Writer Himanshu Sharma, director Aanand L Rai’s experimental plot is fine in spirit but weak in flesh
Rating: 2.5 / 5
By Mayur Lookhar
For a cinema that built its identity on love, Hindi cinema, popularly known as Bollywood, now struggles to tell the odd good love story. Well, blame it on the monotony, quality or simply segregated audiences. And so each time respected story tellers come up with a romantic, relationship drama, it naturally gets us excited. The trailer gave a sense of deja vu, but the presence of super star Akshay Kumar, Dhanush and Sara Ali Khan in an Aanand L Rai directorial was strong enough for us to explore the world of Atrangi Re .
The makers opted to release the film on digital platform only – Disney+ Hotstar, The trailer suggested that this could be a new age relationship drama, so why would not opt for a theatrical release. Did the makers fear any needless ‘love jihad’ backlash from fringe elements.? Or were they simply not confident that such content would appease the theatrical audience? What’s done can’t be undone.
Well, all this is immaterial now for the film released on 24 December, Mood is vital in gauging a film. Your reviewer was jaded last evening. He barely watched some 40-minutes and then didn’t feel like continuing. Advantage of watching on OTT. Having watched the remainder today, it doesn’t really change our critical analysis of the film, but there is a certain respect for the writer Himanshu Sharma, director Aanand L Rai for the thought behind their story.
The story begins with Rinku Suryanvanshi [Sara Ali Khan] running away from her home in Bihar [umpteenth time] to elope with her lover, but as always the poor girl gets caught by her aggrieved granny [Seema Biswas] and other family members. Forced marriages are not new but regions like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh are also notorious for kidnapping a random groom and marrying off their dissenting daughter to protect family honour. Tamilian Dr. Vishu Iyer [Dhanush] is on a visit to Bihar when he watches Rinku being taken away by unknown goons. He wishes to help the girl but is stopped by his psychiatrist friend Madhusudhan [Ashish Verma], who knows that in this region, it’s best to not mingle into other’s business.
Our man is slated to get engaged to his girl friend Mandakini, fondly called as Mandy [Dimple Hayathi] two days later, but his world comes apart that night after he is kidnapped and married off to Rinku. The latter is drugged, while the laughing gas does Vishu in. The duo is packed off, transported to a Delhi bound train. Since they were both forced, it could have been a simple thing for the duo to go their separate ways , which they agree in principle in the train journey. But had they lived up to that promise, there would be no Atrangi Re.
Atrangi roughly translates to weird in Hindi. And the film stays true to its title right through out its 137 minutes screenplay. Bizarrely, Vishu carries along his wife for his engagement in Tamil Nadu, but then all hell breaks loose. The duo return as husband and wife from Delhi. Soon our man is ready to accept his fate, but the twist comes in the arrival of Sajjad [Akshay Kumar], Rinku’s eternal mate.
The trailer left us wondering, whether this is going to be another cliched Bollywood love triangle. However, the three leading characters find themselves embroiled in Himanshu Sharma’s bhul bhulaiyya [labyrinth/maze] . What transpires next is basically Dr.Iyer and Sajjad happily playing along to Rinku’s ‘atrangi’ ways. Once the final piece in this jigsaw puzzle is put together, it leaves you teary eyed.
Whilst the experimental plot is fine in spirit, but its weak in flesh [screenplay]. Part of the problem is its banal early hushed screenplay, average direction. The actors are competent but it’s just that the unfolding events are hard to digest. The conservative would feel that the film is making a mockery of traditions. We have no issue with that but the way it plays out, we fear whether the makers are making a mockery of themselves with their feeble attempt to mock set norms. But Aanand L Rai and Himanshu have done that in their career so far. Their relationship dramas subtly question set societal norms, but the conflict is largely resolved with the principal characters arriving at a consensus or making peace with fate.
Atrangi Re’s layered plot subtly questions the traditional marriage system, explores different upbringing, cultures, exposes hatred, and examines psychological trauma. Rai and Sharma’s healing methods are perhaps questionable, but we leave that for the psychiatrists to judge.
There is bit of an irony here too. One one hand, you feel Rai and Sharma are exposing forced marriages, but there is also acceptibity in the name of fate. “Ek baar shaadi ho jaye, pyaar baad mein ho jayega” [Get married first, love will happen gradually] How often have we heard this in our adolescence years. Unfortunately, Atrangi Re  is inadvertently guilty of following this age old thinking, passed off as an adage. In doing so, Atrangi Re contradicts the values that it wants the viewer to stand for. These arguments though are metaphorical. How can mainstream cinema not adopt a certain ‘play to the gallery’ trope.
Fine in spirit, weak in flesh [screenplay]. but the actors try their best to convince you. Dhanush became a pan India star with Raanjhnaa  and he is one consistent performer throughout this film. He doesn’t let the flaws in screenplay impact his performance. He is the glue that binds this atrangi [weird] story. Unlike Raanjhnaa, Atrangi Re has a fair usage of Tamil. A message is passed through when the emotions are strong. Dhanush gives us many such moments but the one that sticks is when after coming back to Delhi, he confesses in Tamil to Rinku that he’s developing feelings for her but not being able to communicate this is driving him mad. It’s bizarre though this dialogue follows barely two days after the disappointment of enduring a broken engagement in his native. Bizarre writing but Dhanush cannot be faulted for his compelling act. He does his best to cover the failings of screenplay and earns our respect with his sincere show.
Sara Ali Khan shows a marked improvement from her last few disasters – Love Aaj Kal  Coolie No. 1 , but is yet to match her Kedarnath  effort. She shows promise as the Bihari girl, but the accent gets mixed the moment she lands in Delhi. Well, environmental hazard. She’s fine through the first hour, but the moment she is required to justify the ‘atrangi’ billing, Khan goes off the mark. The final effort looks very staged, just like Rinku and Vishu’s forced marriage. What worked beautifully for them before was their diversity. Their respective world is poles apart. But once one character embraces the other’s world, that is when Vishu and Rinku lose their chemistry. There was potential for Sara Ali Khan to silence her critics. While this is a marked improved effort, the young woman still has few miles to go.
We feared that super star Akshay Kumar could be playing a cameo. But thankfully, Sajjad [Akshay Kumar] is the pivot around this complex relationship drama. Last year, we had him play a Muslim character Asif in Laxmii [2020, and Kumar is back with another such character. For a man who unfairly gets trolled for promoting love jihad through a Laxmii , now Atrangi Re, is also trolled by the pseudo liberals for encouraging Islamophobia through films like Kesari , Sooryanvanshi . Is Kumar then playing these characters to correct the false image? Hey, but his conscious is clear. The actor picks what he likes, and that is his right. It’s the trolls that need to realise that, left or right, they are two sides of the same coin. Joy, ecstacy, anger, tense, child-like, Kumar nicely exhibits the various emotions that his character is made to go through.
Ashish Verma, Seema Biswas do their bit to make it more engaging but the average screenplay made it a difficult task. Whilst Biswas’ character is old school, Verma has to bear the burnt of the odd sexist dialogue. The two though are consistent with their intensity.
Ah, there was a time when a film’s music was enough to lift even an average, cliched screenplay. Now that our story telling has improved slightly, but finding good music is like finding goldust. Academy award winner A.R Rahman has been off color [in Bollywood] for a while, is a fair criticism. He showed glimpses of his past best with Dil Bechara . Fans are delighted with this Atrangi Re effort. Having Irshad Kamil as the lyricist is adequate motivation to produce a fine album. And that is what he get in all the songs. Chaka Chaka, Toofan Si Kudi epitomize the soul that is Rinku. Garda is the voice of Sajjad. Little Little, Rait Zara Si, and Teri Mohabbat Hai define the mood that the Tamil man Vishu goes through. They are soothing numbers, but the one that steals our heart is the Tere Rang track that pays tribute to the Gopi folklore. Shreyas Ghoshal charms us as the voice of Rinku Radha, while Haricharan Seshadri adds magic to the tone of ‘Murali’ Vishu. Ah the lyrics, semi-classical composition, and the mesmerizing tones of Ghoshal and Seshadri would have the deities rejoicing in heaven. We are just mere mortals. If we were still in the 90s, viewers would have loved the full tracks to be playing in the film. This is arguably A.R. Rahman’s finest Bollywood album since Rockstar . Without Rahman’s music, Atrangi Re would have had no soul.
The beautiful playback music is also backed by fine background score. Atrangi is also very rich in its visual appeal. But neither the music or other technical efficiency was going to make Atrangi Re a roaring success. It all boils down to the story, screenplay. Whilst we respect the thought behind Sharma’s story, neither he nor director Rai succeed in their execution. Atrangi Re has our spiritual approval, but it fails to appease our cinematic senses.
Watch the trailer of Atrangi Re below.