Review: Ta Ra Rum Pum

Posted on April 28, 2007


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A race car driver faces life’s ups and downs in a predictable drama that could’ve used less gloss, more grit.

APR 29, 2007 – IS THERE some sort of medical condition that afflicts only the very beautiful, making them see style where everyone else senses silliness? I’m talking about hairstyles like Rani Mukerji’s in the early portions of Ta Ra Rum Pum. (What a curious title, as if a musician were humming the outline of a tune that hadn’t yet crystallised in his head; it turns out just right for this film, which hits high notes every now and then but never quite coheres into a resonant whole.) Looking like a cross between the Sadhana fringe and a few dozen strands of limp fettuccine, this is easily the worst tonsorial decision by a major actress since Aishwarya Rai stuck burnt sausages onto her head in Kyon… Ho Gaya Na. It is so awful and so distracting, I just couldn’t look past it – and looking past surfaces is something you’ve got to be able to do in this Yash Raj production (or, probably for that matter, in any Yash Raj production). You’ve got to look past the fact, for instance, that the story is one half sporting drama (specifically, Days of Thunder), one half survival saga (specifically, In America) – and that it takes the unlikeliest of plot conveniences to make these genres mesh. It’s not that these premises cannot come together – there’s a good instance of that in the irresistibly old-fashioned Cinderella Man – but the reason for the cross-breeding in Ta Ra Rum Pum seems less to make a movie than to appeal to a market. The hot-blooded racing is for the young, the warm-fuzzy emotions are for the older crowd – add to this an animated sequence with teddy bears for the kiddies, and there’s all the evidence you need that covering every possible audience base is the first and foremost motto of the Yash Raj house.

It’s quite startling, really, how Ta Ra Rum Pum goes about this objective. Even Karan Johar sets his films in America, but his Americanness is mostly veneer. Scrape it off and you’ll find that his heroines still wear the occasional sari, they still observe the occasional Indian tradition, his heroes still love their parents – there’s at least a bit of a nod to the Indian roots of his characters. But there’s very little of that in this Siddharth Anand film. I was most intrigued by the scene in which Radhika (Rani Mukerji) marries Rajveer (Saif Ali Khan, who, like his costar, coasts along on comfortable autopilot, though his jokey shtick is getting a little wearying). She’s wearing a bridal dress in white, clutching the kind of bouquet that is tossed after the ceremony and caught by the next bride-to-be. And he’s in a white suit, repeating man-and-wife vows after the minister solemnising the wedding. And when they slip rings on each other’s fingers, all I could think was: with all the temples in the US, they couldn’t have gone through a little Hindu ceremony? This isn’t about religious allegiance so much as cultural appropriation – and my jaw dropped further when I learnt that they called their kids Champ and Princess. (Whatever happened to Bittu and Pinky?) I’m not sure, but this may be a historically important moment in our movies – these depictions of the utter assimilation into a Western lifestyle (something that we saw in Anand’s earlier film Salaam Namaste as well, with its no-fuss treatment of a live-in relationship).

There’s a lot of Salaam Namaste in Ta Ra Rum Pum. The hero is one of those chronically irresponsible, never-on-time characters. (There may be a bit of irony lurking there somewhere, for his profession as a race car driver demands that he bring in his vehicle under time.) There’s Jaaved Jafferi spouting English with shades of a vernacular accent. Vishal-Shekhar’s Ab to forever – the first song in a ho-hum soundtrack – brings together the hero and heroine amidst a dance-ready group of strangers-yet-friends (just as Vishal-Shekhar’s first song in Salaam Namaste did), and the next one, Hey Shona, reminds you of My dil goes mmm. It’s quite something, really – not only do these songs sound like their earlier counterparts, they are even sequenced in the same order in the screenplay. Talk about formula filmmaking… Also fantasy filmmaking. Rajveer is a lowly pit stop tyre changer who becomes, almost instantaneously, the Number One race car driver in America – in other words, from zero to hero in sixty seconds. And it is nice, even in a far-out fantasy such as this, to see an Indian being cheered by a stadium full of whites. I guess that’s what they call a willing suspension of disbelief – and as long as the film courses around in these privileged lanes, it’s mostly fine in an impersonal manner (for nothing actually reaches out and touches you).

That’s the thing about these Yash Raj films. As long as they confine themselves to the lives of the privileged in some moneyed la-la land, they work to an extent as undemanding fantasies. If we don’t question Preity Zinta being eight months pregnant and yet dancing wildly to What’s going on in Salaam Namaste, it’s because we don’t take the movie very seriously. Sure, it tries to make points about commitment and all, but the tone is lighthearted and that helps us keep our distance. But if there’s one thing that is at odds with glitzy packaging, it’s poverty. I don’t think there can be such a thing as suspension of disbelief when you’re trying to sell hard times, for poverty is all around us – there’s nothing not to believe about it. At one point, Rajveer loses his job and all his money – this is preceded by a great visual during a race; he takes his foot off the accelerator and slows down until every other contestant has passed him by, literally and figuratively – so he moves his wife and kids from tony Manhattan to a Harlem-ish neighbourhood. (His daughter looks at their cramped quarters and exclaims, “Five people in one room!â€? The fifth is their dog Bruno, and it’s a lovely touch that she refers to him as part of “people.â€? That’s really how indistinguishable from siblings pets can be to a child that age.) So after this move, we think things will get serious on us, but every dramatic episode is followed by a mandatory bit of clowning around. (The memo passed around before the project was greenlit must have read: Don’t let things get too serious.) Despite being about a penniless immigrant father who desperately tries to provide for his kids, In America managed to be light on its feet because it coated its drama with fairy-tale whimsy. But Ta Ra Rum Pum coats its drama with big, ritzy, Bollywood production numbers, as if wanting to cancel out the low spirits with high energy – and it doesn’t work. (The only film I can recall offhand that attempted this was the highly-stylised Pennies From Heaven, which contrasted Depression-era life with musical-comedy lushness – and that didn’t entirely work either.)

I’m not the kind of viewer who’s going to get all real and demand that Rajveer’s kids be reduced to images of snot running down a nostril or matted hair teeming with lice. This isn’t that kind of poverty, and this isn’t that kind of movie either. But when you’re trying to milk tears by showing a child pick food out of a dustbin – and when you’re trying to milk more tears by showing said child stand in front of a bakery’s window display (I guess this is for those who didn’t get the point the first time around) – and when you follow this with a song sequence with happy, dancing teddy bears in a Willy Wonka land of chocolate rivers and candy-cane walking sticks, we end up remembering more of the fantasy, less of the reality. This makes the film feel strangely incomplete. The dark themes (and the resulting dark emotions) are never allowed to fully develop and it’s only when the characters refer to themselves as being poor that we are reminded that they are. Until Rajveer launched into this bit of dialogue about the depths to which he’s sunk, I never quite realised that he’d sunk any depths at all. The scams he indulges in to make money for his family, they are presented almost like little capers. You smile at them the way you would at a roguish hero in a heist movie. You never get a hint of the depths of desperation behind this act. And that desperation is why you root for the underdog. It’s why you got up and cheered at the end of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar and at the end of Lagaan. (These references come about because Ta Ra Rum Pum invites us to cheer for Rajveer as he attempts an against-all-odds comeback to the racing circuit.)

Throw this accusation at the director and he’d probably point to a sequence midway through his film, where Rajveer goes job hunting and no one will hire him – and the song in the background isn’t a sad number but an oddly optimistic one, with lyrics that go Aayenge phir se din khushiyon ke / badlega yeh mausam. He’d also point to the racing sequences and say that the way he stages them is an indication that this is like Salaam Namaste, that nothing here is meant to be taken seriously. (As Rajveer passes a driver, he smiles and waves and mouths a bye-bye. As Rajveer makes a pit stop, he uses the time to wolf-whistle to his girl in the stands. And as Rajveer finishes, he drives circles on the grass, his wheels carving out an I Heart You. I think it’s safe to assume these events weren’t taken from the life of Schumacher.) And one thing you have to give the people at Yash Raj – they know how to keep a movie moving with well-oiled professionalism, which is not altogether a bad thing. There’s a moment when Rajveer carries his new bride Radhika over the threshold of the house he’s just bought for her. He’s barely gone through the door when the camera floats lazily to the window of a first-floor bedroom, through which we see Rajveer and Radhika and their two children engaged in a pillow fight. A few years get compressed into a few seconds, and it’s clear that there’s some kind of brain behind the scenes – that it’s not amateur hour. And after enduring, in quick succession, the likes of Red, Delhii Heights, Shakalaka Boom Boom and Kya Love Story Hai, it is a relief that someone at least knows what they’re doing – even if we know that, with their clout and with the resources at their disposal, they should be doing a whole lot better.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi