‘Tamasha’ is a well-made film, but its Peter-Pan ideas of life make it hard to take seriously.
Director: Imtiaz Ali
Starring: Ranbir Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Piyush Mishra, Javed Sheikh
Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha lays its cards on the table quite early on, in the opening sequence itself. The film begins with a Brechtian theatre scene, the titular tamasha, starring Ranbir Kapoor’s Ved Vardan Sahni, a corporate stooge whose life seems to revolve around spouting inane social media jargon at client presentations, in a robot costume, walking on a treadmill. He is accompanied by a clown, played by Deepika Padukone’s Tara Maheshwari, who claims to have access to the voice of his heart, which she can play by pressing a red heart-shaped button on his chest. She does so, causing him to spout generic Bollywood dilwalaspeak and begin telling the great love story of his life.
We’re then transported to “Shimla, Flashback”, where a young Ved is growing up, the sole interest in his life being to pay an old man (Mishra, an inspired casting choice, possibly inspired by his character in Gulaal) to tell him stories. Only, the old man finds it hard to remember what story he was telling the last time. When Ved complains about him telling the story of Helen of Troy instead of that of Sita’s abduction, the old man responds, aren’t all the great love stories the same story, full of ephemeral joy and the ache of separation, of Ranjha/Majnu/Ram/Romeo pining for the woman of his dreams, who has been taken away from him by forces beyond his control?
But no, Tamasha, whose tagline asks “Why always the same story?”, is intent on not following that particular template. In fact, when Ved and Tara meet many years later in Corsica, drawn together by fate and circumstance, Ved eschews the role of man-hitting-on-woman that the situation demands from him, refuses to ground their acquaintance in the mundane realities they are both escaping in this vacation. Instead, they agree to only lie to each other, to construct an alternate reality to inhabit throughout the duration of their stay, after which they will never see each other again—think of it as Before Sunrise, but with Linklater’s taut dialogue replaced by an endless barrage of pointless Bollywood camp and sophomoric sex talk. Say it with me, what happens in Corsica, STAYS IN CORSICA!!
They agree to only lie to each other, to construct an alternate reality to inhabit throughout the duration of their stay, after which they will never see each other again—think of it as Before Sunrise, but with Linklater’s taut dialogue replaced by an endless barrage of pointless Bollywood camp and sophomoric sex talk.
Of course, the feelings that are stirred in the vacation don’t subside, even four years later, and Tara tracks down Ved and professes undying love for him. Only, the Ved she fell in love with, the spontaneous, imaginative free spirit, was only an affectation, a mirage; the Ved she has to consider spending the rest of her life with is the robot from the play, his individuality leached away by years of wage slavery, his imagination corroded by constant conformity, his spontaneity replaced by dull conversations about how everything’s a brand today and countries are companies and vice versa.
This transition is the most intriguing portion of the film, set up through some excellent plotting and creditable performances by both Kapoor and Padukone, who, while never looking entirely convincing—they never have—come as close as they ever have to playing three-dimensional complex characters. One of the best scenes has Ved taking Tara out to a movie. Disappointed at the unimaginative idea for a second date—the first was to a restaurant that Ved helpfully pointed out was Time Out’s best Oriental restaurant in Delhi—and beginning to fear he is functioning on autopilot in carrying forward this relationship, Tara asks Ved as they walk into the hall, “Is this love?” His answer, “I love you too,” is just right in the awkwardness it creates.
The questions their conflict raises, and the implied inner struggles the two are facing, are interesting: who is Ved, the free spirit from Corsica masquerading as a boring product manager, or a dull, empty vessel only capable of short bursts of excitement? And what does it mean to love someone like that—can you really expect to hold someone to a version of them that might not exist outside your head, a version that might be incompatible with their day-to-day existence? How do you react when your entire existence, all that you are and all that you have built, is suddenly exposed as hollow by the person you’re hoping to marry? And how do you deal with the guy you’ve rejected but still care for unravelling in front of your eyes as a direct consequence of your criticism?
Who is Ved, the free spirit from Corsica masquerading as a boring product manager, or a dull, empty vessel only capable of short bursts of excitement? And what does it mean to love someone like that—can you really expect to hold someone to a version of them that might not exist outside your head, a version that might be incompatible with their day-to-day existence?
Unfortunately, Imtiaz Ali isn’t particularly interested in examining these issues beyond a point; they are merely a stalking horse for the saccharine climb-ev’ry-mountain worldview he’s been espousing ever since his first film. Like his other feckless protagonists, Ved’s struggle is internal, whether or not to make the necessary changes in himself in order to satisfy the woman who is his happily-ever-after. (“There are no Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar[s] any more,” he said in a recent interview. “No one impedes love.”) Said happily-ever-after is taken for granted, for we’re provided no insight into Tara’s point of view; as my cousin put it in a Facebook update, Imtiaz Ali forgot to write Deepika’s character.
Here, said changes require him to thumb his nose at the rat race he has committed himself to running for the rest of his life and find that spark he has long since extinguished in the name of growing up. To escape the mediocrity that is his lot in life and find a different race, which he’ll have a better shot of winning—to feel special again, just like he did as a child. Although that is an admirable endeavour, coming 16 years after Fight Club, six years after 3 Idiots and two years after Ranbir and Deepika debated similar questions in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, it does seem stale, and not a little juvenile, for such millennial angst to be the grand theme of the film. For the great climax of the film to be Ved confronting his father à la Madhavan in 3 Idiots.
Look, the whole IIT-IIM dream that our parents force down our throats is bogus, and as The Indian Express’ ongoing series on the spate of suicides in Kota’s coaching factories demonstrates, the pressures and anxieties foisted on teenagers who go down this path are tragic. And the whole process leaves us with a generation that is indecisive, unwilling to question authority, conformist and (often) politically oblivious.
It is important to acknowledge the inherent privilege in possessing both the means to attend a professional college as well as the luxury to turn your back on that profession, to not fetishise such a choice as heroic or revolutionary. It is, after all, a choice that has been available to, and availed by, generations of rich kids before us, all over the world
However, and I say this as a qualified mechanical engineer following his dream of writing for a living, it is important to acknowledge the inherent privilege in possessing both the means to attend a professional college as well as the luxury to turn your back on that profession, to not fetishise such a choice as heroic or revolutionary. It is, after all, a choice that has been available to, and availed by, generations of rich kids before us, all over the world; all that has changed is that the number of opportunities has increased.
As for the whole bit about holding on to the idea that you’re special, it has been posited as a reason so many millennials are unhappy with their lot in life, as well as why they are considered more self-centred than previous generations. The “special snowflake syndrome” our generation, or at least the privileged portion that can afford such angst, suffers from renders us unable to contemplate a life of mediocrity, but as Briana Meade writes in Bedlam magazine,
[We] entered a small microcosm of history like [Genghis] Khan battling into Chinese territory. With alacrity and assumed importance.
We’re HERE!!! We shouted, flinging our graduation tassels into the crowd. Do you see us? We’re here!!!! Let the party begin! And the crowd is quiet. They’ve anticipated our real world-entry for the fifteen years they wiped our hineys and dressed us in Limited Too Tees.
They know something we don’t. Life is a lot more about faithfulness, about the mundane moments of being a special person to one, or two, or three people, than it is about standing up on a podium and receiving an award. Life is about hard work, yes, but sometimes (often) hard work necessitates sacrifice and the humility of knowing that hard work might not even be enough. It’s not the hard work that counts, but the bravery, humility, and sacrifice of doing well, and being faithful.
What does millennial mediocrity look like? It looks like authentic relationships and showing up. It looks like schedules blocked out with yellow highlighter to do the hard things that include paying rent, buying Halloween candy for children, washing sheets, and contributing to the economy. This is 95% of real life. Doing the faithful things.
I’m not saying, of course, that Ved’s decision, or mine, is unfair or unjustified simply because others have not been afforded the same opportunities. Or that it is fine to sacrifice your individuality and agency in service of the Man. But there is something hollow about a film in 2015 tying so much of one’s worth to taking the path less travelled, especially when said path has been well-worn by now and yet is closed to so many because of circumstance. There’s something inauthentic about a film whose idea of a free spirit is restricted to being a well-shod extrovert playing infantile games and fleeing the mundanities of everyday life. And there’s something troubling about a film whose approach to such issues is to reject out of hand the notion that working a thankless job can ever be a worthwhile existence.
There’s something inauthentic about a film whose idea of a free spirit is restricted to being a well-shod extrovert playing infantile games and fleeing the mundanities of everyday life. And there’s something troubling about a film whose approach to such issues is to reject out of hand the notion that working a thankless job can ever be a worthwhile existence.
Tamasha is a well-made film, with exceptional cinematography by Ravi Varman (assisted by some glorious shooting locations), beautiful music by AR Rahman, competent performances all around, a solid script and a narrative structure that is entertaining, if a little forced. However, because of its insistence on rehashing old thematic ground, it never transcends the sum of its parts.