarely a consideration, but love – improbable, impossible and heartwarming – offered a quixotic counter to conservatism in society. Princesses fell in love with vagabonds (who would invariably turn out to be royalty, but she doesn't know that when she’s falling for him) and heiresses lost their hearts to mechanics, drivers, paupers and poets. Often, these stories were attacks on long-held prejudices of class and caste, and they saw little opposition because of the films’ romantic charm. Love threatened status quo and made being disruptive seem attractive because of the actors who played the leads.

When one of the Kapoor brothers (Raj, Shashi and Shammi) or Guru Dutt looked at the on-screen objects (feminist pun intended) of their affection, there wasn’t a uterus in the room that didn’t go “hubba hubba”. Each time a heroine — from Madhubala to Rekha — took a stand against a patriarch and/ or social convention, demanding her right to love, you couldn’t help but cheer. Sure, there were unintentionally hilarious attempts at courtship, like Manoj Kumar singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to Saira Banu in Purab aur Paschim. But then there were also strangely sensual scenes like the picturisation of "Mile Mile Do Badan" from Blackmail, in which Dharmendra and Rakhee cuddle in a pile of logs (it looks even weirder than it sounds) and discover they share a foot fetish. And who can forget the tension and raw sexuality Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore managed to pack into walking around a fire while Kishore Kumar sang “Roop Tera Mastana” in Aradhana?     

There's nothing wrong with the action movies that are currently trending in Indian popular cinema, but romances are the unicorns of the industry. There’s an innocence about them and they urge you to thumb your nose at conventions. Even at its most formulaic and rose-tinted, a love story embodies rebellion and hope. Characters push boundaries and question rules. Through the tropes, we're told that the universe will reward us for not conforming and the gifts it will give us will be more satisfying than what society gives us in exchange for our conformity. That’s why it’s unsettling when our dream factory struggles to conjure love stories that are able to fill the audience with longing and an endorphin rush. It’s disappointing when fantasies lag behind real life romances, instead of enriching them.

Then again, if there’s one thing that the news cycle shows with its reports of men and women being killed/ tortured/ harassed because they dared to choose the people they’d love and marry, it is that romance is a tough sell in a country where every other Whatsapp message is a reminder that social divides are sacred.