ACT OF THE MATTER
First-rate performances elevate two small films into big winners.
SEPT 7, 2008 – IF MAGICAL REALISM WERE A CERTIFIED CINEMATIC TROPE, Santosh Sivan would be amongst its foremost practitioners. As The Terrorist so eloquently showed us, Sivan has few peers in the telling of stories through imagery suspended just so between the real and the surreal. He’s always been a cinematographer first, a director only later, and Tahaan captivates you primarily with what Sivan wants you to see – and I mean “captivate” quite literally, for these often-abstract images leave you in spellbound thrall; only then do you take away where the film is going and what it’s about. Sivan is the rare artist who uses what we dismissively like to call “pretty pictures” in the service of a genuinely larger vision, and by the end, they’re no longer just pretty pictures but the soul of the story.
When Tahaan (Purav Bhandara, playing a boy of eight who lives in Kashmir) lies on his back in the dingy confines of his home and tries to grab a handful of sunlight, the visual is beyond beautiful – not just because it could be framed and mounted, but because the boy is trying to claim for himself a piece of a golden dream, a little slice of the magical story that his grandfather (a wonderfully empathetic Victor Banerjee) narrated earlier. Is the dream that of a strife-free Kashmir? Is it that of a maqsad, a goal in life, represented so movingly by a pigeon washed up on ice? Is it that his missing father will return? Is it that he will soon become an adult, one of the mard log, so he will no longer be treated with an indulgence bordering on contempt for his feelings? Or is it that he will get back his beloved donkey, Birbal, which his penurious family was forced to sell off to a moneylender?
From the global to the local, this dream, in Sivan’s eyes, is all-encompassing – and the small miracle of Tahaan is that very little of this is shouted out to the audience. It’s all up there on screen, telling little touches that paint a heartbreaking picture of a lost paradise – a reclusive Kashmiri Pundit picking up an apple left at his doorstep; Zafar (Rahul Bose, almost overcoming being miscast) offering to compensate for Tahaan’s loss in a race by handing over a cherished pair of sunglasses; the quiet differences in how the mother (a very touching Sarika) copes with loss (of a husband) in a mostly passive manner, while her son, who’s too young to succumb to stoic resignation, copes with loss (of a pet animal) by actively attempting to do something about it.
And just when you thought a film couldn’t be more lyrical, Tahaan gets mired in literalness. The minor missteps are easy to overlook – like the woman from the documentary crew (clearly representing the quotation-marked clueless outsider) who thinks Tahaan is an adorable Kashmiri bachcha, or the children whose idea of playtime is falling dead to the pop-pop-pop of fake gunfire. (The notion of innocents being affected by their surroundings, of their innocence being snatched away, is realised to far better effect in a far less obvious scene, when Tahaan is casually summoned by a soldier by the roadside, and he walks up to the man with his hands in the air, as if surrender were an automatic assumption under the circumstances.) But Sivan’s major problem arises when the film migrates from abstract experiences to concrete plot mechanics, when he begins to show us how children too are sucked into the violence around them.
These are the portions he needed to be less of a cinematographer, more of a director – and though Sivan pulls off some lovely moments with Anupam Kher (as the no-nonsense elder who now possesses Birbal), the events engineered around Tahaan’s brush with militancy come alarmingly close to being facile. Then again, the director does inform us, at the beginning, that this is a fable, and perhaps a factual inspection of the circumstances is beside the point – especially when Bhandara takes us along on his journey with such magical conviction. The evidence of great, transparent acting is supposed to lie in such gifts as emotional memory and elastic body language, but based on the apparent effortlessness of recent child actors like Darsheel Safary and Purav Bhandara, you’re tempted to point to nothing more than an endearingly toothy grin.
IF NASEERUDDIN SHAH GREW TIRED OF ACTING and felt compelled to join the ranks of the white-collared, all he’d need for a résumé is his portrayal in A Wednesday. He plays a nondescript man in the middle of a nondescript workweek, clad in a half-sleeved shirt of drab uniformity, seated at his desk, discharging his duties with quiet sincerity and efficiency. Occasionally, he gets up to stretch, sipping tea that he pours from a thermos, and then he’s back in his chair. Even his lunch is unremarkable in its everydayness – sandwiches cut neatly into triangles, courtesy, presumably, the wife who, like wives everywhere, calls her husband to remind him to stop for a few provisions on the way home. It’s during this exchange that we hear the first tinge of annoyance in his voice – till then, so measured, so composed and reassuring – and when the wife asks if he isn’t mad at her last-minute instructions, he laughs it off, remarking, “Poora shaher pada hai gussa utaarne ke liye.”
This admission of having the entire city spread out before him – his top-level office offers a great view – in order to vent his irritation is the one thing that makes him uncommon among the sea of commoners he appears to represent. He has secreted into the city’s crevices a series of bombs, which he threatens to detonate if his demands aren’t met. The cops – a terrific cast of underutilised actors, comprising Jimmy Sheirgill, Aamir Bashir, and especially Anupam Kher – rally forth to defuse the situation, which threatens to spill over to the public when a TV reporter (Deepal Shaw) stumbles into the mess. And for a while, we appear to be watching nothing more and nothing less than a brisk, effective, journeyman thriller by first-time director Neeraj Pandey, who knows exactly how to ratchet up the tension, even if it means using familiar tricks like cross-cutting between the hunter and the hunted to give you the impression of a confrontation in the offing, and then pulling back to say, “Ha, tricked you!”
But sometime into the second half, we are presented a superb emotional twist that makes us reevaluate everything we’ve seen so far. Issues of whether this twist is logical or possible or even responsible, I’ll leave for better minds to discuss. All I’ll say is that, from the point of view of melodramatic effectiveness, it’s a masterstroke that you cannot help embracing and, subsequently, cheering. What Pandey accomplishes isn’t just the setting up of a beautifully entertaining clash between two of our finest actors, in a story routed through gentle humour, remarkably unfussy character development and a climactic confrontation that breaks your heart at how understated it is – but also something more high-minded: he has made a message movie (a rabble-rousing message, perhaps, but a message nonetheless) that says what it wants to say through action, and not words, as we experienced with the liberal pieties of Mumbai Meri Jaan. It’s rare for a ticking-clock thriller to transcend its genre, but it’s rarer still that a movie stuns you with a message without wagging a single finger.
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