It would be a mistake to think of Tashan as a “retro” film, unless by that term one refers simply to any film that is conscious of the cinematic tradition it is heir to, or one means simply that the director in question has great affection for the films he grew up watching. Both of these are manifestly true of Tashan, but the film is no mere homage. For homage, ironic distance from the past one wishes to not so much capture but allude to is an essential ingredient. Tashan is in fact a rarer bird: it plays it straight, essentially seeking to present a thoroughly masala movie in 2008 garb. But what separates it from the likes of Halla Bol is director Vijay Krishna Acharya’s instinct (indulged in liberally though not uniformly in Tashan) for packaging designed to appeal to contemporary multiplex audiences (by now, sadly, the only audiences that seem to matter to the Hindi film industry), and his breezy – albeit uneven – humor. Not to mention a sensibility far removed from the earnestness of Raj Kumar Santoshi: whereas Halla Bol seemed to hope that upwardly mobile audiences would overlook a cinematic idiom that seemed to be past its sell by date, Acharya seems well aware of the challenge before him. Indeed, Acharya renders the challenge explicit by making a film that is unabashedly on the side of the bhaiyya – specifically, one called Bachchan Pandey (Akshay Kumar) -- cheerfully excluded from fluency in English – an abstraction given flesh in the form of Jimmy (Saif Ali Khan) – and set against the course of over a decade of Bollywood history. This sensibility is not just a question of dialect (although Tashan includes doses of what I am told is – but wouldn’t recognize as – Kanpur’s Hindi dialect) or of a character who isn’t a yuppie from a major metro, or of a story that doesn’t unfold in New York or Sydney or London. Rather, it is a question of an entire worldview: by privileging Bachchan Pandey’s character, and (more importantly) his story, and by ensuring that only the Kanpuriyas have a “history” in this film (Jimmy's one minute of "flashback" isn't even allowed the dignity of a real place, and serves as stagey contrast to the lovingly imagined Kanpur lanes of Pandey's past), Acharya privileges the Ganga kinaare waala ethos (whether real or imagined), and puts “the heartland” at the core of Hindi cinema in a way we haven’t seen since Bunty aur Babli – and in a far more explicit, and (given the tastes of contemporary Bollywood audiences) more courageous manner than Shaad Ali’s 2005 breezy romp.
I wrote above that this sensibility is not simply a question of dialect – equally, however, the question of language is never very far from this film’s lead male characters, each of whom has serious language issues. For instance, Acharya is acutely conscious of the privileged status Jimmy’s access to English bestows upon him – not only is he a call center executive but an English-language instructor, granting Indians access not to the wealth of English literature or Anglo-American thought, but to the opportunity to serve customers who expect English to be the world’s lingua franca. But Jimmy’s privilege isn’t simply because of the greater demand for his services in the new economic paradigm; as Bhaiyyaji’s reverence for Jimmy’s well-turned out English phrases makes clear, to speak like Saif in the new India is to be the new uber-Brahmin, potentially able to intimidate even those north of one on the totem pole of wealth and power. Bachchan Pandey is the opposite of Bhaiyyaji: for him, Jimmy’s facility with English is itself suspicious, a sign of insufficient Indianness. For Pandey – who, in his name, incarnates two larger-than-life U.P.waalas, Hindi cinema’s biggest star and the 1857 sepoy who graced our cinema screens only a few years ago – and, one suspects, for Acharya, the “real deal” of the "asli" Indian cannot be found in the India of the call centers and the shiny malls, but in the sort of galee where boys steal electricity to impress girls (um, watch the film, you’ll see what I mean). As a corrective to the recent indifference of Bollywood to much of its erstwhile audience, and to the ease with which denizens of “the metros” in my experience dismiss “Bihar vihaar”, I found the spirit of Tashan irresistible – Akshay Kumar makes his entry dressed as Ravana in a sequence that is utterly, wonderfully, compelling, and he is clearly out to upset the complacency of audiences who uncritically see the recent arc of Hindi cinema as a narrative of virtue, moving from “cinema for the rickshawaalas” to the “advanced” cinema that won’t make them cringe – although Acharya’s essentialism is hardly unproblematic, and I can easily see just why this film might be alienating for an audience that prefers to watch just the sort of film Bachchan Pandey would sneer at. Acharya’s crude tonic is welcome to me, but I must concede that it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of commercial sense.
Itna aagay nikal gaye, aur ab tak story ke baare mein nahin bataaya? Skirt chaser Jimmy falls for Pooja Singh (Kareena Kapoor, more skeletal than sex symbol) at first sight and agrees to give her private English classes – except the classes aren’t for her but for her boss, a U.P. don called Bhaiyyaji (Anil Kapoor) with an addiction to broken English. Jimmy and Pooja fall in love (or so he thinks), until one 25-crore scam and an irate gangster later, Pooja is on the run, Jimmy’s getting the living daylights beaten out of him by Bhaiyyaji’s henchmen, and bounty hunter Bachchan Pandey is on the money’s trail. The three meet up and hit the road together, and by film’s end we have action, khoya hua bachpan ka pyar, and two extended flashbacks set in Kanpur’s lanes (one of which bizarrely pops up towards the end of the film). In short: paisa vasool for this viewer. And then some.
Acharya’s debut film is unquestionably superior to the last action/adventure film featuring two male leads and a female thief he was involved with – while both Dhoom 2 (which Acharya wrote) and Tashan suffer from egregious wannabe moments, the latter has genuine soul at points, and is never merely plastic (at least if you exclude song videos like Chaliya, Yash Raj Films’ latest ill conceived attempt to manufacture sexiness). Not to mention that it features far better visuals (a large share of the credit for which must doubtless go to cinematographer Anayanka Bose), music, and dialogue than 2006’s biggest grosser. And more affecting performances than anything in the earlier film, none more so than Akshay Kumar in what is for me his best performance since Khakee: he’s heavy handed here as he typically is, but nevertheless manages to plausibly incarnate not only a rowdy antisocial with Manoj Kumar’s soul, but also the wide-eyed air of a boy from the boondocks.
Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor are both effective, although Khan doesn’t have very much to do once Akshay enters the proceedings. Khan is perfectly cast though (although not perfectly styled; I was struck by how “off” Jimmy’s dressing seemed to be given the sort of chap the film would have us believe he is), and easily carries the film through its first half hour. Kapoor has rather more to do, and while her role does not call for much nuance (at least none that is very plausible) she is good fun to watch as the tease trying to get close to Pandey so that she can pull off one more scam. Somewhat surprisingly, Anil Kapoor’s is by far the worst performance in the film: his Bhaiyyaji is labored and downright unfunny, or, more accurately, Bhaiyyaji commits the worst sin a villain can. He is funny enough not to seem very dangerous, but not funny enough to justify the number of lines of broken English he is given. Kapoor’s non-performance must squarely be laid at Acharya’s door; Bhaiyyaji’s role is so farcical and contrived, the dialogues associated with it so bad, it would likely fell greater actors than Anil Kapoor. A special mention must be made of Yashpal Sharma, who is superb as the Haryanvi A.C.P. Hooda on the crooks’ trail – he has no more than a few scenes in the movie, and is the best thing about every one of them.
I must admit to having been somewhat ungenerous to Vishal-Shekhar’s music prior to Tashan’s release. In the context of the film the songs work quite well (although Falak Tak might as well be from a different film, or just about any film; a pity, given that the rest of the music is very far from generic), and the album’s nod to Urdu (in Chaliya); grand Hindustani lyrics in the tradition of Firoz Khan’s films (as in Tashan Mein; when was the last time you heard a song go “Apni to… har baat niraali hai / Apne to … Khoon mein ishq ki laali hai”?); and bhaiyyaspeak (just about everywhere) is refreshing after the endemic contemporary overdose of all things Punjabi.
Tashan certainly has its flaws: it isn’t always clear on what sort of film it wants to be, the dialogue should have been much better than it is, the song videos were generally underwhelming, and the action scenes are a let down (an unpardonable sin in these action-starved times). But I can forgive it much (even apart from its mouthwatering shots of Indian locales) because it is clear on the sort of film it does not want to be. That is, Tashan is no spoof, nor is it afflicted by the sort of retro-clever that borders on obscurity. By means of it, Acharya has placed his studio’s money on the wager that a relatively “straight” masala movie that turns its back on Bollywood’s recent history can, if packaged and sold right, be viable at the box office. I hope he’s right on that – certainly if convincing this reviewer were all that were required Acharya would be well on his way – although the irate theatergoers I walked past after the show had ended serve to underscore how daunting Acharya’s task is.