Dir. Anand L. Rai
In one of my favorite scenes in Tanu Weds Manu, Tanu (Kangana Ranaut) and her best friend Payal (Swara Bhaskar) collapse on a bed in squealing laughter. This comes after the two young women have been out for a late-night campfire with Manu (Madhavan) and Payal's fiance Jassi (Eijaz Khan). Jassi coaxes Payal away from the other pair, into the dark, hoping for sex, but Payal storms back, fiery and hollering with indignation. Even though it's just days before their wedding, the scene seems to say, Payal is a seedhi-saadhi ladki, not that kind of girl.
But then cut to Payal and Tanu yukking it up, and you realize they've had one over on Jassi - and you realize you have no idea whether Payal is that kind of girl or not. And that is what I like best about Tanu Weds Manu: It lets its young women be as they are, without making too much of its own progressiveness. Tanu and Payal are not overtly chaste filmi types, but they aren't threatening or caricatured vamps either. They smoke, but it doesn't signify anything; rather, it just reflects that some young women smoke. And they aren't punished or humiliated for any of it either. In one scene, Tanu skulks around during Payal's pre-wedding festivities hoping to score some liquor; she succeeds, and takes a few generous plugs, but she doesn't go on to make a fool of herself or say things she'll regret, as heroines under the influence so often do. Instead, the booze loosens her up just enough to sing a charming, jaunty, folksy song(*) for the guests.
Tanu Weds Manu is what would happen if you made a movie about one of the heroine's-sassy-saheli characters who sometimes popped up in movies of the 60s, played by actors like Laxmi Chhaya and Shashikala. Indeeed, in this movie the sidekick, Payal, shows a good deal more class and level-headed sense than the heroine. Tanu is all sass; she ribs Payal on the eve of her wedding, comparing men to horses, and rolling her eyes at Payal's readiness for adulthood. Tanu (beyond the smoking and drinking) is impulsive enough to get a guy's name tattooed on her breast the day after she meets him. Later, though, she tells Manu that guys come and go, and she's not particularly attached to any one of them. (She's hedged her bets with the tattoo by using the guy's surname.) Tanu even owns that she likes girls, too - this bold admission passes unremarked, another way that the movie presents young women living adventurously without either judging them for it or smugly congratulating itself for not doing so.
As with any pure romance, the conclusion of Tanu Weds Manu is foregone; the film acknowledges as much with its very title. The romance begins as the principals' parents attempt to arrange a marriage between them. Tanu, looking to sabotage the match, swallows a handful of downers; she is nearly comatose when her mother dresses her in a heavily embroidered saree and presents her to Manu. But her nonresponsiveness is no deterrent to Manu, an NRI medical engineer, and he somehow falls in love with Tanu on the spot. This is a weak serve; love by scripted fiat is never especially satisfying, and it's not clear why, if Manu loves Tanu as a catatonic china doll, he loves her all the more after their first conversation, in which she is a cigarette-smoking spitfire who scowls at him with contempt.
But the movie makes up the lost ground by giving the two several fair chances to get to know each other, and by the time Tanu does wed Manu, the pairing actually seems to make sense. And even though Manu is a measured and reserved fellow and Tanu a wild child, the story doesn't so much hew to the typical manic-pixie-dream-girl arc; Manu enjoys and even admires Tanu's vivacity, but there's no sign she has fundamentally changed his worldview or personality. Rather, Manu's steadiness brings Tanu round to a more grounded, Payal-like way of interacting with the world. Tanu's missteps are driven by an overdeveloped taste for drama and rebellion for rebellion's sake; a round scolding from Payal helps put her priorities in order. Manu is rather spineless and overweeningly self-sacrificing for much of his arc; until the very end, his boldest action is a weaksauce attempt to sabotage Tanu's elopement with the guy in the tattoo - an attempt so half-assed that even Manu seems ashamed of it. And so it is sweet that what finally kicks Manu into action are some encouraging words from his father, to the effect that it's worth doing something once in your life that you can look back on with pride.
Payal, Manu's father, Tanu's patient yet vexed father (Rajendra Gupta), a goonda with a romantic soul (Jimmy Shergill), Jassi, and especially Manu's loyal and passionate sidekick Pappi (Deepak Dobriyal) make up a large and colorful cast of supporting characters that help Tanu Weds Manu stand out in its genre. Unlike, say, Shuddh Desi Romance, with its weirdly isolated leads, Tanu Weds Manu situates its principals in a more traditionally Indian context of family and community. Tanu and Manu are orbited by many opinionated satellites who exert powerful and competing tidal pulls on their relationship as it develops. The film is Tanu Weds Manu, as opposed to just Tanu and Manu, because just as a wedding involves and affects a whole set of extended families beyond the betrothed couple themselves, so does the movie involve this broad range of people. And they add a great deal of dimension to the film, lending a grounded sense of community to the central pairing, and making the ride toward the titular and preordained conclusion that much more delightful.
(*) "Kajra mohabbat wala," from the Biswajeet and Babita flick Kismet - thanks to Anindita for reminding me.