Subhash Ghai's Taal and I have a complicated relationship. Part of me loves it, just absolutely loves it, and part of me has become wary of it after reading analysis by Filmi Geek and Philip's Filums and then considering it on my own in the cold light of...um...having finished rewatching it and therefore not, at this very moment, basking in its glow of relentless beauty and razzle-dazzle. In a handy convergence of media consumption, my recent preparing-for-a-trip-to-London-to-see-
David-Tennant-as-Hamlet-at-the-RSC viewing of "The Fires of Pompeii" episode of Doctor Who has provided me a new system for sorting out my reactions. If your eyes are glazing over at the mention of Doctor Who - as mine used to do until recently, despite evangelistic* efforts by many friends over the years (somehow I've only grown to love Doctor Who** since falling for Bollywood, but that's another post entirely) - please hang on: this will only take a second, and I promise to outline a relevant idea.
In the story, the time-traveling alien Doctor and his human companion, Donna, show up at Pompeii the day before the eruption of 79. This is Donna's first trip through time, and she is distraught when the Doctor tells her they can't save the inhabitants of Pompeii from the disaster they know is about to happen. She pleads, pointing out that he's saved the world in their previous adventures. He admits that this is true but then explains that some history is fixed and some is in flux - and the destruction of Pompeii by Vesuvius is, unfortuantely, fixed. (If you want to know more, here are episode information, analysis, and quotes.) This becomes a really nifty idea if we expand it beyond the rare ability to alter a past we know to have happened a certain way to our very real, very personal-level ability to revisit our thoughts and impressions. We can't change the past, but we can change how we think about it. We can't change our contemporary reactions, but we can combine them with subsequent experiences and information to create new understanding. Anyway. Some aspects of how I react to Taal are fixed because they're tied to a very meaningful experience with the film, and others are in flux, changing with ongoing synthesis of what I have learned and thought about since that initial experience. The fact that I can even raise this point probably says something good about the film: it has enough interesting and thought-provoking elements in it to invite revisiting and to feed a discussion years after I first saw it.
Taal was one of the very first Hindi films I saw, and I was lucky enough to see it with a packed audience at a restored historic theater a few minutes' drive from my house. Local boy Roger Ebert included it in his Overlooked Film Festival in 2005 (his review/program notes here), and present for the panel discussion afterward was...Subhash Ghai. There's really nothing that could have made this a better experience, and I was completely overwhelmed by the visual beauty and music of the film. Watching it in that setting - and with my brand-new eyes - was like spending a few hours in the hot summer sun - beautiful, indulgent, and life-giving but likely to make you feel a bit stunned after. Or, to put it more cynically, this is a fantastically unsubtle movie, and it's quite possible that Ghai (and maybe A. R. Rahman) conked me with a sledgehammer while I was in the theater and I couldn't think clearly after that. Either way, I was in love with it from its opening scene, the heroine's modern-dance musical dream.
From that moment on, I was thrilled with its colors, its love story, its mountaintops and rain, its high drama, its gorgeous music, its giant dance numbers, its overall spectacle - frankly, all the usual stuff that people new to Indian films rave about. The audience was really into the movie too, and it got big reactions throughout. (The other panelist, Gerson da Cunha, said how pleased he was that the film's humor and other emotional moments translated so well and were effective in this foreign context.)
And yes, the Akshaye factor had begun (this was the first of his movies I saw). I thought he was cute, but I was also enamored of a male lead who dances. We don't get much of that in mainstream American cinema.
Also, it had scenes of my former stomping ground, Toronto and other bits of southwestern Ontario.
The joy I felt watching this movie is absolutely fixed, and I admit that every time I watch it I can look straight past the movie's shortcomings and just glow happily in my memories of seeing it for the first time. Probably dozens of other films would have made me feel the same way, especially in the film festival atmosphere with an involved, appreciative audience and a panel discussion with one of my favorite film critics and the director of the movie! There may not be anything particularly special about Taal - and I've since seen many movies that are more spectacular, beautiful, charming, and substantial - but the film will always be special to me.
Now when I read critiques of Taal, I wonder why I didn't see its problems more clearly. For me, the most brow-furrowing of them are the flat depiction of heroine Mansi (Aishwarya Rai), the demonization of the "modern" and "western" woman and her family,
and major portions of the personality of Akshaye's Manav, the stalker-y, arrogant romantic lead.
The dominance of the male gaze. There is a scene later of Anil Kapoor filming her too.
These are the kinds of things I tend to notice and get worked up about - so why didn't I see them the first time I watched the movie, before I had become familiar with these particular Bollywood tropes? I was that dazzled, I guess. And quite possibly put the movie on a pedestal, a status which the flux thoughts are helping to fix. When I read Prof. Lutgendorf's review, I kept nodding, thinking "Yep, those are completely fair criticisms, that analysis makes sense," yet none of them had struck me - and even knowing them as I re-watched, even with the evidence right in front of me, very few leaped to mind.
Poor Mansi. She has an interesting story arc, what with her huge fame and new life and their accompanying moral dilemmas, but nothing is made of these potential challenges and opportunities for character development. As Filmi Geek points out, her musical stardom seems to be included just as an excuse to situate the big song picturizations, and nothing more is done with it, even though clearly such a life event would really affect the character. Even her love life is presented without nuance: sure, she can choose between two guys, but they're pretty much the same guy. Should she pick the rich, musical, pushy, frank, bad-hair guy who offended her father, who might be slightly more earnest and is definitely more age-appropriate, or the rich, musical, pushy, frank, bad-jewelry guy who stole from her father (one-man music industry Vikrant, played by Anil Kapoor), who is sort of sweet in his own authority-figure, megalomaniacal way (but only sort of)?
Either option comes with a fur coat.
Yikes. Girl, take your money and run. (As a side note about their similarities and Mansi's non-developed character, both Manav and Vikrant compare themselves to filmi heroes; Mansi never says anything like that, even though her instant stardom actually is like something out of the movies.)
Oh, Manav. On one hand, he utterly fails to comprehend the basic life lesson "no means no" and sometime he's the tiresome moody-broody sort.
But on the other, his matter-of-factness about his love can be cute, like in his request for yoga lessons and the adorable copycat flirting scene.
One of the things I enjoyed about Manav initially is that he's eager to be with his family and to explore his new home. He sees India through newbie tourist eyes just like I was doing - and using him as a lens, the story indulges in some cheesy but satisfying shots of colorful markets, convivial crowded trains, folk art, etc.
I'm not against the technique, but its effect here is a little facile. (Especially when the director walks through a scene of a market as a toursit listening to a song from his own movie about the motherland and foreignness.)
In another angle of the movie's presentation of "Indianness," there is some interesting conversation about various values held by the traditional mountain folk (represented by Mansi's father, Tarababu [Alok Nath]),
who are artists, and the modern city folk (led by Manav's father [Amrish Puri] and aunt, the afore-mentioned "anglicized witch"),
who are, of course, part of a vaguely-sketched corporate world. The dichotomy of these two stereotyped kinds of Indian characters is completely predictable, but I like that the script sets up both groups as capable of snobbery and hypocrisy - and of learning, changing, and reconciling. Both families also have mediators (who are women, interestingly) who try to help the young'uns navigate their complicated situations. Mansi's aunt lives in the city and knows something about the media industry, and Manav's grandmother encourages him to stay true to his feelings (and gives us the movie's tagline).
The way Taal shows India and Indian culture has, thankfully, and as is only reasonable, fallen into my flux category. I certainly never thought Taal was documentary on most points, but I don't remember bothering to analyze its portrayals of traditional vs. modern or romanticized "India is alive with color!" very hard, either. Taal is not unique in trading in these elements, but now I understand a lot more about what Ghai was up to in using them. There is a lot of visual cheese in this movie that I am still moved by, even though I realize it's cheesy. Stunning mountaintops!
Melancholy boy and friends dance through the city streets in a windstorm!
He also rollerblades contemplatively. "Nahin Saamne" is super sappy (in a good way), but for a split second Akshaye looks straight at the camera with his classic half-smile and then he and the backup dancers sweep into - and hold - a balletic, ridiculously heroic, almost statue-like pose as the wind rages.
I read this as tongue-in-cheek (by the actor or by the character? I don't know!); that's probably not how it was meant, but sometimes I like a little pepper in my syrup. I am firmly in the "Aishwarya is the most beautiful woman in the world" camp and could watch this movie a dozen more times just to look at her in Mansi's staggering array of crazy stage costumes.
I love the glamazon outfits, but I actually thought she was prettiest while frolicking with her friends in the rain in the equally lovely title song.
Which brings me to a very important point: the songs of Taal, both in the context of the movie and on their own, are superb. If you haven't seen the songs from this movie, go do so right this minute. In the fixed/flux system, the songs are utterly fixed in all their glory, and I wouldn't have them any other way. (Now I'm wondering if I generally tend over time to change my mind less about music and picturizations than about other aspects of movies? Hmmm.)
Maybe I feel about Taal like Mansi feels about Manav: its early impression is the one that remains, and I still love it, even though I know better. The important thing is that I'm still thinking about it and can still love the parts of it that I know to be worth loving.
You can't watch a movie five times in the last few years without collecting some details, can you?
- At Mansi's MTV party, we see a sign for the event organizer. Post-Clinton, I find this funny, even though the spelling is different.
- At that same party, and then later at an airport, there's a guy in a Philadelphia Flyers jersey.
I like to think this is included as an unspoken joke about Askhaye's "hockey hair," as my Canadian friends call a mullet.
- Many reviewers have commented on how product placement-heavy this movie is - Coke-bottle flirting! jokes about Coke sponsorship! -
so you'd think someone would have made sure Manav had the right brand in hand at the MTV party.
- Vikrant's studio/rehearsal space is design hodge-podge, but I'm especially fond of his huge mural of himslef with a baton and the music-symbol-printed dance floor.
- Awww, baby Shahid Kapoor!
** Someone will ask, so: Eccleston.