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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bollywood Beat: Tanu Weds Manu Returns

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2015 at 11:29 AM

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How do you sequel-ize a romantic comedy? Once Boy has met Girl, lost Girl, and finally won Girl back, what remains to be done? One answer — according to Tanu Weds Manu Returns, the clumsily titled new Bollywood film, which came out Friday – is for the sequel to forget that it’s a sequel.

Tanu Weds Manu – the 2011 precursor – was a sleeper hit, thanks to its comic matchup between foul-mouthed firecracker Tanu (Kangna Ranaut) and her lumpy simpleton, Manu (R. Madhavan). Returns picks up four years after the original film’s happy ending, with Tanu and Manu as a squabbling, spiteful married couple.

Tanu farcically has her man institutionalized in a London asylum, then flees to Kanpur, the north Indian city, to take up her old ways – mainly, boozing and fighting. She also makes contact with her ex-flame, from the original film.

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Meanwhile, Manu’s loyal sidekick, Pappi, secures Manu’s release, and together they return to Delhi, where Manu meets and falls for Kusum (Ranaut, in a double role), a tomboyish college athlete from the Indian hinterland who bears an uncanny resemblance to his estranged wife.

Returns does the original film one better by distilling the material to its most comically potent, then doubling the dose: The sequel concentrates its camera on Ranaut’s Tanu and new addition, Kusum.

Ranaut is mainstream Bollywood’s least risk-averse actress. Over her decade-long career, her convention-flouting characters have regularly contested Indian patriarchy and its notions of how a good Indian woman ought to behave.

She has portrayed alcoholics and drug addicts, prostitutes and careerist women, almost all of whom are strong-willed and independent-minded, and most of whom curse. But her breakthrough performance was in 2014’s Queen, in which she played a sheltered girl who, spurned by her fiancé, goes on her honeymoon alone, and finds herself.

In Returns, too, Ranaut turns out a smart, quietly subversive performance. As in the original, Ranaut’s Tanu is a headstrong handful – she drinks, she curses, she disrupts – but she nonetheless adheres to Bollywood moviegoers’ expectations of what a female protagonist should look like: She’s very pretty, done up in the most becoming makeup and fashionable clothing.

But it’s Ranaut’s double role as Kusum, the new character who takes center stage in this sequel, that proves far more unusual. A small-town girl who comes to the big city on an athletic scholarship, she’s unafraid of wanting what she wants, and, more than Tanu or any male character, takes action.

But what distinguishes Kusum – cinematically speaking – is her visualization. She's Ranaut with short, boyish hair, and thick eyebrows.  She wears unflattering track pants with T-shirts and dull kurta pajamas with sneakers. And she sports a set of massive horse teeth surrounded by a spray of unsightly freckles.

In Bollywood, the female-centric film is rare, indeed. Rarer still is the female-centric film whose focus is so un-female. Ranaut – who has spent a career challenging, through her characters, the traditional social position of women – has, through Queen and, now, Returns, begun challenging the cinematic role of women. It’s a critical shift, particularly for a cinema whose unique contributions include the “item” song (in which a sultry, scantily clad woman thrusts and heaves for a horde of sweaty, lecherous men).

Through Kusum – her naivety, her odd rural manner of speaking – Ranaut is also the one who gets the most laughs. (This, too, is a recent Bollywood discovery – that a leading woman can be funny.) While the film’s mode is to perform each scene on overdrive – every line, every action is over-the-top – the dialogue is often very funny.

There are dozens of amusing one-liners, like when Tanu complains about Manu, “He’s lost his spark,” to which Manu replies, “I’m not a lighter.” And there are topical jokes, as when a character dispels another’s confusion about artificial insemination: “You don’t get the baby in a thermos.”

The plot is spotty at best. And a lot of the attempts at humor grate (especially whenever Manu’s buddy, Pappi, is on screen). But Returns is, all things considered, enjoyable. What it isn’t – with its just and proper focus on the brand-new character of Kusum – is a sequel.

Tanu Weds Manu Returns, now playing at theaters across the Bay Area.

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Farraz Khan


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