24 May 2015

One for two, two for one

Watching Tanu Weds Manu Returns set me thinking about doubles, and Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Tanu Weds Manu Returns opens with its most ridiculous scene. The pair united in matrimony (to the disbelief of many in the audience) at the end of Tanu Weds Manu, Manu Sharma (Madhavan) and Tanuja Trivedi (Kangana Ranaut), are receiving couples' counselling from a team of British psychiatrists, when Manu's hysterical outrage at his wife's version gets him put away in what looks like a Victorian dungeon-cum-prison, which is then consistently referred to as "paagalkhana". But after a few more minutes spent floating unconvincingly round British coffee shops, sylph-like in sari and trench coat, Ranaut and the film thankfully return to the territory that director Anand L Rai knows his way around so wonderfully: small town North India. 

The small town here is no mere colourful backdrop. It is crucial to the characters, the sparkling dialogue, the texture of the film. The way Rai stages Tanu's return makes immediately clear what paragraphs of complaining to the counsellors couldn't: how can the big fish from the small pond adjust to the anonymous sea of the foreign city? Within minutes of getting to Kanpur, she has flirted with a rickshawalla, fired up the children, and generally set the neighbourhood aflame. For such a heroine to be tucked away in some obscure London suburb, deprived of an audience for her karnaame, is social death. The shaatir young Rampuria who is a non-paying tenant in her parents' old house (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, superb in a role that finally gives him something new to chew on) cottons on quickly: "Aap toh is mohalle ki Batman hain," he tells a preening Tanu. 

Ranaut is already at the top of her game as Tanu. But the film's masterstroke is to set her up against a version of herself. As Datto, the youthful Haryanvi sports quota student from Ramjas College, Ranaut absolutely steals the show. What's crazy is that she steals the show from her own double. 

In what is arguably the cleverest take on the old Hindi movie double role in years, Datto is the good girl to Tanu's bad girl. Armed with a hockey stick, short hair and a solid Haryanvi accent, she is tweaked so there's no chance of mistaking her for the docile, dabbu good girl of yore, a la Sita aur Gita or Chaalbaaz. But there is something moving about a young woman voicing the sentiments usually reserved for young men in our films: the pressure of family and community expectations, a bumbling sort of romantic inexperience. Add to that a disarming honesty, and you have an even more appealing character. In contrast, Tanu is painted as the irresponsible one, who lives to flirt and flirts to live, who proudly announces that she "never even gave her father a cup of tea", and who -- as Datto gets to point out in one rather harsh speech -- has never had to earn a penny. 

But watching Manu's Madhavan, in the process of divorcing Tanu, fall in love with Datto, made me think of a very different film about a double: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. At the emotional centre of that 1958 film is Scottie's (James Stewart) discovery of a look-alike of the woman he loved, after what he thinks is her death, and his obsessive desire to remake the new lover (Judy) in the image of the lost one (Madeleine). Scottie's discovery of Judy is very close to Manu's discovery of what he first thinks is Tanu with a boyish new haircut, in sportswoman's garb in Delhi. There is something deeply worrying about a man falling in love with the same face twice, if only because it suggests that there is nothing beyond the physical to fall in love with. 

TWMR does make fun of it, with at least one hilarious line where Manu's sozzled friend Jassi says to him, "Phir se Tanu-jaisi le li? Kucch aur dekh lete, Aishwarya type, Katrina type, Deepika type". And thankfully Manu seems uninterested in re-making Datto into Tanu: it is the difference, the film suggests, that makes her appealing. 

But I see a homage to Vertigo in the fact that the two Kanganas are identical in looks, but completely unlike each other in manner, style, degrees of sophistication. Madeleine Elster is the sophisticated San Francisco woman with a platinum blonde topknot, while poor Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas wears her hair bright red, with tacky hoop earrings and a twang to match. 

Interestingly, it is the relatively sophisticated Tanu who tries, in a remarkable sequence, to make herself over to look like Datto, drunkenly waking a beauty parlour lady at midnight, to acquire a pixie wig. 

One could choose to read this moment in ideological terms, as many read the Deepika-making-biryani-to-woo-Saif moment in Cocktail, but it seems to me to turn on something that isn't just about what kind of woman you're allowed to be on the Hindi film screen. Perhaps more fundamentally, it's about what women are willing to do for love. As the teary Judy says to Scottie, "If I let you change me, will that do it? If I let you do it, will you love me?"

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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