Ved (Ranbir Kapoor) means knowledge and the little Ved goes in pursuit of them like Wile Coyote after Road Runner. Storytelling is what fascinates Ved and he would literally steal for a session. Imtiaz Ali taps in to the reflexive nature of epics and stories and our very own Indian myth that possibly continues till today. Our epics reference themselves and even characters from either of them cross each other. That was then and today we have films referencing other films and only google can tell you how many were inspired by a DDLJ and how many explicitly referenced DDLJ itself. Ali is concerned with this ingrained nature in Tamasha. The beauty about Ali’s filmmaking is such that he needs only the prologue and opening credits to set this up so that we can get on with- what else – the story. Epics retold over Chali Kahani with little Ved’s grainy imagination setting the mood.
Ali’s boldest decision comes when Ved meets Tara (Deepika Padukone). Here begin two films back to back and Ali stumps you with the narrative that can either work well for you (giving Ali the benefit of doubt of course) or go horribly wrong. Ved and Tara meet in Corsica and get into role playing of all kinds. They decide not to reveal their true stories and to never meet again. Corsica is the new Las Vegas. He’s Don with Dev Anand impersonations and she’s Mona darling. They converse only in 70s Bollywood fashion and I could hear some groans from the audience when it got too much. Once Tara grows uncomfortable of the Corsica experience, she pines for the Don she remembers and goes after him. But that’s where Ali is coming at. He lets you in on what you see everyday on the screen in front of you. You groaned at that role playing? Now take your everyday lives and see what that looks like. Brushing teeth, breakfast, fidgety with the tie, traffic signal, meaningless good morning wishes, powerpoint, first dates, beautiful flowers that go in the backseat just like the beautiful Corsica, mineral water or regular, red or white wine, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, was this restaurant ranked the best, a kiss and goodbye until next day. Rinse repeat.
I wonder what Ali made of the criticism that Rockstar incurred, for Tamasha also works as the better realized and more accessible version of the same. Early in Rockstar, Janardhan is told that great art comes from a broken heart and his then naive self goes about systematically to get to that place. All this before things to wrong for Jordan in spectacular fashion – Ali’s almost fantastical treatment of love and heartbreak. And almost as an answer to that, Ali gives you the most routine of love stories culminating in the the most routine of heartbreaks. The only thing not routine – at least in terms of what cinema shows you – is how Ali lingers till Ved returns to his friends inside and the awkward atmosphere it conjures. There are two weak scenes in Tamasha built up as some sort of an epiphany only for us to be fooled by what follows. One is a conversation with an auto driver and Ved seemingly having an epiphany. The other is when he is back in Simla and returns to his favorite storyteller. Unlike the mere lazily written lines in these scenes, the vignettes that follow accommodate the transformation. At a lot of junctures in Tamasha, it is difficult to track passage of time. Some broad ones are mentioned by text but the more crucial ones aren’t. Maybe it just adds to the journey. The pleasant shock in the usage of Wat Wat Wat, the multiple monologues on the road and the one in front of his family. What comes first. What comes after. Past or future? The looping nature of our stories. It’s fascinating to see both Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone’s trajectory as performers here. Ranbir began big with Bachna Ae Haseeno, Wake Up Sid, Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year and Rockstar. There was Barfi and then a disappointing plateau in the maturity of a star-performer. Deepika started weak with Om Shanti Om and in Ali’s own otherwise excellent Love Aaj Kal, she was one of the weak links. But now she’s on top with a mix of safe and excellently performed films from Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela to Piku. Tamasha acts as a palate cleanser for both of them giving them ample (Kapoor more than Padukone) opportunity to showcase their growth. The breakup scene at the cafe with Agar Tum Saath Ho will bookend this point of their careers. Where do these two actor-stars go from here?
Ali’s conceits have all been, in one way or another, about the lost man liberated by the woman of his dreams. A regressive reading of his work (entire possible) is just about kept at bay thanks to the interesting conflicts he creates within his relationships. His films also bask in the danger of falling into first world problems if not for the rich[sic] writing. Ali came of his own in Highway, where he finally brought together people who couldn’t be more different from each other, united only by their desire to escape the past. On those terms Tamasha is a reversal. A man trying to find his future with the help of his lost past. What is storytelling if not a tool to dig up the past that can inform – in more ways than one – the future. It nonetheless uses all of Ali’s tropes. The girl who sets up a wheel of events of which heartbreak is only a spark, a whirlwind no-holds-barred romance that also dips its legs in the transgressions Ali so loves – Heer in Rockstar with the soft porn films and desi daaru or Mona here as the hooker and Don mouthing din mein sister, raat mein bistar (thanks but no thanks to censor board in India), the passage of time and cities and countries it encompasses. He injects his young protagonists (and not only in Tamasha) a very Mani Ratnam-esque energy and gay abandon vindicating those who have seen flashes of the Tamil director in him for a while now. If not anything, Ali inherits his love for music in films from Ratnam. One of the most joyous aspect of his films is his embracing of songs as an integral part of the narrative. This has been true all along and Rahman just comes as that secret ingredient you add and tell no one. His ways are good and bad, and one foot of his is permanently in the past but with Imtiaz Ali, we are seeing the advent of our foremost auteur. Where does a self-aware filmmaker go from here?
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)