Review: Tashan / Sirf

Posted on April 26, 2008


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A masala movie that winks at masala movies. Sounds like fun, no? It’s actually anything but. Plus, what could have been this year’s Life in a Metro.

APR 27, 2008 – I’M WILLING TO BET A FAIR-SIZED SUM THAT this is how director Vijay Krishna Acharya’s pitch to producer Aditya Chopra went: “See, we’re used to films where a crucial plot enabler is the MacGuffin, the red herring – a bag of crisp notes, say, or wine bottles filled with Uranium – but what if the plot itself were the MacGuffin? People walk in expecting a story to unfold, but what if we take the very elements that make this story interesting and hurl them out of the window, or else chop them up into little hyper-stylised pieces so that they don’t seem to be a part of any single story so much as our cinema’s great kitsch continuum? What a terrific masala movie that would make.”

“After all, a masala movie is, by definition, pitched over the top, so let’s pitch this way over over-the-top, and instead of shaping our ‘story’ through a masala narrative, let the masala – the songs, the fights, the dialogue, the humour, the style – be the narrative. You don’t follow? Well, for instance, there’s the potential for a thrilling heist sequence when Jimmy (Saif Ali Khan) sets out to steal a heavy suitcase full of cash – one that belongs to a gangster (named Bhaiyaji, played by Anil Kapoor) – but let’s just dump all the suspense and simply show Jimmy walking out with the suitcase, to the accompaniment of wacky seventies’ music. What’s the point of this sequence, then, you ask? There’s no point. That’s the point.”

That’s an awesome conceit in theory – to do for the masala movie what Tarantino has done for the martial arts movie, which is to fall on all fours before its trashy magnificence – and so we have Tashan, a very brainy meta movie pretending to be a no-brainer masala movie, slapped together with shades of noir cinema (femme fatale, check; clueless, love-struck patsy, check) and the road movie (Kerala, check; Rajasthan, check) and the hoary revenge saga (child out to avenge parent’s gory death, check). The coming together of these elements should have been the most fun, most irreverent, most retro evening out at the movies since Main Hoon Na, but something gets lost between intent and execution – though I’m sure a lot of merriment was had during the script discussions.

“Let’s introduce Akshay Kumar (who plays a character named, hyuk hyuk, Bachchan Pandey) dressed as Ravana with sunglasses,” someone must have said, and the mental image must have cracked up everyone in the room. And as the other gags were tossed around – let’s have Bhaiyaji deliver a Deewar monologue in Hinglish; let’s spoof Don, by having the only cop who knows about the mole on the other side drop dead unceremoniously; let’s have a couple of sidekicks play hopscotch with a revolver instead of a stone; let’s have, in the Falak tak song sequence, a movie hall advertising a film named Falak Tak; let’s have an L.A.-based firang filmmaker (who’s shooting in India) get a call from Harvey (Weinstein); heck, let’s add “the” before the names of the stars during the opening credits (The Kareena Kapoor, by the way, is so totally hot, man, especially in that bikini) – the conference table must have caved in from all the slapping.

What we’re left with, though, is a cautionary tale about what’s likely to result when someone tries to think their way through an unabashed masala movie. It’s not the easiest of things to put together a masala entertainment in these (supposedly) enlightened multiplex climes, but the single-screen-era practitioners of this unholy genre-mishmash surely operated with their gut, not their grey cells. That’s perhaps why Tashan is so tedious – all the energy appears to have been expended on planning the movie, with very little left for the actual execution. The entertainment elements are all in place, but they just don’t come together in an entertaining way. Tashan is a like a gleaming sports car with no driver, and hence, no discernible direction. One moment it’s a crazy cartoon movie, where Bhaiyaji gets dressed in a room with a wall-sized Mona Lisa, flanked by a couple of suits of armour, and the next, Bhaiyaji clobbers someone to death with a cricket bat. (This unlikely instrument of death, still smeared with a dark crimson pulp of blood and flesh, is subsequently presented for our inspection.)

It’s one thing to see Jerry swing a sledgehammer on hapless Tom’s head – giving rise to a familiar boink sound effect and the inevitable hillock of red that rises instantly – but if the same levels of violence were shown in live action, is it still supposed to be fun? Or have we entered a different kind of movie now – a real, honest-to-goodness masala movie, instead of one that’s merely winking at those conventions? (This is the same problem I had with Om Shanti Om, which never really decided whether it wanted to have fun with a certain kind of cinema or follow in its footsteps.) By the time a young-love flashback – rather nicely spun, with sweet, homespun flourishes like electricity theft and an all-girls school and a mouthful of red chillies – comes to an end, and we discover who the boy and the girl in that story have grown up to be, we’re not sure whether to giggle or take the whole thing seriously.

There are distractions aplenty – in the form of hilariously nutty (though overlong) stunt sequences best described as Rajinikanth-meets-Parkour. The songs, too, are eye-poppingly staged, but they seem to exist simply because you can’t have a Hindi movie without songs. For all the brainstorming that’s gone into the characters, their entries and exits and their detailing, no one seems to have thought about how to bring about a song sequence – or, at least, create the kind of surreal atmosphere (like we saw in those other meta movies, Jaan-e-Mann and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom) that makes these considerations redundant. Only Dil dance maare lives up to the outrageousness of Vishal-Shekhar’s conception, and if you’ve seen the promos with the leads in blonde wigs, it’s a hoot to see how this situation comes to be.

Otherwise, the only thing you take away from Tashan is how Akshay Kumar totally deserves the first part of his screen name. It’s not just that he’s referred to, at one point, as Mr. Ganga Kinarewala, or that he’s mistaken for the Big B by that firang filmmaker. He plays so instinctively, so effortlessly to the gallery – part action stud, part bumpkin buffoon – that he gets away with things he shouldn’t be getting away with, the way his namesake did in so many masala films of the seventies and the eighties. And if Tashan becomes a hit – like Welcome or Bhool Bhulaiya or, oh, pretty much everything Akshay’s been in recently – you can add another reason for the comparison. The ability to transform dreck into box-office dynamite was yet another Bachchan specialty.

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AFTER SURVIVING TASHAN, THE PROSPECT OF a second film by a first-time director was utterly enervating – but if Rajaatesh Nayar’s Sirf isn’t all that it could have been, it’s at least got interesting characters who find themselves in interesting situations. This one had the potential to be this year’s Life in a Metro – an unflinchingly urban take on a series of interlocked relationships, peopled by a talented cast (Sonali Kulkarni, Kay Kay, Ranvir Shorey and Ankur Khanna, among them) – but everything’s brought down a couple of notches thanks to Nayar’s general tendency for overemphasis. (This is, after all, a film whose tagline goes, “Life Looks Greener on the Other Side,” with the third word shaded in green.)

You could go on cataloguing the film’s faults: the songs don’t linger; the scenes don’t know when to stop; the dialogues keep looping back to explain what’s already been explained; the staging is elementary; the actors are left pretty much to their own devices (and their performances, therefore, range from the wildly hammy to the barely adequate); terrible clichés coexist uncomfortably with moments of surprising insight (the conversation Kay Kay has with his driver, for instance). And yet, the universality of the bittersweet predicaments – of having love but no money, of having money but no love, of having money and love but no time – resonates just enough to make you wonder what Nayar is capable of with more money and better collaborators.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi