To me, the most intriguing factor in a fiction work – be it a film, a play, or a book – is its story. While I do not endorse the fact that it’s a unique story that makes a film, I must add that I tend to gravitate towards cinema that works that way. The Aanand L. Rai Cinematic Universe, if I may call it that, has always been high on that front. We have seen their earthy (Tanu Weds Manu), rough (Raanjhana), and utterly ridiculous (Zero) sides. Rai’s latest Atrangi Re (which roughly translates to ‘Funnily Weird’) is bound to stun you with its audacity. It’s up to us how we would take its central characters and their sufferings that leave no room for logic after a point.
The central character of Atrangi Re is Rinku (Sara Ali Khan) who elopes from her Bihar-bound family at any given chance, to get duly caught. This time around, the brave girl finds no luck in uniting with her magician lover Sajjad (Akshay Kumar). Rinku’s family mixes sedatives in her ‘kheer’ and, voila, she is married off to the first man they get hold of. The unfortunate victim in this mess is Vishu (Dhanush), a Tamilian doctor who happens to be in her town. The newlyweds are soon off to Delhi, which is where the ‘husband’ works. It is only during their train journey that this accidental couple discovers each other’s goals. Rinku shares her bizarre idea of love which, if I may quote Shah Rukh Khan from Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, happens only in good books and bad films. Vishu is supposed to get engaged to a woman named Mandy in a matter of days. In a twist, he takes Rinku all the way to Chennai where she performs her now-viral ‘Chaka Chak’ dance number.
It is at this juncture that the story begins to get weird. I constantly asked myself, “Why are these people doing what they are up to?” The thunderbolt hits at the interval point. In a massive knock that would turn into the film’s biggest liability, Atrangi Re proves a mess – which is part-brave and part-blunderous.
Now, I am not averse to strange storylines and loud characters – which is precisely the reason I dish Aiyyaa. In Rai’s film, the characters do not happen to live in la-la land. The writer (Himanshu Sharma) pretends as if the folks around Rinku and Vishu do, including us – the audience. The second and third act of Atrangi Re is busy with a group of resident doctors experimenting with Rinku on her apparent mental health condition. Setting aside the fact that the film trivializes such an important study of health, I kept wondering if all the psychiatrists were passionate to shower one case with undivided attention, then how would we have ever faced scarcity of medical practitioners in post-COVID India?
Then comes Rai’s definition of love. Vishu loves Rinku. He would go to any extent to prove it to her – including breaking alcohol bottles on his head (the story is set in 2021, not 1987). Atrangi Re has its own theories and cures for mental health as well. Trust me, even a mawkish Bhool Bhulaiyaa felt more convincing in its rationale around a similar situation whereas Atrangi Re meanders to a point of no return. In a scene staged in a divorce court and later in a rickshaw, I found myself baffled asking, “What does this girl want? How about getting a job?”
Precisely. People in Rai’s film eat, drink, and breathe love. They have no real pursuits in life. One of them is a professional illusionist of all things. Writer Sharma is so in love with the Hindi language that he churns out one-liners that gleam with the purity of the language. The fact that it comes in a film where everyone is seen mouthing moronic things to each other at the drop of a hat, it’s up to the actors with histrionic abilities to take charge. Enacting romantic moments comes easily to Dhanush, and he delivers as usual. Then again, the actor constantly looks out of place in the setup (unlike Raanjhana). Sara Ali Khan has a natural presence, I agree, but she treats Atrangi Re as if it’s her last straw to acting. She tries so hard; the creases are glaringly visible on her forehead. Akshay Kumar has an extended cameo of sorts, and he does it pretty well, especially in the penultimate sequence which unwittingly is the film’s most striking one. The makers’ decision to cast him opposite the way younger Khan stands justified at this juncture.
A. R. Rahman’s stellar soundtrack (with words by Irshad Kamil) lends a beautiful rhythm to Atrangi Re. So much so that I doubted if it deserved songs such as ‘Tere Rang’ and ‘Tumhe Mohabbat Hai’ at all. Himanshu Sharma’s screenplay refuses to give them scope to evolve into anything. The apprehension, the ache, the excitement – all of it can be felt in the songs independently whilst they never translate to amplify the visuals on screen. Aanand L. Rai’s execution is even more haphazard. Atrangi Re opens up discussions on evils such as honor killings and forced marriages, aside from triggering ideas such as being in love with two people at the same time. None of it finds a balance in Rai’s film as Vishu and his friends pointlessly run after Rinku, and she after Sajjad.
Frankly, if Atrangi Re did not offer an active discourse on mental health or if it did not prescribe its own ways to heal intense childhood trauma, I would have still given it a chance. This way, Aanand L. Rai lets his film drown in its own audacity. It is akin to a superhero choosing to die by suicide. The pleasantly strange premise (at least, until the interval) could have developed into becoming a captivating work of art – highlighting one or many of the possibilities it contains. Alas, the writer would rather repulse us than make us turn ‘curiouser and curiouser’.
Rating: ★★ 1/2
Atrangi Re premiered on Disney+ Hotstar.