[See Bollywood Stories: Introduction first]

This is meant to be a modern romantic comedy with the rather popular plot line of an NRI coming to India for an arranged marriage. The woman selected for him loves someone else. She tells him so in no uncertain terms. Of course, he falls in love with her. Yet, noble person that he is, he helps her elope with her thug boyfriend so that they can get married. At the nth hour, the woman has a change of heart. More drama ensues between said thug, the hero and the heroine. And, in the end, the thug relents and lets them both get married.

Happy ending. Paisa vasool? Where do I start? Predictable and stereotypical characters, ho-hum story conflicts, the typical portrayal of a confused woman who cannot make up her mind or keeps changing it….. But, because they’ve thrown in the things that the Indian movie-goer enjoys, for example, wedding scenes, small-town girl speaking her mind and holding her own (usually after a fair bit of alcohol imbibing), pretty clothes, peppy tunes and so on, it has done well. Aesthetically, the movie is very pleasing as, indeed, good movies should be. Besides all that, you might watch it for the way that the actors hold your attention on screen as they try to make the most of a very weak script. Ranaut does not play Tanu as a necessarily likable character but she is entertaining. The rest of the actors are playing up to her character so there’s not much to say about them, though a couple of them have certain signature moments.

[Sidebar: Though, you do have to wonder about the male lead character of Manu, played by R Madhavan. Having made it from a small town to the UK, studied several long years to become a respected doctor who deals with pacemakers (or heart surgery, I could not tell), which must have required a certain level of intellectual stamina, he barely manages to stand up for himself. We might yet swallow the premise of him settling for an arranged marriage because he got, as he says in a voice-over at the beginning, lonely after having worked hard at his study and work for more than a decade. But how does a man who has managed to overcome his small-town upbringing and achieve a certain level of personal success in a different society (which is not easy) not have the strength of character or self-respect to get a grip on the situation he faces? This is another sad trope Bollywood movies use: in order to make one character appear strong, the others around them must be decidedly weak in contrast… whether that makes any sense or not.]

It’s good to see a woman standing up for herself and not giving in to family pressure to marry a man she does not love. I wish they’d left it there. But, they had to go do a sequel. This excellent review has convinced me not to watch “Tanu Weds Manu Returns“. Here are certain important points:

Here is a woman with no interests, no hobbies and no ambition. A man without these would have been labelled a loser. But it appears that this is perfectly acceptable for women. So Tanu has angst, the angst of the whole world not revolving around her. We all know this type. The spoilt rich girl, whose only interests are partying, boys, clothes, the beauty parlour — all funded by the man in her life, first the father, then the husband.

When did all this become modernity? True modernity is hardly about how one dresses, but how one behaves. Liberation is not about pushing boundaries regardless of the consequences, but recognising that some boundaries will take a while to move. A smart modern Indian woman knows this.

Can Kangana be a heroine without being a Revolver Rani or a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed caricature of the leading man? Is it possible for Rani Mukherjee to be strong without being Mardaani? Can Anushka rebel against the wrongs against her and society without a cigarette in her mouth depicting her liberation?

Love is no longer enough on the screen. There are now real men out there, who respect, care and understand. Don’t they deserve women who do the same?

Some might argue that fixating on Tanu’s character is the wrong way to look at this story and that Kusum’s character (also played by Kangana Ranaut) is the real feminist here: the athlete who wins a college scholarship, supports her family and refuses to marry and settle down. The problem is that we’re again being shown Indian women as either sinners or saints. There appears to be no middle ground, which is where reality mostly lies.

Some might also say: hey, get over yourself. This is a romantic comedy. It’s not meant to be taken so seriously. Allow me to refer you to the wonderful Roger Ebert again:

It seems to me that there are two basic approaches to any kind of comedy, and, in a burst of oversimplification, I’ll call them the Funny Hat and the Funny Logic approaches. The difference is elementary: In the first, we’re supposed to laugh because the comic is wearing the funny hat, and, in the second, it’s funny because of his reasons for wearing the funny hat. You may have guessed by now that I prefer the Funny Logic approach. . . .

See, TWMR is the first kind. We’re being asked to laugh because of what the characters are doing and not because of why they’re doing it. Geddit?

I despair that Bollywood cannot get past this awful misogynistic trope of the “strong, liberated Indian woman” (SLIW) as one who wears Western clothes, drinks, smokes, swears, has male friends and, in some cases, sleeps around. Who is writing these scripts, for goodness’ sake? Don’t get me wrong, please. I do not mean to say that these things are bad and women must not be allowed to portray such things in media. I am, myself, no prude. And, to a large extent, these external markers are, in fiction, as in real life, symbolic of a person’s character and personality. But, when the most powerful medium/platform in India constantly portrays the SLIW in these terms, rapists will continue to justify their deeds with “she had it coming”. And, of course, I look around India today and see many who laud these kinds of female characters and try to emulate them. I don’t know which is worse but both are, together, perpetuating an almost never-ending cycle that is going to keep making the overall lot of women worse in Indian society today.

It saddens me that smart, talented actresses like Kangana Ranaut are not getting better scripts and stories to showcase their talent.

Still, I suppose it’s a matter of progress in phases. When I left India several decades ago, women were still portrayed as the self-sacrificing, long-suffering mothers, wives or sweethearts whose only aims in life were to either find their ideal man or to be the primary caregivers to the men in their lives. Oh, and, of course, to uphold the “ghar ki izzat” (the honor of the family name — because, don’t you know, it rested entirely on the women). At least we’re not seeing that pathetic role model on screen as much anymore.

[Stay tuned for more Bollywood Stories]

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