Friday, October 3, 2008

Not a Review, or, ek American Ignoramus' POV on Tashan


(I know, I know, I promised a review. But I simply couldn't write anything else until I got this out of the way. I'm sorry! And I apologize in advance for any offense my ignorance might cause. I know nothing about anything.)

While watching Tashan, I found myself in the somewhat frustrating position of having watched enough Hindi films to suspect that things were a joke but being still too ignorant to be certain. For example, when Saif's character Jimmy and Kareena's character Pooja meet, rain is pouring down. He asks her, "Where is your umbrella?" She replies, "It was sunny when I left the house." His sympathetic question: "New to Mumbai?" I laughed, sure a comment was being made on the filmi tendency to have rain conveniently fall whenever a character's emotions demand it... but then I wondered. Maybe it does rain in Mumbai all the time with no warning.

There's one thing that came through loud and clear, however, even to a newbie like myself: Vijay Krishna Acharya has a bone to pick, and it's a quintessentially Indian bone as far as this Westerner can tell. Appropriately, he's chosen that most quintessentially Indian of movie genres, the masala film, in which to air his complaint. In Tashan, there are mistaken identities, good buddies, plots within plots, betrayals within betrayals, villains beyond redemption and long-separated childhood sweethearts... and a message about a modern-day tug-of-war in India. It's a message movie; the first I've seen from India that's not about religion or women.


The Surprise of the Film

If one has seen Acharya-ji's work in the past, including Dhoom and Dhoom 2, one might be excused for expecting another brainless eyecandy extravaganza in Tashan. Probably, that's what most were expecting, and it's likely that's why most were disappointed. The film bombed, utterly, upon release, and though I have no way to track the DVD sales, from the "hmmm" to "meh" blog reviews I've read I'd guess it's not doing much better in that arena.

In fact, what Tashan displays is something I don't think I've come across in mainstream Hindi films before: that cynical, furious satire that doesn't so much expose perceived societal shortcomings as it does strip them nude and hang them in the stocks for ridicule. It's this sort of bitterly humorous commentary that made the original cast of Saturday Night Live such icons in American popular culture, and it's in the aftermath of that barely suppressed fury that I was raised, as I was born in the late 1970's. It's faded to jaded boredom over here, but it still feels pretty fresh coming across the Pacific. And the main focus of Acharya-ji's disgust has its crosshairs on a very Hindustani demarcation between upper- and lower-class: the ability to speak English fluently.

I didn't realize that this was even an issue until I watched K3G, and wondered why the children made fun of little Pooja (played, coincidentally, as an adult by Kareena Kapoor--who also stars in Tashan) by asking, "Does she speak English?" "Hey, you speak Hindi, don't you?" "Ver-ny! Ver-ny! Ver-ny!" Upon inquiry over at BollyWHAT, those in the know informed me that "verny" is short for "vernacular" and it's sometimes used as a put-down for those who speak Hindi by those who know English. English tends to be learned by those who can afford private schooling; those who can't often learn some words in conversation but don't really speak it as such.

Masala Plus a Message

Tashan opens with a perfect picturization of the dilemma: a Mercedes, travelling down an Indian road, swerving back and forth as the radio switches from an English to a Hindi song and back again, over and over again. It finally settles on the Hindi track, but only as it flies over a cliff and into a river. The song still plays as the car slowly sinks underwater--Hindi won, but at what cost? In the submerged car, Saif turns to the camera and begins to speak in Hindi about his Maa--that most adored of masala figures and the main motivation for many Hindi heros' heroics. We flashback to her giving him motherly advice, and little Western-style-suit-clad Saif's very UN-masala internal reaction in English: "Bullshit! Double bullshit with a cherry on top!"

Back to grown-up Saif, who says in Hindi, "Always listen to your mother." And in English, "I mean, it could save your life." The sentimental and the practical, married together in the two languages he speaks.

The commentary on language continues, embodied in the sociopathic thug Bhaiyyaji (played by Anil Kapoor in the funniest Bollywood performance I've ever seen) and his henchman Bachchan Pande (Akshay Kumar). Bhaiyyaji wants to learn English, but only his style of English... he's got the nouveau riche desire to speak this "elite" language but the gangster's insistence on never losing face: two opposing forces that lead to him speaking the worst of both worlds.

Bachchan Pande, on the other hand, has no desire to speak English at all--and no desire to hear it. As he tells Jimmy after hitting him when the latter speaks to Bachchan in English, "If I don't understand something, I take it as an insult." I can only assume that Acharya-ji is making a point on behalf of those who don't speak English, yet are subjected to increasing amounts of it in supposedly Hindi films. Indeed, as the most sympathetic of the characters in the film, Bachchan is clearly the everyman for whom we're supposed to root. And we do. (By the way, Akshay owns this role. He's a far better action hero than Krrish could dream of becoming, and his grin could light up a room at midnight.)

The English-Hindi war continues through the rest of the film; a police inspector tells an Indian movie gopher "Speak in Hindi," in English, just to rub in the fact that he can speak it without a problem.


Pooja: More than a Stereotype

The one character exempt from the language tug-of-war is Pooja, who speaks both with fluent ease just as she slips from one avatar to another with equal facility: from innocent good girl to hardened con woman to vulnerable girl afraid to hope. I can only imagine one or two Bollywood stars playing Pooja, and Kareena does a fantastic job. Oh, right, and she lost a bunch of weight, too, which brings us to a

MEMO TO BEBO

Dear Kareena Kapoor: I know, I know. It's a huge opportunity to be given a role in a Yash Raj film, not to mention a role that actually requires you to be more than eye candy or a "traditional girl," plus the added bonus that you'll actually be paid on time for your work. However, as one who has grown up under the onus of a nation enslaved to various and different eating disorders, I would like to express my hope that as you gain influence in the Hindi film industry you refuse to sign any further contracts that obligate you to be a certain weight, especially one so unsuited to your frame.

I realize that I am not the target demographic for your bikini-fest "Chhaliya;" my husband, however, is, and when he saw you walk out of the ocean his first reaction, without any prepping from me, was, "Ugh. Women's thighs shouldn't be the same size as their calves." So. Fitness=good, size zero=not hot. Thank you, and all the best.

Sincerely,

ajnabi

Moving on: Pooja is a dream character. It's not hard to see why any actress would jump at the chance to play her. She's quick-witted, wily, manipulative, and angry, with a vulnerable core that surfaces only when she can't help it. In fact, she's the most complicatedly human of the cast of characters, and it's because of this I think that she's exempted from the language tightrope walking. It's only after getting to know her that Bachchan loses his antipathy toward speaking English.

Western and Wrong

Not just English, however, but the whole fetishizing of Western culture for Hindi films is ripped apart by Tashan. The trio of Jimmy, Bachchan, and Pooja hook up on their travels with an American film crew (in the country to film a movie called "Holy Widows"--is that a Deepa Mehta jab?) and, to maintain their cover, insist on shooting a song for the film.

Pooja puts in blue contacts, all three Indians don blonde wigs and Western clothing, and a troupe of white back-up dancers clad in traditional Indian clothing appear out of nowhere, just in time to shoot "Dil Dance Maare" which starts out with "White white face dekhe!" (Just the other day, I heard an Asian immigrant on the radio say that before she came to America she assumed all Westerners were blonde, blue-eyed, and had big noses.) "Dil Dance Maare" savagely skewers the gora girls dancing back-up in Bollywood music videos, the awful Hinglish ("oh very happy in my heart!"), the fascination with pale-skinned actors, and the utterly tacky clothes. One could even argue that Kareena's size-zero body screaming for nourishment from its red pleather envelope mocks the fascination with Western ideals.


Even as it deals a stern knuckle-rap to the industry that created it, however, it sneers at the Western audience sure to view the song as confirmation of its worst prejudices against Hindi films. By catering to all the ridiculous fallacies those ignorant of the industry are prone to, it throws them up in the audience's face with a confrontational, "What? Isn't this exactly what you want from us?"

Given the unaccountable affection my heart holds for this angry little red-headed stepchild of Bollywood, Acharya-ji might just have proven his point.

18 comments:

  1. Thats a very thoughtful post indeed. And the only nice post I've seen about Tashan! So, far I've avoided it because it was uniformly trashed but your post inspires me to check it out.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's odd to think of speaking another language as a sign of social class, but it happens in a lot of places. For example, there is a professor at my university who can quote Pushkin in beautiful Russian, and I was sure she was Russian. But she is actually Bulgarian, and she said, "The ELITE go to school and learn Russian; the RICHEST of the elite also learn English." So if I was Bulgarian and heard her speaking Russian and English, I would immediately know her social class.

    I grew up speaking two languages, but I never thought too much of it until Hindi films and foreign students/professors pointed out the class divides in their countries to me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow interesting, note-worthy points.

    First about Westernalization 9si that even a word??), I think it's everywhere. Not even in Bollywood. I see that in Tollywood films too. As well as Hong Kong, Thai, and Korean movies. It's so cool.

    About Kareena in Tashan, I personally don't think she looks anorexic like others say. I think her figure is fine. It's just that I think she has a huge, big, bobble head that makes her look like Tweety Bird in Tashan. Other than that, I wouldn't mind having her legs. :D

    ReplyDelete
  4. Bollyviewer--I sincerely hope you don't end up hating it (and me LOL) after watching. I don't think it deserved the bad rap it got but there are still some major flaws.

    Hi Nae! I guess I'm so American (you are too right?) that speaking a different language has a different connotation. We're so insular about English that when someone speaks a different language we tend to be like, "Hey! cool!" when I know most people I've met from other places take it for granted that you'll need to speak at least two langugages to get along in the world. So for me discovering that it marks a class difference was a revelation. But I get what you're saying, it's not just an Indian thing.

    Hi Nicki! I see Westernization (or--alization LOL) lots of places too; I really don't think it's a bad thing because people have a right to pick and choose what they integrate into their culture. It'd be a pretty sad world if we couldn't learn from each other. And there are some things about Western movies that I like, i.e. high production values, coherent plots, etc. That was the most-unmasala thing about Tashan, in fact: everything looked great and it all made sense in the end.

    As far as Kareena goes: I have a friend who's a nutritionist and she says if someone has that lollipop look (or Tweetie Bird, LOL, I like that better) it means s/he's dropped to a weight below ideal for her/his frame. I think her thighs look unhealthy, especially in the close-up of her in the short-shorts in the back of the farmer's truck. They're not muscular, they're just... thin. Don't get me wrong, I could stand to lose a lot of weight, but I'd take Bipasha's look over Kareena's in Tashan any day because it looks fit instead of emaciated.

    ReplyDelete
  5. LOL on "Ugh. Women's thighs shouldn't be the same size as their calves." I think I have a man incarnation in a past life that appreciates the hip to waist ratio too much to think skinny-skinny is pleasing to the eye. And speaking of eyes and body forms, it's not really a surprise why this post I did a while back on the super curvy Silk Smitha regularly gets a lot of hits on my blog:
    http://bollywoodfoodclub.wordpress.com/2007/11/25/video-of-the-day-silk-smithas/

    I also just watched Sadma,(great movie!) and Silk is probably known for her figure more than her acting, unlike Katrina, who is a great actress. But now Katrina's emaciated figure is becoming a distraction.

    I confess ajnabi, I liked the line "oh very happy in my heart!," smack in the middle of that silly song. :). For sure a silly movie, but I saw it in a big theater, and after paying $8, I had to find something to like, and it was that and Anil's super orange spray on tan that I remember liking.

    Great post, dost.
    All the best,
    Sita-ji

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Sita-ji! Shukriya for the compliment, and for the link. I'm going to go check it out.

    YK, I really like "Dil Dance Maare." I kept on picture Uday and the other playback singers trying to sing it with a straight face--freakin' hilarious. There's actually a lot I like about this movie. I surprised myself by watching it again and liking it more on the second go-round.

    ReplyDelete
  7. this is the best tashan post ever, you've taken words from my mouth! I love the whole language battle here, and my anil(copyright, of course) is just great, and sounds like "Gearrge Bussss" but I think Saif was annoying with his English dialogues, he seemed to uppity to sound like that. or its the writers's fault for putting so much western lingo in his mouth like the stupid ending with "its getting a medal and eating a cake or something?" Bebo, i liked as Pooja, but they really didn't need her to be a size 0, and coupled with the fact that she had bootylicious backup dancers didn't help either/ and akshay, i love him here so sweet and i missed the sakshay jodi after this movie!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Oh lols- your hubby's reaction appears to b in consensus with my hub unit's too.
    But I think my main issue with Tashan, which is the problem I had with "Jhoom Barabar Jhoom," as well was that its just so NOISY and cluttered- Farah Khan has also spoofed Bollywood with OSO and MHNaa, but those movies dont attack my sensory nerves as violently :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. IMO, Kareena's legs are still okay-looking to me. Well, it's cause a lot of Asians (non-desi) have that look. Big head, skinny legs but they don't look anorexic. It's just natural for them. The problem with Kareena is that she's was always a chubby kid growing up. I had to defend her for that reason. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. You should read my Tashan post, if only because I link to two posts that discuss Tashan in-depth; one that focuses on the language issue, and another that talks about how Tashan and OSO both portray 70's Hindi cinema. Link

    I love that you have these thinky thoughts on the movie because honestly despite the loudness in which they put forth the whole "style/tashan" gimmick, it's a really interesting movie. The language, the characters.. Tashan in many ways really is a 70's masala film brought into today's world. Especially Pooja; 70's was a time when the heroines sometimes got to kick some serious butt. Come 90's, they were reduced mostly to pretty coy brides. Also the two-heroes thing, and cartoon-y villain, very 70's. But Filmi Girl goes into more detail in her essay on the subject.

    The lyrics of Dil Dance Maare also semi-parody Bollywood lyrics (IMO anyway). White white = gori gori - the obsession with Western standards of beauty.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hi Ajnabi, nice review! Although I'm with Shweta on this. I tried hard to like Tashan, but the noise and clutter provided a struggle in staying engaged, message or no message, brainless or otherwise. I thought it gave Jhoom Barabar Jhoom a run for its money in that, and could have used some serious editing.

    If you liked Anil Kapoor here, do check out some of his older works! He is a *lot, lot* better at comedy (and everything else).

    It did have some good songs ('Falak Tak' was a thing of beauty), and Kareena was never an issue to me because there's more to 'hotness' than the thigh-to-calf ratio :P Although I'm with you and your hubby in many ways on the merits (or lack thereof) of her look. That one shot of her in another song (Chhaliya, I think) with the ribs showing was just painful.

    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Rum: Thank you so much for the compliment! Anil was fan-freakin'-tastic in this part. I've been reduced to helpless giggles several times listening to his English-cum-Hindi dialogues. I think Jimmy was supposed to be a total arse; his only redeeming moments happen when he saves the other two, and his dialogues reinforce the "Oh get lost" feeling I have toward the character. LOL "That's like eating your cake--and getting a medal for it." ARSE! ;-)

    Shweta: I've been overstimulated since birth, being American, so this just felt like the best of both worlds to me. ;-) And as you know, I adore JBJ: it and Jab We Met are constantly duking it out for my "favorite" spot.

    Nicki: I don't want to pick on Bebo, cuz I like her. :-D I just want her to be healthy. And I do know lots of Asian chicks who are a natural size zero. So maybe this is right for her, you'd probably know better than me! :-)

    veracious: I've actually read the Filmi Girl essay (thanks I *think* to your post on the movie) but I haven't read the Qalandar one, which is weird because I actually follow that blog. I wonder why I didn't catch it? I'll have to go check it out. I *loved* that Pooja got to kick ass--Kareena really pulled it off, no small feat with that fragile frame! Oh, and yeah, totally agree with you on the lyrics for Dil Dance Maare being parodic (is that a word? whatever).

    Hi Bollywood Fan! Thanks for the compliment. Like I told Shweta, I totally don't mind clutter; it's my natural state of being. ;-) I think Anil Kapoor rocks, personally. And I *love* the entire soundtrack of Tashan: it's not often I approve of electric guitars in Indian music, not because I have a philosophical objection but because the music directors tend to exploit the weaknesses rather than the strengths of the instruments! In this case it was great. And oh, yeah, I winced when I saw her ribs. Ouch. I'm sure she didn't eat all day before she shot those scenes: typical modus operandi for that sort of shoot but difficult to watch all the same.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Ajnabi, your banner is crap - can I design one for your blog?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Anonymous: *sigh* And I was so proud of it! :-D You'd think two hours fooling around with Fireworks or whatever it was I used would churn out better results.

    Well, at this point I'd say the quality of the banner and quality of the writing beneath it is roughly congruent, i.e. crap. If you created a better banner (which I'm sure you would), I'd probably raise readers' expectations beyond my capacity to fulfill them. So I'd better pass. But I thank you for the offer! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Wow! I've never read anything analyzing Tashan as cultural commentary. It's great that you were able to look at it that way. I just saw it as a not-horrible-but-not-that-good movie featuring three of my absolute favorites (Anil, Akshay, Kareena). I did love Anil in this movie, though. Gosh, he was awesome!

    I didn't get to see it in the theaters, and I was intent on watching it, so I bought the DVD. I'm going to watch it again with your arguments in mind.

    "Dil Dance Maare" made me cringe the first time around, but maybe this time I'll be able to appreciate it for what it was supposed to be instead of viewing it as a horrible, over-the-top, east-meets-west nightmare of a song.

    I'll also be checking out veracious' analysis.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi Hijra, thanks for stopping by and commenting! Anil and Kareena were already faves of mine but this is the first full movie I've seen Akshay in--and I *loved* him. I agree that Anil did a rockin' job.

    I think it might be a semi-new execution in Hindi film: instead of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge-we're-all-in-on-the-joke pastiche of MHN and OSO it's more like the less kind Western "you fools!" style of parody, which I guess might have led to people not seeing it for what it was meant to be. Or, I could just be full of crap. ;-)

    I bet you'll like veracious' post; be sure to follow her links to Filmi Girl and Qalandar too because they're super interesting!

    ReplyDelete
  17. LOL Saheli, short and to the point! I don't agree, as I'm sure you can see from the epic post above, but I know the vast majority of its audience shares your point of view.

    ReplyDelete

Spam, trolling, and messages in non-Roman characters will be deleted. Otherwise, have at it!