Anurag Kashyap’s new film is a landmark in Hindi cinema because it does what Bollywood has rarely done in its long history of dealing with infidelity – allow the woman the freedom to explore her desires unapologetically, on her terms.
The boring old triangle has been sexed up for the millennials. By who else but Anurag Kashyap in his recalibrated avatar of a teller of new-age romances? With the expected edge, and mature with loads of authenticity: setting, raw humour, earthy language, finely observed manners and persuasive body language homegrown from the soil. He has created a kickass heroine who does what she wants and doesn’t apologise for her choices, all in the heartland of Punjabiyat with a nod to Amrita Pritam in the credits. The reinvented Kashyap makes the iconoclastic woman acceptable. On her terms, breaking from a cliché-ridden Bollywood tradition that marked a woman with sindur once she was married and denied sexual choice even when the first love came back into her life.
No respectable woman could rock the sanctity of marriage. Kashyap validates marriage, but on the woman’s terms. It is like tasting the forbidden fruit and keeping it too. All this without strident feminist preaching and by creating a woman we can understand and feel for. He also breaks the mould of the love triangle that had calcified over the decades. Manmarziyan sets off an interesting speculation: Do filmmakers who had hitherto gloried in the violent excesses of unbridled machismo make persuasive feminists? Well, the story, screenplay and dialogue are by a woman, Kanika Dhillon. Kashyap brings his signature style – toned down to suit the content – as he had in Mukkabaaz.
Kashyap seems to reserve visceral spurts of violence for the noir niche of Netflix. Sacred Games has made fans out of viewers addicted to TV series. He seems to have made an artistic decision: to divide his creativity between an internationally discerning audience who demand sophisticated thrillers to go with their multi-cuisine tastes, and us dal-roti desis who crave a tangy flavour to spice the staple: with the proviso that it should be both, relatable and rooted. Take away boring wholesomeness from the list of adjectives to make premarital sex and post-marital infidelity part of today’s woman’s search for love and meaningful relationships.
Manmarziyan meets this inarticulate demand, appealing to those on Tinder as well as a generation roused from nostalgic yearning for dost dost na raha kind of predictable love triangles: where the woman is passed like the parcel-to- be-got-ridof between best friends playing for selfsacrificing stakes. Male honour and nobility are everything, and it doesn’t matter what the woman wants. She would accept what they decided: stay with the husband even if she loved the other man first. That was the norm for the (eternally boring) triangle, whether it was two men and a girl, or vice versa (where sacrifice was ordained by the need for devihood; not a matter of choice).
Mehboob Khan set the trend with Andaz (1949), where the viewers (women mostly) urged Nargis, playing the modern miss – who perfects the careless toss of her tumbling curls – to choose the charmer Dilip Kumar, an intriguing blend of scorching intensity and casual panache. However, he makes her opt for family friend Raj Kapoor’s overpowering exuberance. Andaz came with a warning for the modern Indian woman: don’t hand out spontaneous friendship that could be read as encouragement and thus lead to dangerous obsessions and avoidable tragedy. Blame the woman and her modern ways – as always.
This set the basic template, with scope for minor variations. A woman was yoked to her mangalsutra. Till our parallel cinema often made the woman the central protagonist, and her sexuality became both a wider metaphor and unique to her persona. So many landmark films followed in quick succession, particularly in the 1970s and early 80s : Ankur, Bhumika, Nishant, Chakra, Mirch Masala (Jait Re jait and Chidambaram are Marathi and Malayalam classics) …it was a fecund flowering of female desire and an acknowledgement of her right to make choices, even if they did not deliver on the promise of happiness ever after.
There were more women-centric mainstream triangles too, in the wake of this validation by parallel cinema. Ek Baar Phir (1980), Vinod Pande ’s best film, took the simple wife of a caddish film star to London, which leads to a meeting with a young student with artistic leanings. Dipti Naval brought vulnerability to the young woman who has hitherto silently suffered the whims and demands of a self-centred brute and finally breaks free to a future that might be financially uncertain but with a sensitive soul mate. Pande exposed the vanities and shallowness of the film industry.
Ek Baar Phir
Kalpana Lajmi’s Ek Pal (1986) wasted a stellar cast (Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Farooq Sheikh) on the weary story of a lonely wife married to a reclusive workaholic, succumbing to an affair with her first love when she comes to her parental home. He turns out to be a coward, and the husband is unexpectedly generous when he finds his wife pregnant by another man. Compared to parallel cinema’s anaemic feminism, Mahesh Manjrekar’s Astitva (2000) had more vigour. Here too, Tabu’s affair with her music teacher is the result of her brusque, busy husband who maintains a diary that includes when the couple had sex. Thus, the son born to her is not his. And Tabu finally finds freedom from this suffocating marriage with the support of her son’s feminist girlfriend. The unwritten rule is: the husband has to be insensitive for the wife to have an affair, almost like a kneejerk reaction.
Woh 7 Din, Anil Kapoor’s Hindi debut film from 1983, produced by his father and brother, was a successful remake of a Telugu hit. The first half is a charming, funny love story between an endearing simpleton who wants to be a music director (Kapoor) and the lively, teasing daughter (Padmini Kolhapure) of the landlady. Circumstances lead to the lower middle-class girl marrying a taciturn doctor (Naseeruddin Shah getting stereotyped as the understanding husband). A week into the unconsummated marriage, the good doctor offers to set the bride free when he finds out about her first love. Both the musician and the now-matronly bride are aghast. He can’t accept a married woman, and her duty binds her as a wife and bahu. It makes you cynical: does it have anything to do with the comfortable status of a doctor’s wife and the risk of a precarious future with a wannabe musician? After all, it is an accepted socio/biological observation that women choose a mate for his potential of being a good provider and father. What was true of caveman days is held valid even now, given the economic status of the majority of women. Mainstream cinema caters to this segment.
Woh 7 Din
Less than two years later, Aparna Sen turned this proposition upside down with her acclaimed Bengali/Hindi film Parama (1986). A middle-aged bhadralok woman has dwindled into her wife-mother role until a passing photographer sees her through his perceptive lens and makes her aware of herself as a woman. It is doomed to be a brief affair that shatters her family. However, Paroma, the eponymous heroine, is lost in nostalgia and claims to be guilt-free. She has supportive women friends when the judgmental daughter shuns her. Paroma has a precedent. Waheeda Rehman’s Rosie in Guide (1965) walks out of her marriage (again, to a self-centred archaeologist) for the irresistible charms of a tourist guide who furthers her ambitions of a dance career. Rehman was cautioned not to do this film because it would jeopardise her career as a leading star. She did not heed it, and the rest is history. The one notable commercial film about infidelity is Yash Chopra’s Silsila (1981). It is more a quadrangle than a triangle, of two couples where erstwhile sweethearts are married to spouses they don’t love. Despite the casting coup Chopra pulled off, pitting Jaya Bachchan as the wife against Rekha as the other woman, Silsila was a cop-out in the end. And despite the public flirtation of ‘Rang Barse’ where the respective spouses are alerted to what’s going on, the writer and his muse return chastened after running off together. What brings about this change is the wedding rituals they witness. Sindur and saat pheras remind them of their sacramental commitments. The sanctity of marriage wins nine times out of 10.
That is why Manmarziyan is so refreshingly honest. Yes, the headstrong, feisty, hard-drinking, plain-speaking Rumi (Taapsee Pannu) makes a gesture of reconciliation to her NRI husband after their brief marriage is annulled. She has had a rather public affair with Vicky (Vicky Kaushal; all swag and no substance as the role demands), which most of the neighbours in the narrow streets of Amritsar know of. The rumours have also reached the picky parents of Robbie, the banker from London looking for an arranged marriage. He still opts for the hockey-playing, in-your-face honesty of the girl who gives up on Vicky with whom she has terrific sexual chemistry but has zero reliability when it comes to marriage. Settling for marriage to any ullu ka patha, she initially ignores the forbearing Robbie, confessing she isn’t a virgin. “Neither am I,” is his laconic response.
What Kashyap so engagingly describes is the arc of the relationship where families intrude, and yet, the newly married couple slowly find common ground for honest communication. Abhishek Bachchan’s Robbie brings the needed calmness and non-judgmental understanding to the hyper-emotional, rollercoaster relationship between an unsteady Vicky and exasperated Rumi, who gives the wannabe rockstar, now an imitative DJ, many chances till she runs out of forbearance. Nothing drastic and dramatic happens, but there are subliminal changes afoot. A woman who knows her mind and what she wants is caught in the dilemma of choosing between two vastly different men. She makes a tentative choice of sanity over an unreliable narcissist who shies away from responsibility.
This is Rajnigandha (1974) reaching a contemporary culmination. There too, Basu Chatterjee showed for the first time, a girl undecided between two men. One is a simple boy next door whose only fault is unpunctuality. The other is a first love coming back into her life, who promises urbanity and a whiff of excitement, but not commitment. Rajnigandha is charmingly innocent compared to the frankness of sexual desire and its power that Manmarziyan explores with a surprising mix of ebullience and restraint. The passionate, rambunctious romps are undercut by humour. Desperate sex followed by disdain and the genuine fear of getting caught – some of the many reasons why Manmarziyan’s inexhaustible energy makes it a landmark film. Can it erase the evasions and compromises of the triangle as we know it from Bollywood? And can it bring in more honesty to this tired, if tested, formula?