Friday, October 5, 2012

MAIN, MERI PATNI, AUR WOH: Unfaithfully Yours

The title of Chandan Arora's Main, Meri Patni, aur Woh ("Me, My Wife, and Him") reveals that the film's focus is supposedly a marriage, but by far the most interesting part of the movie happens before the couple wed.

As the film opens, Mithilesh Shukla (Rajpal Yadav) is responsible, studious, and single. He manages the library at Lucknow University,  oversees his mother’s household and the marriages of his younger siblings, and feels he has plenty on his plate without a wife. He seems to be a relatively modern guy by Hindi movie-hero standards. (Admittedly, this isn’t saying all that much.)

A prospective bride in a nearby town comes to the family’s attention, so Mithilesh is pressured into accompanying his uncle to the girl’s house. Hardly a girl—she’s thirty, not all that much younger than our librarian hero. He plans to ditch the visit and return by the next bus, but as the uncle points out, why not meet her? She’s probably going to reject Mithilesh anyway for being so short. Ouch.

A nice setup, and the meeting of the very tall, very lovely ancient spinster and the librarian is well played. Nobody will be surprised that our hero begins to reconsider his principled opposition to marriage after meeting Veena (Rituparna Sengupta), who has not only looks but education and shares his literary interests. And though obviously he’ll end up marrying her, it is a surprise—to Veena, too—when his first offer is simply to write to her and be her friend.

Playing the friendship card wins her heart, even as she reveals that she has, in fact, rejected two (presumably height-advantaged) suitors. How modern both our hero and heroine are. And so the couple are wed. As usual, the arranged-marriage plot gives this apparently mismatched pair a solid reason to try to work things out.

Shashi Kapoor, Jennifer Kendal, Bombay Talkie
Sadly, the screenplay would have you believe that the little seed of doubt planted in Mithilesh’s mind by Uncle back on the prenup visit quickly grows into a kudzu-like* maze of insecurity that has Mithilesh plotting with increasing ridiculousness to keep all men away from the missus. First he’s jealous of his best friend, a buffoon of a soccer coach. Mithilesh dispatches this first “rival” by lying to both friend and wife about the other’s supposed wish for a sibling, resulting in a rakhee ceremony that puts Mithilesh’s mind at ease. (Perhaps he hasn’t seen Bombay Talkie? But hey, at least in that movie the spouse pained by jealousy has something real to worry about.)

Next Mithilesh resents the milkman’s appearance at the apartment door and cancels the milk delivery. Then it’s the vegetable vendors—hmm, aren't those bitter melon purchases suspiciously haggle-free?? And then he pretends that his mother is lonely and needs her daughter-in-law to spend the days with her helping with housework. On and on and on it goes.

Now, insane jealousy that is both unwarranted and hilarious is not unknown in films. Here’s Rex Harrison in Preston Sturges's Unfaithfully Yours coming unhinged over a bad user interface as he plots to kill his supposedly unfaithful wife:

But whether the problem in MMPAW is the pacing or the writing or the fact that we’re not in the 1950s anymore, here it just isn’t funny. Like, really not funny. And this movie can’t decide whether it’s trying to tug at our heartstrings or make us snicker—but director Arora distinctly seems to expect us to feel sympathy for the librarian and his pathetic insecurity as he works to wall his wife off from all contact with the non-mother-in-law universe.

The film gives no indication that Veena notices that something is amiss, or that she has any objection to being treated as untrustworthy. In fact, Veena's character is quickly made irrelevant to the story. Maybe that's supposed to be the film's way of showing that Mithilesh is entirely focused on his own obsession. But it has the side effect of turning Veena from a real and intriguing character into an invisible woman about whom it's hard to care--which suggests that perhaps Mithilesh doesn't feel much of anything about her, either, other than his pride in having snagged a beauty.

At last, after all the ridiculous non-rivals have made Mithilesh thoroughly paranoid, a plausible actual rival appears in Lucknow. He’s Aakash (Kay Kay Menon), the bride’s childhood friend, who is in town to install Lucknow University's new computer system. He’s smart and thoughtful, he’s known her forever, he’s way taller than Mithilesh, and he’s always around, making Veena laugh and conversing with her as if she were an actual human with interests and intelligence. Oh, and he’s handsome (being Kay Kay) and funny and can even sell a sad song:

Around this point Mithilesh convinces himself of the completely insane notion that Veena wants a divorce so she can marry Kay Kay and that Uncle is actually abetting this plot. (What? Why on earth would he do that? Oh, never mind.)

He decides to be gallant about the whole thing and give Veena up gracefully. This section is a little heartbreaking—not because Mithilesh is sorrowful, but because we've seen no indication that Veena wishes to be given up. Rather, she is delighted at the return of that nice man she agreed to marry as Mithilesh focuses his attention on her for the first time since the wedding. He cooks for her. He asks her to meet him at a  swanky romantic restaurant.

And there, as she eats her soup, Mithilesh tells Veena that he knows her secret and that he’s fine with a divorce. Her actual secret is that she’s pregnant with twins, so she leaves, furious and embarrassed, and goes straight back to her parents. He realizes he’s been a jerk and a dope (duh). They suffer apart briefly and then reconcile, whew, to live what the film wants us to believe will be a perfect, happy life now that Mithilesh has overcome his unreasonable jealousy.

The omniscient narrator (Naseeruddin Shah) deus-ex-machinates that Aakash will get married and move to Bangalore—dispatching Mithilesh's most feared rival in a too-neat solution that won't sort out underlying issues any better than the faux-rakhee ceremony. Honestly, would it have been too much to suggest that our hero actually needs to figure out how to trust his wife?

*Must google kudzu. Does it grow from seeds?

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