(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.
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.