31 May 2015

Men Aren't From Mars

In today's Mumbai Mirror, I return to the subject of Tanu Weds Manu Returns. This time, the men:

Tanu Weds Manu's male characters are definitely flawed, but they are also profoundly recognisable.

Last week, I wrote about Tanu Weds Manu Returns, its take on the double-role heroine and how it made me think of Hitchcock's Vertigo. Much newsprint since has been expended on the film. But we've been so busy thinking about the women that no one seems to have bothered to think about the men. 

And yet the men are crucial to Anand L Rai's vision. They were perhaps given more space when Rai first set out to create this world, in 2011. If TWMR spins around Manu Sharma's struggle to decide between two models of womanhood (both embodied by Kangana Ranaut), the pivot of the first film, Tanu Weds Manu, was Tanu's choosing between two models of masculinity. On one hand was her old love Raja Awasthi, a sharp-shooting Lucknow boy with a tongue to match. On the other was Manu Sharma, a suitable boy of the obedient sort who became a doctor because his parents wished it and was now set to marry the same way. 

Jimmy Shergill, arguably the most underrated leading man of our time, effortlessly produced the tough guy exterior and inner vulnerability that made Raja so affecting. Shergill's "introduction" scene was among the quiet marvels of the 2011 film: the Awasthi family is in the midst of the ritual humiliation of displaying their daughter to a prospective groom (Manu) when Raja returns home, carrying fresh scars from some street battle. Embarrassed and angry, his father berates him for being a goonda. Shergill's response captures a superbly specific Indian lihaaz that can still bind our most loutish young men: his eyes flash, but he does not answer back. For what seems like an eternity, as his father speaks, he holds out the bag of samosas, and holds his tongue. 

A minute later, we see another possible reason for Raja's silence: cast in the role of ladkiwala, with a sister who has a slightly deformed left hand, he knows he cannot jeopardise her chances any further than he already has. And then, in a moving statement that marks our surprise nowadays at anyone who isn't pulling rank, Raja tells Manu that he seems like a good man - "Nahi toh kahan aise milte hain London ke aadmi hum Lucknow walon se?

Screenplay writer Himanshu Sharma has created characters whose roots extend deep below the visible. Without stating it in so many words, the film makes apparent that the contrast between Raja and Manu isn't only one of temperament (though it is that, too). Both are born into middle class families, but Raja, coming of age in '80s Uttar Pradesh, has arrived (perhaps correctly) at the conclusion that good breeding isn't quite going to cut it in contemporary Lucknow. Manu, whom one imagines as shielded from the cut-and-thrust of the Indian street by good marks and an academic bent, has further removed himself from it by living in London. 

But what was remarkable about the face-off between Raja and Manu was that it reversed the usual hierarchy of masculinities, in which status is determined by who gets the girl. "Getting the girl" has long been the subject of heterosexual male discourse, and every cultural milieu generates informal categories to predict who the getters will be. Siddharth Chowdhury's unabashed novel Day Scholar described one such concept in rather graphic terms: "Just like every door has a dwarpal every ch*t has a ch*tpal. A ch*tpal never gets the ch*t just like the dwarpal never gets to sleep in the master bedroom. Every good girl needs at least one ch*tpal, to run errands for her and listen to her bitch about her mother." Whether one finds the terminology unpalatable, it is clear that the concept has currency. And so, having shown the obliging Manu escort Tanu to the beauty parlour and help her shop for dupattas, as the bride-to-be of another man (Raja, who wouldn't be caught dead doing either), Rai's decision to have Tanu eventually reject Raja's heroic histrionics for Manu's almost boring sweetness was nothing short of radical.

TWMR continues to deal in similar categories. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, playing the smitten young fellow who provides chauffeur-service when Tanu gets Manu's divorce notice, describes himself with touching self-knowledge as the "kandha", literally "shoulder" -- but is somehow still enraged when his affections aren't reciprocated. And there is Deepak Dobriyal's hysterically funny Pappi, whose misconstruing of Komal's messages reveals yet another example of how easily Indian men, starved for interaction with the opposite sex, confuse friendliness with love. Rai's Raanjhanaa pushed this premise to its utmost, casting Dhanush as the boy who thinks stalking a girl all the way to Delhi reveals the persistence of his "love". 

Rather than the high drama of Raanjhanaa, or even TWMTWMR goes for a lightness of tone, and I think Rai is better served by it. Among the delights of the new film is the updated Awasthi, performing rituals like a proper Hindu householder though he hasn't found a bride. Shergill has acquired a moustache and lost some of his fire, but his pronouncements retain the cut-the-crap hilarity of old. The mellowness suits him -- and he's certainly more self-aware than the other men in Rai's world. Can the next film be about him, please?

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 31 May 2015.

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