Cast: Sara Ali Khan, Dhanush, Akshay Kumar, Ashish Verma, Dimple Hayathi, Seema Biswas
Director: Aanand L Rai
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Aanand L. Rai's Atrangi Re has an unusual premise all right. But try as hard as it and A.R. Rahman's lively musical score may, the love story is unable to convert its pivotal plot twist into anything more than a single-trick show. The gossamer-thin storyline strains credibility. But that is the least of the film's problems. It also takes an appallingly cavalier stance on mental trauma and its long-term effects.
One character in Atrangi Re (streaming on Disney+Hotstar) declares that nobody has ever understood psychological disorders. The film takes that assertion at face value and spins a flimsy yarn around it, totally unmindful of the fact that it only trivialises the pain of a mind in need of succour.
Dhanush, who plays a Tamil boy in his final year in a Delhi medical college, is wonderfully nimble in a role that requires him to capture a wide range of moods - from the facetious to the flummoxed to the forceful. But then Dhanush is such a natural that he can extract value even from a character as underwritten as the one he is saddled with here.
S Venkatesh Vishwanath 'Vishu' Iyer - yes, that is the character's full name, which, you've guessed it, yields a moment that the film would have us believe is funny - is the sort of guy who leaves nothing to chance. His life is all set: he is about to become a doctor and his engagement to the dean's daughter is only a couple of days away.
Why on earth he makes a trip to Siwan in Bihar with his best pal Madhusudhan (Ashish Verma) - the sojourn constitutes the opening of Atrangi Re - isn't explained. Suffice it to say that the outing is ill-fated. One scene has Vishu atop a telephone pole from where he calls his fiancée Mandakini (Dimple Hayathi) to assure her that he will be in Chennai in time for the engagement ceremony.
A couple of sequences earlier, as Vishu alights from the train, he witnesses a despairing girl (Sara Ali Khan) on the run from a bunch of men determined not to let her get away. His friend dissuades him from springing to her aid, reminding him that this is rural Bihar where "federal law" does not hold sway. If that is meant to be a joke, it is entirely on the film!
And then, a couple of sequences later, the girl - her name is Rinku Suryavanshi, she is a Thakur, her parents are long dead and she lives in her maternal grandmother's home where nobody has any patience for the love of her life, a peripatetic magician named Sajjad Ali Khan (Akshay Kumar) - is drugged and forced into marriage with Vishu.
The bridegroom has been randomly kidnapped by Rinku's maternal uncles on the order of her naani (Seema Biswas), who decides that it is time to get rid of the troublesome girl for good and save the family's honour.
What are the chances of a film such as Atrangi Re passing up the opportunity to play up Vishu's linguistic identity? Nil. Somebody in Rinku's family berates the kidnappers for pouncing on somebody from India's nichla hissa (lower part). We are all Indians, says the girl's granny by way of recompense. How generous!
It does not stop there. Vishu breaks into Tamil to give vent to his anger and confusion. Don't abuse me, Rinku shrieks. He quickly switches to Hindi, giving in without a fight to upcountry hegemony. This, too, is meant to be taken as a joke. What do you expect from a film that thinks nothing of treating something as grave as mental illness as a pretext for mirth and drama?
Returning to the story for whatever it is worth, Rinku, thrown into a train compartment with her non-plussed 'husband', reveals that she has made 21 failed attempts in seven years to elope with the man she loves. On every such occasion, she adds, ended in her being captured, dragged back home kicking and screaming, and mercilessly beaten.
Nobody in the family, she claims with pride, knows the identity and name of her lover. And that is a veritable crater in the heart of the plot: why are her grandmother and uncles so opposed to the man when they do not even know who he is?
Vishu and his college mates travel to Chennai for his engagement. Inexplicably and conveniently, Rinku tags along. Her impromptu decision to join the party - where she lets her guard down and dances with gay abandon, queering the pitch further for Vishu in the bargain - is as far-fetched as her unhindered entry into a boys' hostel.
Rinku holes up in Vishu's room without the hostel authorities hauling her up. Another big question remains unanswered here. Why is Rinku even here when she has already extracted a commitment from Vishu that they will go their own separate ways once they touch down in Delhi.
Everything turns infinitely weirder and a torrent of questions tumble forth when the possessive conjurer returns from Africa after purportedly picking up a new trick. Vishu and Madhusudhan, pretty much like the audience, are left scratching their heads in bewilderment.
Madhusudhan, who is studying to be a psychiatrist, claims "he knows women" and becomes Vishu's self-appointed counsellor. Sure enough, he sparks more problems than he solves, not just for his buddy but also for the film, which veers into an unfathomable and dreary path linked to Rinku's unhappy past.
Sara Ali Khan is suitably spry and Akshay Kumar does the I-am-the-star-here act without the slightest self-doubt. It is, however, Dhanush who steals whatever is left of the show.
Atrangi Re, scripted by Himanshu Sharma, demands an unconscionable degree of willing suspension of disbelief as is it lets go off all semblance of logic. The contrived storyline is intended to tug at our heartstrings - all it does is lurch from one difficult-to-digest situation to another to establish the depth of Rinku's love for Sajjad and the strength of Vishu's resolve in a 'unique' love triangle that for the most part goes round in baffling and tedious circles.
Granted that there is an element of madness in Atrangi Re. The trouble is that there is no method in it.