“I’m a psychiatrist. I know women.” Aanand L. Rai’s film pivots on these two patently false statements. Atrangi Re understands neither women nor mental illness, and its grasp of Jungian psychology is shaky at best—but we’ll get to that later.
The film begins with Rinku (Sara Ali Khan) running away from her home in a Bihar town. She reaches the train station around the time Tamil-speaking medical student Vishu (Dhanush) is alighting. She’s tracked down there by relatives and taken home, where her grandmother (Seema Biswas) beats her so she’ll give up the name of the person she was eloping with. Later, she hatches a scheme: drug Rinku, find a boy (“any caste will do”), get them married. Vishu is abducted and given laughing gas—a reasonable metaphor, it turns out, for a viewer of this film.
On the way to Delhi, the belligerent Rinku tells Vishu about her lover Sajjad (Akshay Kumar), a magician. She’s tried to elope with him 21 times in seven years, always unsuccessfully. When Vishu tells her he’s engaged to be married, she offers the film’s one sensible suggestion—once we reach Delhi, you go your way, I go mine. So, of course, they end up living in the same room in his hostel, traveling to Chennai, breaking off his engagement and returning to Delhi closer than ever.
Vishu falls for Rinku, as tongue-tied men in Rai’s films tend to when confronted by chaotic women. She’s hung up on Sajjad, though, who duly arrives—on an elephant. He’s played by Akshay Kumar, who’s old enough to be Sara Ali Khan’s father; indeed, one of his early hits, Main Khiladi Tu Anari, was with Sara’s dad. It’s surreal to see them in a lover’s clinch, though Khan and Dhanush—who was electric in Karnan earlier this year—aren’t an inspiring pair either. Between Dhanush’s broken Hindi, Khan’s grating Bihari accent and Kumar’s bland baritone, this might be the least euphonious love triangle in modern Hindi film.
Even as Vishu curses his luck, we start to notice there’s something strange about Sajjad. He’s not just a larger-than-life figure, he doesn’t feel real at all. Something doesn’t add up about Rinku’s stories either; it’s hard to believe her family wouldn’t know after 21 attempts that the man she loves is Muslim. The film’s big twist arrives around halfway through, when Vishu’s friend M.S. (Ashish Verma) sees Rinku and Sajjad eating together. Or rather, he sees her eating and talking to an empty chair. There’s either no magician there, or a very good one.
Having already become, with this revelation, the weirdest Hindi film of 2021, Atrangi Re doubles down. M.S.—the one who knows psychiatry and women—advises Vishu to not tell Rinku she’s been pining for a lover who doesn’t exist. If she finds out from someone else instead of discovering it herself, she’ll slit her wrists, he says. Instead, slip Rinku medicine and allow her to fall in love with you. “No one understands mental disorders anyway,” he says sagely, though surely there are people who understand them better than Rai and screenwriter Himanshu Sharma.
In between misrepresenting mental health issues, Atrangi Re rehashes intense Bollywood love story clichés: lovers cut their wrists, smash beer bottles on their head, threaten suicide, are burnt alive. Late in the film, there's an acknowledgment that religious intolerance might just exist in India, though the politics of the film is mostly muddled (“Tripathi ji, you’re a Brahmin,” Rinku addresses a lawyer sitting beneath a portrait of Ambedkar). Out of this clutter, A.R. Rahman conjures some beauty; Little Little, shot with great fluidity by Pankaj Kumar, is delightful.
I won’t reveal what lies at the root of Rinku’s made-up memories, only to say it’s the kind of revelation that’s way too provocative for film as facile as this. It explains the presence of Kumar to some extent, though not why Vishu and M.S. take this explanation so lightly. But perhaps that's all you can expect from a doctor who gathers all his patients—"OCD, Alzheimer’s, bipolar, schizophrenia"—in a tent and makes them watch Rinku’s invisible boyfriend perform tricks. “Whether or not anyone else can,” he tells Vishu, “these people can see Sajjad.”
Worst. Psychiatrist. Ever.
Atrangi Re is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.