Rumi is defined by her rage. She can’t sell a hockey stick without flaring up at a customer for not knowing the right brand. Anger is not a state of being, it is who she is. Even the name Rumi on her feels like a simple nickname, short for something prosaic, since a girl like this — accurately described as “atom bomb” by one of the characters — can’t possible have anything to do with the tranquil 13th century Persian poet and mystic so frequently quoted on Instagram these days.
This is the remarkable heroine of Anurag Kashyap’s new Punjabi film Manmarziyaan, entirely atypical for a mainstream romance. I love how unapologetic she is, never pulling her punches or checking her temper. This is a quirky film with incredibly compelling characters, but, as a love story, it eventually squanders its momentum so frustratingly that Rumi — had she been watching the film she were in — would have screamed.
Watch the Manmarziyaan trailer here
Set in Amritsar, Manmarziyaan has robust local flavour but builds its narrative too slowly and indulgently. There is a potentially interesting romantic entanglement somewhere in there, but (unlike Rumi) Kashyap has visibly been reined in, and what could have been a progressive mature romance keeps trying to resemble a standard rom-com. The result is a slow slog, far too frequently in slow-motion.
The man in Rumi’s life is barely one. Vicky is a wild child, a blue-dyed fool who is hilariously said to look like a “shuturmurg.” This lovely Hindi word for ostrich, always and unfailingly, makes me think of the word ‘shuttlecock,’ which he resembles more closely. He is a DJ without the confidence to make his own music, and his hair — which makes him look like a guinea pig for apprentice hairdressers — was only coloured because Rumi said so, with his ‘blue ruin’ contrasting her dynamite-red curls. There isn’t more to him than want; several times a day, even.
In the other corner stands Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), a quiet, diffident banker who wears his turban to placate his family — then forgets he’s wearing one when putting his earpods in. He is all too passive, a calm cuckold who is content to wait rather than act. However — and this seems understandably important to Rumi after her love with a freeloader — he knows not just how to pay a bill, but also to tip a waiter.
Vicky Kaushal shines as the dullard musician Vicky, moving as if the beat has always just dropped in his head, as if there is an invisible DJ on an invisible turntable, operating at a dog-whistle frequency only he can hear. He wears a constantly confused look, unable to decipher why on earth his girlfriend could want an engagement. Abhishek Bachchan is tremendously likeable and restrained as Robbie, helpless and calm yet fervently wishing he could break character. “Even Rama broke character at times,” reminds Rumi, and the closest Bachchan comes to that is when he suddenly quotes one of his father’s lines from Kaalia.
Taapsee Pannu is an explosion. She commits to the fiery, flaky role and makes her Rumi real: a girl who dreams of a life lived not only under the stars but also soaked in sweat. She embodies perpetual frustration, momentarily rescued by a shot of dopamine — be it from a rooftop rendezvous or a mobile phone notification — that lights her up with glee. She is as good shouting and cursing as she is when silent and sullen, and in a scene where she is the one barked at, instead of the one who is barking, she jumps with immediate vulnerability. Here is an actress who doesn’t seem to know a false note.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the film.
Kashyap is a visionary filmmaker, and he starts Manmarziyaan with a unique shot, a time-lapse of Amritsar’s famed Golden Temple where we can see — besides the temple and the devotees — a big black screen where words are rushing by and prayers are being pointed out to the devout like an almighty karaoke screen. He throws in two pairs of identical twins — girls who dance up a storm, boys who drink kahwa quietly — to anchor the solid Amit Trivedi soundtrack, just like he’d used The Twilight Players in his own Dev D. While Manmarziyaan uses songs a lot more conventionally than that landmark film, Kashyap still finds ways to make dances and lipsyncing appear less contrived. At one point, for instance, the synchronised choreography is only present because Rumi is walking through a neighbourhood park where some girls are practicing their routine for an upcoming wedding.
This is all, however, window dressing. Some of the dialogues are superb — at least 70% of the film is in Punjabi — and the asides are great, but the main course is far less satisfying than the shots of samosas being built from cones and curd being thrown together into lassi. In a memorable scene, Rumi and Vickey run away from home only for Rumi to head back after scolding Vicky for not having a plan. Now, we the audience have just met Vicky a few scenes ago and it’s infuriatingly apparent this man could never conceive of a plan. Shouldn’t Rumi, his longtime lover, know better by now? The film doesn’t do this electric character justice.
There is authenticity to the texture, but this film could have held more. It is ultimately a disappointment not because of its craft, but because of predictability, self-indulgent pace and its irritating attempt to be both a light crowd-pleaser with a cutesy ending as well as an impassioned, volatile romance. A film can certainly do both things, but Manmarziyaan, unable to find the balance, gives us a drama that doesn’t add up and eventually feels like a drag. It’s all a bit of a Manmarzi-yawn.