Whimsy is hard to achieve in film, even though the medium is perfectly suited for it. In 2018, Aanand L Rai took a bash at fancy-fuelled fiction in Zero. Atrangi Re, Rai’s first movie since the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer, returns to the path that forks off from realism and wanders into the realm of the imagination.

The Disney+ Hotstar release has been written by Himanshu Sharma, Rai’s frequent collaborator and a firm votary of subverting the conventions of mainstream Hindi cinema through comedy and allegory. It begins with a woman on the run who hasn’t managed to reach anywhere.

Rinku (Sara Ali Khan) has tried ever so often to escape her oppressive household in Siwan in Bihar to be united with Sajjad, who she says is her lover. Fed up with Rinku’s antics, her grandmother (Seema Biswas) dupes the young woman into a wedding with the first available man. That happens to be the Tamilian medical student Vishu (Dhanush), whose own engagement is days away.

Vishu should be miserable. But he nevertheless asks Rinku to come along to Tamil Nadu for his engagement and sticks by her side even when she says that Sajjad is coming to get her. If Vishu has fallen for Rinku, that moment didn’t make it to the screen.

The film’s title is a play on the song Satrangi Re from Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se. Ratnam’s influence is felt in other ways too – the unlikely coming together of people meant to be someplace else, the love-at-first-glance principle, the man who is turned on by the woman’s wild side, and most directly in the AR Rahman song Chaka Chak. Its visual style is lifted from the wedding-themed Yaaro Yaarodi from Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey. But there’s a huge difference, possibly to shrink the visible age gap between Sara Ali Khan and Dhanush, who is 12 years older than his co-star.

Chaka Chak, Atrangi Re (2021).

The suggestive bust-forward choreography that emphasises Rinku’s womanliness is a sign of things to come. Even before the arrival of Sajjad, a magician played by Akshay Kumar, we begin to wonder about Rinku’s taste in men and the intentions of the film makers.

The movie has an explanation for the pairing of 26-year-old Sara Ali Khan with a 54-year-old actor. As Vishu grapples with Rinku’s amour fou for Sajjad and contemplates the emotional costs of sharing his marriage with a third party, Atrangi Re stops being a literal-minded movie and turns to allegory and suggestiveness to unlock its mysteries.

A rich colour palette bathes the dark theme of love trumping brutality. Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar tracks furiously to maintain a sense of momentum – indeed, the 138-minute movie opens with Rinku running in the rain, the first of many hither-tither moments.

Sara Ali Khan’s hyperactive and gesture-heavy performance initially fits the stereotype of the feisty wildcat heroine, but gains poignancy later in the narrative. Dhanush is superb despite the lack of shading that would have made Vishu less of a conventionally lovesick dope. Dhanush speaks Tamil-accented Hindi, in keeping with his character, but also has a long passage of dialogue in non-subtitled Tamil that conveys the point.

The movie gets better as it gets weirder, which isn’t to say that the conceit works all the time. Atrangi Re runs the risk of trivialising its ideas and diluting the impact of sustained violence on Rinku. Whimsy, which is deployed to explain much of the middle portions, goes only this far.

As the object of Rinku’s dreams, Akshay Kumar’s Sajjad puts on his toothiest smile, but the wrinkles and the effort show. The inherent oddness of a woman in love with a man her father’s age isn’t overcome even after the key has turned in the lock on Rinku’s heart. In a movie about the thin line between dreams and reality, Rinku is the most fantastical creature of all.

Atrangi Re (2021).