About fifteen minutes into Tamasha, the new film from Imtiaz Ali, I’d got my money’s worth. We’re in Corsica, France – the first of many places we run into Ved (Ranbir Kapoor). Others include a future trip to Tokyo, Japan, and a back-in-time excursion to Simla, Flashback – yes, written that way, as though Simla were a territory in a larger province in the past, named after a narrative technique. But for now, Corsica. Ali’s characters like to take long journeys, but for the first time in one of his films, we feel we’re on vacation. The locales, glazed with buttery-yellow light, look good enough to gobble up. (The eye-balming cinematography is by Ravi Varman.) Ved is on vacation too. He works in an unremarkable job in India – he’s a product manager. An on-loop montage shows us his routine – wake up, brush teeth, eat cereal, wear tie, stop at traffic light on way to work, keep elevator door open for others, smile politely at colleagues, and deliver numbing PowerPoint presentations. Who wouldn’t want a break?
At first, Ved is like all vacationers. He’s just physically in a different place. Then he runs into Tara (Deepika Padukone), and something – we’re never told what, exactly – happens. He becomes another person, mentally in a different place, on a vacation from himself. Ved is frequently shot in front of mirrors, connoting the split between the person he is at heart and the person he’s been forced to become by the ways of the world (someplace between dil and duniya, as the film puts it), but note that his name has a reflection too: Dev. It’s another man’s name. And in Tara’s company, Ved becomes that other man – only, he calls himself Don, after the movie. Why use real names, he reasons. Then they’d discover common friends, that it’s a small world after all. Why not stay in this larger world, with its infinite capacity for imagination? Let’s be strangers, let’s part as strangers. Tara plays along and becomes Mona. Soon, AR Rahman’s instrumental track Parade de la Bastille begins to play over a colourful celebration around Ved and Tara – sorry, Don and Mona. They talk. They hang out with no agenda, certainly no getting-to-know-you stuff. The instrumental segues smoothly to the song Matargashti, where the irrepressible Mohit Chauhan seems to be holidaying too. The energy is infectious. The locals join in. The next time you find yourself at the end of a bad day, watch this stretch of Tamasha instead of pouring yourself a stiff drink. You’ll end up with twice the high.
It’s a number of things, but let’s begin with the performances. Ranbir and Deepika do the most difficult kind of acting. There’s no industrial-strength emoting needed. The plot hasn’t really kicked in yet, so they aren’t required to slip into character arcs or do things actors are usually called upon to do to take the story forward. They’re just required to bask, to be. This kind of “performance” is a combination of personal charisma, mutual chemistry, surrendering to the moment, and praying that the director knows what the hell he is doing – and the leads pull it off beautifully, as if unaware that a camera is watching them. Just the way all this comes together – actor to actor, scene to song, normalcy to choreography (nothing elaborate, just the illusion that limbs are on vacation) – is so seamless, so breathtakingly alive (more about Aarti Bajaj’s editing later), that the film could have ended right here and I’d have walked home happily.
But vacations come with a return ticket. After this dream beginning, it’s time for reality, for Don and Mona to become Ved and Tara again. But the parting-as-strangers clause of their pact proves difficult for Tara. On the way to the airport, Deepika shows us what Tara is feeling, a messy mix of “Shit, I should probably stay back and spend more time with this amazing guy,” and “What an idiot you are Tara, how could you fall so hard for a man who won’t even tell you his name?” and “Christ, how can something that lasted for such a short while and was so much fun now hurt this much?” Tamasha is the first Imtiaz Ali movie in which we see the woman pining for the man, and a small problem is that we know nothing about this woman except that she pines for this man.
Women have pined for men earlier in Imtiaz Ali’s films, most famously in Rockstar. Heer pined for Jordan to such an extent that, in his absence, she began to droop like a plant that doesn’t get much sun anymore. But we only sensed this pining. We did not see it because we did not spend too much time with her, and the story was told entirely from the man’s point of view. But the first half of Tamasha is almost completely Tara’s story – how, after her return to India, she wills herself back into Ved’s arms (she finds him after a while); how she forces herself to believe that this is going to work; how she discovers that she doesn’t want Ved, she wants Don. She wants the free spirit who howled at the moon, not this product manager who, after meeting her many years later, smiles as if meeting someone who sat in the cubicle opposite his years ago. (He hands her his business card.) They start going out, after revealing their real identities. One evening, she invites him up. He leans in to kiss her, then remembers something. He’s got to put his phone on silent. Later, he says “I love you” as though informing her she’s got something on her chin. She’s devastated.
What does she do when not pining? Tamasha seems to want to tell us both sides of this love story, but only Ved is developed as a character. Tara works better as a romantic construct, a deux ex machina – as her name suggests, someone sent from the heavens to guide this earthbound man. We don’t get to know her the way we get to know Ved. Her career is a blur, something in the tea industry. (Hey, all the better to wake up Ved.) Her family is a blur, barely glimpsed in a scene. Her boyfriend is a blur, one of those blandly good-looking men Ali likes to cast opposite his heroines. But every time she goes chasing after Ved – at one point, she becomes like Jordan in Rockstar, desperate to have Ved back in her life – we find ourselves wanting to know more about her. We’re told that she came to Corsica because her favourite comic, as a kid, was Asterix in Corsica – but why is she alone? Doesn’t she have friends? What about that boyfriend? You can see Ved holidaying all by himself – but Tara? In a very funny scene, Don accidentally looks down Mona’s blouse and glimpses her “husn ki vaadiyan.” She blushes and instinctively begins to button up, but then she pauses. She smiles and takes off her shirt. We keep wanting to know the woman who blushed and paused, which is presumably the woman Mona is when back in India. It’s a credit to Deepika’s performance that these questions don’t loom larger. She takes a chalk outline and teases out a character. The movie-star radiance helps – she’s lit in a soft light that emphasises Tara’s ethereality. And then we think about Corsica, how she travelled light when Ved carried this huge backpack around all the time. Maybe the point is that he’s the one with all the baggage, the one with the story worth getting into.
For a while, I had a tough time accepting that Ved could transform into Don, that Don could transform back into Ved. These states are polar extremes, and unless, say, hit by trauma, people usually exist somewhere along the middle. But if this facet of Ved comes across more as conceit than character, it’s because it could be no other way in Imtiaz Ali’s intensely romantic world. Maybe logically speaking, a man who has it in him to talk to mountains (Don does that) and crawl on all fours to lakes in order to lap up the water wouldn’t, when back in his natural environment, clamp himself down to this extent, brown-nosing his boss (a very funny Vivek Mushran) and not do a single thing that’s fun. But emotionally speaking, we get what Ali is after. Ved is like Rockstar’s Heer. He doesn’t get the things he wants. He begins to droop like a plant that doesn’t get much sun anymore.
And what lights him up? Stories. As a child, Ved spent hours at the feet of an eccentric raconteur (Piyush Mishra). This man – the classic unreliable narrator – keeps mixing up his characters. He talks about Ram and Sita one day. The next day, he’s in Troy, with Helen and Paris. When Ved protests, he says, “Kahaani kahaani hoti hai… Bas mazaa lo kahaani ka.” Don’t think too much. Just enjoy the story in front of you. This is true of Tamasha as well, and maybe of Imtiaz Ali’s work in general, less head fodder than feasts for the heart.
Ved listens to these stories and his imagination runs wild. One moment, he’s in his Catholic school, watching a procession of choir boys singing Joy to the World. The next, his mind has transformed this procession into Samyukta’s retinue during her swayamvar, as she searches for Prithviraj, varmala in hand. This kind of childhood, Ali says, is a serpent, and if we are to grow up, if we are to become responsible adults, we need to leave this Eden, we need to crush these temptations underfoot. And this is the trauma that turns us into automatons. Tamasha literalises this at the beginning, through a stage show about a robot on a treadmill. That’s what Ved has become. But when Tara enters his life, things begin to change, the way things changed for Jordan when he met Heer in Rockstar. In that film, being away from the woman made the man go mad. Here, being with her makes him go wild. He becomes the lovelorn characters from the stories he heard as a child. The film quotations change too. He’s no longer “cool,” like the titular character from Don. He becomes melodramatic, someone who recites Koi paththar se na maare from Laila Majnu, a vastly different kind of seventies movie. The stories from Ved’s childhood are presented in grainy visuals, and finally we see Ved himself embalmed in one of these visuals – he’s written his own legendary love story. With some help, of course. As in other films by Ali, destiny plays a part. After Tara rejects Ved’s proposal, he misplaces the ring, but his friends find it. Later, in a peevish fit, he gives it away, but the recipient returns it. The gods have spoken. Ved is meant to be with Tara.
Ranbir isn’t as convincing in the breakdowns where his inner Majnu keeps bursting out – there’s something studied about the way he alternately holds back and lets loose. But he’s otherwise fantastic. Or maybe we should say the character is fantastic – at least to those who love Imtiaz Ali’s heroes. Ali writes for men the kind of stories Barbara Cartland wrote for women, except that his stories have a steel core of angst – they’re Snarlequin Romances. If you’re logical-minded, you’ll probably look at his heroes and say, “Oh, grow up!” But you need to be a romantic like Ali – or like Jordan, or like Veer Singh from Love Aaj Kal – to really enter his world. And what a world that is – even auto-rickshaw drivers wear their hearts on their khaki sleeves. We meet one such man, as Ved hops into his vehicle. The song he hums? Tu meri zindagi hai, from Aashiqui. But this character isn’t just about another film quotation. He’s like Ved. He wanted to be one thing (a musician). He ended up being another (an auto-rickshaw driver). And in one of those amazing amalgamations of Imtiaz Ali’s writing and Aarti Bajaj’s editing, we slip between a song the man imagines he’s singing (in the stage inside his head, he’s a star), the same song as he sings it in real life, and Ved’s flashback that shows us how he was forced out from what he wanted to be and how he ended up what he is.
The film is full of these trancelike transitions. Through Ved’s imagination, we see a pining Sita, embroidering Ram’s name on a swatch of cloth – CUT TO Tara pining for Ved, even before we’ve been introduced to her as a character. The song segues are equally amazing. (Rahman’s music works beautifully with Ali’s visuals.) Ali is one of the rare modern-day filmmakers – along with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, another singular-minded director who’s a bit of an acquired taste, and whose films aren’t head movies but heart movies – who respects the value a song can add to a situation. We see Tara walking out of the airport in Kolkata, her hometown, and we cut to the song Heer to badi sad hai somewhere in Punjab. The song situation itself isn’t new. A chorus is commentating on something – we’ve seen this in Zanjeer, for instance, where street performers sang Deewane hain deewanon ko and made the leads (and the audience) realise what their feelings were. But I cannot recall another film in which this sort of commentating happened in a completely different location. Ali seems to be asking: But why should the fact that Tara is in Kolkata prevent the song from unfolding in Punjab? After all, wasn’t that where Heer was from?
There aren’t many other mainstream filmmakers whose films lend themselves to such readings – and re-readings. (Re-watching Ali’s films is like a turn of a kaleidoscope – you see them slightly differently.) If only he wasn’t such a chronic over-explainer. It isn’t enough that he sets up the film’s theme at the beginning, with that robot on a treadmill. At a later point, Ali has Ved narrate the same story, at length, to his father. And hasn’t the point about Ved being a natural-born storyteller already been made – in Corsica, where he entertains a gathering of strangers, and through the series of stories he tells rapt listeners on the sides of the streets back home? The over-explaining spills over to the songs too. Tu koi aur hai, a number goes, over a despondent Ved. You are someone else. And we need to be told this? But past these prosaic bits, there’s always some poetry around the corner. Ali creates an intense, immersive experience, a lot of which is surely autobiographical – don’t tell me it’s a coincidence that Ved ends up in show business. (Sometimes, the audience finds it autobiographical too. A young boy weak in maths being forced into engineering, and then gradually worming his way to a more creative career? I know at least one viewer who was nodding vehemently.) The last scene shows Ved and Tara as they were in Corsica – just basking, just being. They have headphones on, and they’re dancing to a song we don’t hear. That’s Ali, really. He makes movies out of the music inside his head.
- Tamasha = spectacle
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