Dir. Anand L. Rai
Let me start with what's great about Tanu Weds Manu Returns: The comedy, the dialogues, Kangana Ranaut - and Kangana Ranaut.
Lesbian horn-dog Carla: So, butch Kangana is cute and all, but femme Kangana really turns my crank. There were times I actually caught my breath when she appeared on screen.
Feminist, analytical, serious Carla: Oh, for heaven's -- you again? I'm trying to write a review here. Go home and watch Revolver Rani. Again.
LHDC: Great idea! You stay here and do ... whatever it is you do.
This second installment of the story of Tanu and Manu (Kangana Ranaut and Madhavan) is very, very funny, playing with broadly painted characters and lots of regional humor. Some is quite broad indeed, like a bunch of Sardars dressed in florid Gujurati costume, dancing dandiya to Bhangra music to celebrate the marriage of a Punjabi woman to a Gujurati man. Others are harder for a foreigner like me to get; there are times when the audience in the cinema hall roars, yet the joke I see in the subtitles doesn't justify that reaction. Still, I have learned enough over the years to appreciate the craft that goes into this kind of rapid-fire, clever bantering. As the film opens, Tanu and Manu have lived four years in England. Tanu's English has improved quite a bit since she sneered "London returned!" at Manu in the first installment. But when loses her cool - she's detailing the failures in their marriage to a panel of psychiatrists - her homegrown Kanpuri dialect finds it's way out, and she has to translate her own exclamations for the doctors. Later, other characters again have trouble understanding each other - as when Manu's still-hilarious buddy Pappi (Deepak Dobriyal, as much a scene-stealer as he was in part one) has to explain a colorful metaphor about getting squashed like a squeak-toy - and the cross-dialect jokes fly fast and freely.
And then there is Kangana, who inhabits Tanu with absolutely riveting intensity. Her eyes almost glow when she's angry, shine when she peals out laughter, sparkle with mischief in one of her whirlwinds of impulse. And when Tanu cracks with vulnerability toward the end of the film, her entire body language changes, the crackling energy drained. It's a thrilling performance, an actor masterfully embodying a fully realized theory of her character. (These swings from fire to vulnerability are becoming a calling-card of Kangana's talent; I have more to say about this in my written-but-not-yet-posted comments on Revolver Rani, another explosively engaging performance and a terribly underappreciated film.)
And it's only half of what Kangana does in this film, because she also offers up Kusum, a young student on athletic scholarship in Delhi. And it's not just the thick Haryanvi accent or the short hairstyle that distinguishes the two women. Kusum is every bit as confident as Tanu, she is considerably more measured, less impulsive. Her confidence is chin-forward, more about forging her own path through the world than about the rebellion-for-rebellion's-sake that sometimes seems to motivate Tanu. Kusum's body language is completely different, too; square and confrontational in contrast to Tanu's flirtatious and playful demeanor. Kangana's finest execution in the film comes in the Kusum avatar, in the climax. It is a deeply vulnerable moment, but Kusum strides past a crowd of onlookers, radiating dignity. And the instant she is out of sight, she pulls a door shut behind her with shaking fingers, and crumples. It is a wrenching and perfectly-delivered dose of self-possession in anguish.
Still, this second chapter harder to swallow than the original, because Manu is even less appealing as a lover and hero than he was in the first. When Manu courted Tanu, there was enough substance to make up for his wet-noodle personality, enough sweetness to overcome the initial creepiness of how he fell for her as a lifeless doll, not as the spitfire she actually is. Here, though, Manu's pursuit of Kusum is twisted from the beginning, and doesn't get better. Manu, with his paunch and his moobs and the dusting of grey at his temples, is the picture of middle age in crisis, and Kusum has the right initial reaction to his stalking and ogling: revulsion and anger. Manu is fascinated with Kusum because she looks just like Tanu. And perhaps out of naïveté, Kusum softens to Manu when she learns this, rather than finding him all the more creepy for it. But it is clear to the audience, and to other characters in the film - if not right away to Kusum - that Manu's attraction to her is pathological. Manu thinks he loves her for who she is, but he is deluding himself; while proposing to her, he calls her Tanu.
Manu starts off sympathetic during the film's oddly-crafted opening sequence, in which he is committed to a psychiatric treatment center for basically no reason at all (this sequence, while funny, is so nonsensical that as it reached its peak I expected it to turn out a dream). But he burns that capital pretty thoroughly with his sicko seduction of Kusum. The stakes are high, because there's no way that this inappropriate relationship should succeed. At the same time, though, the films shows us almost no actual interaction between Tanu and Manu during the film, so there is not a lot of reason to root for their reconciliation, either. And this is perhaps the movie's most serious misstep, neglecting to provide much reason to think that reunion is the right result for Tanu and Manu. The movie puts a lot of effort into its comedy, clever rapid-fire dialog and absurd situations, but very little into the actual relationships that should drive the story. It's fun, but ultimately not very satisfying.
A few folks have read this film as regressive. I don't see it that way. Tanu, after a vacation-like stretch of the sort of flirty, impulsive freedom she enjoyed before meeting Manu, comes to mourn the apparent failure of her marriage, and shows some depression and regret over it. This is not regressive; it is not a spirited, modern woman broken by or succumbing to the weight of tradition. Rather, it is a human being coming to see the value in a relationship that she had previously taken for granted. Likewise, there is nothing regressive in Kusum's cautious sacrifice. Her actions are a matter of self-preservation, and demonstrate the measured insight, the hint of maturity, that separates her from Tanu. If Kusum had not questioned the idea of marriage to a man twice her age who clearly wants her only for psychologically messed-up reasons, that would be a less agentive and considerably more problematic portrayal of a young woman.