MacGuffins, Motifs, and Mona Darling!
Note: Originally written in March 2016
A few years ago, when I had tumult in my life, fighting societal conventions to get closer to the person I love, I saw Imtiaz Ali's "Rockstar", only to be devastated by its abstract beauty and passion. I ended up watching that film twice at the cinemas, crying resplendently each time. Cut to now, I'm in a far better place in life, having won some battles and lost some, yet close to people, places and ventures I love. Given that, Imtiaz's latest feature, 'Tamasha' has still managed to invoke those tears in me and a couple of days after watching the movie, I was still reeling over the afterglow of the several emotions and thoughts it has managed to stir up. However, this time, this afterglow is merely because of the film's accomplishment as a celebration of all things pertinent to storytelling. I can only imagine how it must have felt to people who could actually reflect with the film's essential plot.
Tamasha, in my book, is undoubtedly Imtiaz Ali's most accomplished work. Its a natural yet scrupulously careful progression of his cinematic style, exploration of the concepts of modern love and the human narrative, experimentations in storytelling techniques, and collaborations with powerful artists. Given my understanding of his style of cinema, going in, I was pleasantly enthralled by the way each moment hit the right notes with me, often surprising and amusing me.
To start with, Tamasha works in four layers for me. On the core inner layer is the mish-mash of a plot that involves Ved (Ranbir Kapoor) and Tara (Deepika Padukone). I call it a mish-mash because one can almost half expect this plot from an Imtiaz Ali flick. A boy meets girl, typically in a situation that is unusual to either lives, which lets them be more of themselves. They explore the dynamics of their own personal selves and the company in unique ways and end up falling in love. And this love only lets them further explore their personal selves and face the inhibitions their lives have had a priori. The way the characters recognize and later, realize their love for each other is usually woven into the overall fabric of the plot in an illogical, flawed yet delightful manner. Almost like how adding a mosaic pattern to an otherwise monochrome garment shouldn't work, but almost always works in that weird way through which the splendid world of fashion thrives. In essence, the love story becomes sort of a MacGuffin, a mere plot device that exists to push the larger points of the film forward.
Yet, this MacGuffin used here rises to have a rhapsodic presence and treatment in the film. The characters feel grounded in reality, despite their occasional surreal contexts. The arcs the characters follow feel very organic, and their inihibitions and enthusiasms for love and life feel accurate. This is where Imtiaz's writing feels the most subtle yet precise amongst the entirety of his work. And it is an absolute pleasure watching Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone drive these characters forward. Ranbir feels effortless throughout most parts, yet I missed the pain in his eyes that is so well portrayed in Rockstar. Maybe Ved is too bottled up to let his eyes emote. On a polar opposite there is Deepika, who does so much with her eyes that are worth insuring! On a personal note, I think Imtiaz should try and return to these actors as much as his position as a mainstream-auteur would let him. They make for great muses!
The second layer in Tamasha and the primary plot of the film, is the overall story of Ved, a guy who recognizes his love for storytelling and revels in it. All through his life, he seems to be eternally stuck between his innate urges to be imaginative and his conscious compulsions to conform to norms. And the aforementioned MacGuffin helps catalyze the shift from him being Ved to Don. Imtiaz writes and directs the juxtaposition of these two personas quite well. Even the dialogue ranges from Don's quips like 'Apna Haath Jagannadh' to Ved's generic comment about how the Continental place they have their first date at is amongst the top restaurants. There's so much in the script that can be dissected and appreciated here for its careful treatment, like how Ved starts agitating against Tara, as she manages to incite a catalysm in his persona. Or how in Corsica, he constantly muses about his life as Ved, sitting atop the lonely cliff or as he quips "Is duniya ka dil us duniya me nahi chaltha na Zohra bai". I'll respect brevity here as I talk about this otherwise prominent layer of the film. Ranbir shines again, often deliberate but exact in his personality alternations.
What happens to be a simple tale of a person realizing his inner self owing to his experiences, turns into a marvellous extravaganza in the third and most cunning layer of the film. It almost feels as if Imtiaz pulls a magical rabbit out of a hat that contains his love for the non-linear narrative and his admiration for the Indian cinematic style replete with song, dance and drama. He literally makes this film a Tamasha (a play). One that the audience of the play are invited to as the film begins and then, one that the viewers of the film are taken through as this play on-stage metaphorically takes over the entire film. This gives Imtiaz the much needed liberty to explore narrative styles. Something that he's particularly good at. Only, the various styles that would otherwise make a movie thematically discordant are justified in this film, as a play lends more freedom to the narrator than the cinematic medium could. Thus, what makes Rockstar an abstract art piece makes this film an exquisitely metaphorical play. Montages propel the tale forward as if a storyteller was summarizing the plot, several motifs take centerstage and cutting into songs makes perfect sense as an imaginative technique. We see random Punjabi folk singers sing about a character that has resonance with Tara in Kolkata, an Auto Rickshaw driver's song hints at Ved's past, characters from mythologies come alive owing to little Ved's daydreams (Yash Sehgal is a pleasure to watch) and adult Ved and Tara appear in the montage over the Titles (even before their characters are introduced). There is a beauty in using subtext, motifs and a blend of narrative methods as storytelling techniques and this film is essentially Imtiaz Ali finding a way to capture that beauty and making it an ode to the art of storytelling itself.
The final layer in the film is Ali's collaboration with respected and skilled artists and the product that is delivered. The film makes us stand up and take note of Ravi Varman's gorgeous cinematography, Grainy frames depicting Ved's imaginations, in a quirky coincidence, invoke thoughts of Raja Ravi Varma. Visuals of the streets of Corsica, the alleys of Delhi or the hills of Simla are all smartly lit, deftly tracked and painstakingly detailed. I'm very excited for Ravi Varman's upcoming collaboration with Mani Ratnam, the latter being specially known for his visual mastery. I wish I could explore into Irshad Kamil's work for this film, but I dont have any basic lyrical literacy to talk about Hindi. But I'd stop press to indulge the reader with some adulation for Rahman's soundtrack for the flick. Now, I'm usually a sucker for his music but I must admit I was faintly disappointed when the album for the film came out. Only to have both feet in my mouth as I watched the film, as the soundtrack works brilliantly with the narrative, each musical piece and section having a definite purpose and conjunction to what's happening on the screen. Beautiful music has always been his forte, but Rahman, over time, has seemingly developed a knack for narrative and he excels at it when he collaborates with Imtiaz. For instance, a slightly modulated version of the piano riffs from the interlude in 'Agar Tum Saath Ho' find place in the background during the scene where Tara sits by the pavement watching Don play soccer with random guys on the street. In fact, she isn't even watching him, but taking in his presence and being content with it. Or think about how Arijit Singh's dual octave rendition in this very track is a reflection of the two personalities dwelling within Ved. Probably ample anecdotes to explain why I'm terribly excited for '99 Songs', a film being written and produced by Rahman.
It is not often that you watch a film, and for days after, keep going back to the many moments in it. Waiting eagerly to relive them, read about them and discuss them with fellow film enthusiasts. And more often than not, it is the art of storytelling and how able storytellers have mastered it that drive us in our adulation for these films. 'Tamasha' is a celebratory take on this very art.
P. S.: There's two uncanny tangents that this film has also made me muse about. One, my dad, who used to make up myriad tales of 'Aladdin and Genie' to tell a very young me as we spent sleepless nights when there was no power in the house. I guess my love for storytelling began when I was very young.
P. P. S: Piyush Mishra's dialogues in the opening scenes invoke a throwback to a caption the trailer of the film came out with - 'Why always the same story?'. It seemed like Imtiaz was doing a 'here's the answer yet here's the question' to all his critics who keep saying that he rehashes the same plot for all of his flicks. I'd always justified this by quoting Roger Ebert who said 'Its not what a movie is about, its how it is about it'. Here, Mishra asks - Brahma or Ibrahim or Abraham - its the same story everywhere. Across civilizations, cultures, borders and times. A conflict - a resolution. It is only us mere people who squabble over the details.
Check out more on the film at IMDB and Letterboxd.
Call me by your name
If paths were to align, there is passion and love, a hurried cascade of affection for the other one
A Quiet Place
What deserves dwelling upon is how the film works as a Rube Goldberg machine, a wonderful contraption