I am here with another review in my series of Feminist Film Reviews. A shorter and proofread version of this review was first published on Women’s Web. Besides the feminist perspective there were a few other interesting observations about the film, which I didn’t include in the former are given here. People ask me are there spoilers in your reviews? Well, the answer depends upon what you call a spoiler. Sometimes even the slightest hint about the story, or the description of places, events and characters may seem like spoilers. Particularly if you are someone paranoid like me. So spoilers or not, as a principle I never read reviews of films I plan to watch. And since I am so paranoid about spoilers myself, my reviews will never have any significant spoilers. But still read at your own risk.
There is a scene in the film Tanu Weds Manu Returns (TWMR) where Manu and his friend Pappi start following Kusum, a Delhi University student, a tom boyish Haryanvi athlete, and get into the same DTC bus she boards. Pappi, though tagging along with Manu in this risky pursuit, is very scared of the consequences. He cautions Manu, “If the men in the bus find out that we are following this girl, they would beat us black and blue.”
At this point, the camera focuses on Kusum standing slightly ahead talking to the bus conductor who had asked her for tickets. Kusum tells the conductor, “Staff hai” (A usual excuse by college students in Delhi, particularly the male trouble maker types, for not buying tickets in the erstwhile blue line buses). The conductor raises his voice and says, “This is a DTC bus no ‘Staff’ is allowed.” Kusum’s response to him is best enjoyed at the theatre rather than be narrated in this review, but what follows is worth celebrating. As soon as Kusum is done talking to the conductor, the camera moves back to Manu, and Pappi who seem doubly petrified now, says, “Forget the men, if this girl finds out we are following her we are gone.”
The theatre thundered with the audience clapping at this dialogue. Bollywood audiences can now clap, cheer, and whistle at a dhaasu scene portraying not the machismo of an alpha male but the power of a female lead.
That said, TWMR is not cut out to be a film about women empowerment. It is a simple romantic comedy about a couple whose marriage gets into trouble in merely four years and how they find love again, if they find that is. The script is not author backed and is not as strong as one would expect. There are many plots which are loosely touched upon but left unresolved from the feminist point of view. A woman’s choice to go in for artificial insemination to have a child and her husband’s inability to accept that; a Jat family’s violence against women, and an attempt to commit honour killing; a man being over persistent with his marriage proposal to a woman who has clearly rejected his advances several times, even going to the extent of abducting her; these serious issues were not handled with enough sensitivity or in depth understanding.
The puppy romance between a forty year old man and a college girl who is just about twenty is believable but the relationship going all the way to marriage is not logical. An age gap of twenty years is not a small matter, particularly when the woman in question is a fiercely independent small town girl determined to make her place in the big world while feeling responsible towards her family. Would a Kusum really marry a Manu in real life? I don’t think so.
But, and this is an important but, none of the above means that we shouldn’t celebrate this film from a feminist perspective or even as cinematic experience. We certainly should and here is why:
First, it is a superb fast paced entertainer, a complete paisa vasool film, a star driven box office success. The good news is that the star is a female. That is new for Bollywood. Female centric films need no longer be only about all enduring sacrificing mothers (Mother India) or avenging widows (Kahaani) or strong lady fighting bad boys (Mardaani, Tejaswini, Zakhmi Aurat). Today, a female centric film is capable of being an entertainer even for the lowest common denominator and making good money. This shift happened in Indian Hindi film industry very rapidly compared to even Hollywood where women centric films may be more in numbers but are still the serious drama types with just few exceptions like Miss Congeniality or Legally Blonde.
Second, the film gives a lot of space to the leading female characters Tanu and Kusum both played stunningly by Kangana Ranaut and allows the audience to know these characters in depth even though we don’t understand them. Most films in Bollywood hardly have one leading lady, and that too only for decoration purpose, with no thought given to her character’s complexity, but here we have two immensely interesting and complex ladies. This brings a great change in the image and purpose of heroines in Hindi films.
Third, the complexity of the characters of Tan and Kusum blurs the line between masculine and feminine, good and bad. Neither of them can be labeled as masculine-feminine or good girl-bad girl.
At times Tanu is the epitome of feminine beauty, seductive, flirtatious and jaw dropping sensual, with her low back blouses and transparent sarees. At the same time she is brash, reckless and violent. She drinks like a man, breaks alcohol bottles in anger like a man. Similarly Kusum is sometimes a bal kati (Hindi slang for non-conforming woman with short hair) tomboyish athlete ready to pick up a street fight and break hockey sticks on the backs of men stalking her. But she’s also a love struck girl excited about her marriage, putting on weird makeup and gold jewellery, making a strange looking bride of the kind Bollywood has not seen before.
They are both also flawed characters, yet you cannot label them as good or bad, you just love them for whoever they are. Tanu has tantrums, she has never done the right thing all her life, is always complaining and has unrealistic expectations from her husband. She unfairly uses Chintu for her exploits without caring about his emotions. But she is also miserably in love with her boring husband and can’t stand to lose him. Kusum is immature and hasty; she agrees to marry a man who is yet to get a formal divorce, with no concern for his ex-wife’s feelings. Unlike yesterday’s heroines Kusum is not waiting for an opportunity to do the sacrifice. But deep inside, you know she has a heart of gold.
Finally, Tanu and Kusum are the doers in the film, they drive the plot to its climax and the men in their lives are pretty much inconsequential. The film also had some interesting feminist motifs like a lone woman claiming the night and public space whether in London or Kanpur.
Needless to say there are excellent performances by all the leading actors but special mention must go to Kangana Ranaut, Deepak Dobriyal (playing Pappi) and new entrant Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub (playing Chintu). Perhaps under mentioned in other reviews, the chemistry between Chintu and Raja Awasthi (played by Jimmy Shergill) is something to watch out for. Attention to small details, rustic accent, realistic costumes and interesting sub-plots make up for the lack of a single strong story in the film although at times it felt like the director is trying to hold more than he can grasp in his palms. Another special mention goes to the portrayal of small town real estate which had never been so realistic ever before. We have seen many shaadis but a shaadi in a narrow gully where houses are built chaotically, walls have no distemper, floors don’t have marble, electric wire, like cobwebs hang dangerously lose everywhere, there is no abundance of flowers and beautiful shamiana, we have never seen before. No matter how poor the characters are weddings in Bollywood always look grand but not in this one.
Bechdel Testing TWMR: The film passes the test with at least two relevant scenes. 1. Tanu tells her sister that she needs excitement in life rather than getting married to some random man 2. Tanu’s friend Payal tells her about artificial insemination and the frivolity of marital symbols like mangalsutra and karvachauth.