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Posts Tagged ‘Subhash Ghai’

Taal (India, 1999)

My rating: +2 (Loved it)
Bechdel Test:
I’m going with 2 out of 3, but you could try arguing 3 out of 3
Director: Subhash Ghai
Music: A.R. Rahman
Cast
: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Akshaye Khanna, Anil Kapoor, Amrish Puri, Alok NathSushma Seth
Plot: A love story between a rich London-born Indian and a girl from a small Indian village in the mountains.

About the film

Whenever I consider watching a Bollywood film from the 90s I’m always a bit wary, even more so when it’s a straight out romance like this one is. There’s always the worry that it’ll be too soppy, take itself too seriously or the conservative treatment of gender roles will annoy me too much. On top of that, there are the low budgets of that era, which really effect production quality.
Fortunately, Taal is a much better film than I anticipated. Then again it’s the first Bollywood film ever to break into the top 20 in the US box office, so perhaps I should not have set my expectations so low!

Taal has two things that left me in awe. Firstly, it’s just so beautiful. The mountain scenery is practically one of the characters in the movie and it is stunning. The cinematography is very beautiful. The dance sequences, though very traditional, are head and shoulders over what you see in most 90s movies. The music (both the songs and the background score) is amazing and it really gives the film a very special mood and style.
Secondly, what has stayed with me is how tender it is. There’s something so innocent and tender about the romance between Manav (Akshaye Khanna) and Mansi (Aishwarya Rai) that I found it easy to forgive the things that would have usually got on my nerve.

The plot is extremely basic and done hundreds of times before in Bollywood. Rich boy pursues poor girl, they fall in love, the father of the rich boy dissapproves and drama ensues. But there are a few minor differences to the standard script that made it easier to stomach for me.
Something that can be annoying (if not downright creepy) is the way the guys pursue village girls in many Bollywood films. Interaction between genders is very limitted in villages, so the rules of romance tend to be very weird in these kinds of romantic films. Generally, the guy starts stalking her after she shows very little or no interest in him. Manav starts off as the stalking kind also. He begins by sneaking up on Mansi and taking photos of her. But what’s different about this film is that Mansi’s father complains to Manav’s family and Manav is made to apologize for his behaviour – it’s kind of refreshing to not see it condoned!
Next up in the standard village romance storyline is that the couple suddenly falls very deeply in love even though they have had hardly any interaction and don’t know each other at all. In some films I’ve seen, the lady will have shown almost no interest in the guy until this point. Manav and Mansi’s interactions may be quite limited, but they actually have a few conversations and quite a lot of non-verbal interaction happens before they declare undying love and all that. In fact, for me, the way their romance builds up is the best part of the film.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where so much of the romance happens with relatively little dialogue and almost no touching. Coca cola becomes a reocurring (and adorable) theme at this stage in the story. Who’d have thought there can be so much teasing and erotic tension in drinking coke? The first coca-cola scene is really cute. The second one really builds on that and gives Mansi the upper hand in the teasing by the end. The credits even include a thank you to coca cola which I found amusing.
Like in many of these sorts of stories, Mansi does not initially make things easy on Manav. But, refreshingly, it’s clear that she is interested. In fact both of them treat the whole pursuing/getting pursued thing a bit like a game.
Eventually, all the teasing and pursuing has to culminate in something and of course it does. In most Bollywood films, it culminates in some sensual song. But Taal is again a little different and amazingly enough (considering how traditional it is) opts for a “kissing” scene instead. Naturally, the “kissing” is not quite on the lips, but I’m still surprised a film as innocent as this went as far as it did. The scene is really beautiful. Bollywood almost always makes a huge event out of a kissing scene, but this one is really quite something – so soft and tender.

One of the other things I found really adorable about Taal is that the relationship between Mansi and Manav is by no means the only tender one in the film. Both Mansi and Manav have very close relationships with their fathers (which of course makes the drama all the worse when the fathers are not happy with the idea of them getting married).
In fact, for me, one of the most beautiful scenes of the film is the one in which the relationship between Manav and his father (Amrish Puri) is first introduced. It’s actually amazing (and almost creepy) to see Amrish Puri do a scene that’s so loving and tender. I’ve only ever seen him as characters which are either evil or very strict and scary and he does them extremely well. So to see him do so much hugging and teasing in a father-son scene is just weird.
To anybody Western, like me, the scene will feel a bit foreign I think. There’s the whole young man respectfully touching the feet of his elders Indian thingie, but it’s done extremely sweetly and teasingly. He even reties his father’s shoe while he’s down on his knees and they jokingly call each other “Your Highness” and “Your Honour”. And on that note, Akshaye Khanna and Amrish Puri really have great chemistry together on screen.
Later on in the film, the two of them have another scene that left a huge impression on me. They finally sort some tense issues out between them, they laugh, hug and then cry (I love how the best Bollywood films seem to acknowledge that laughter and crying go together very naturally).

As much as there is a lot in Taal that I found adorable and I really loved it on the whole, there were some things that made me cringe.
In the second half of the film the romance is stopped short because of all the family drama and various misunderstandings. It is then that Mansi and her father meet Vikrant (Anil Kapoor) and Mansi is talked into trying to make a career as a pop star in Mumbai. Manav continues to pursue her and tries to convince her this whole path she’s choosing is wrong.
On the one hand, it’s hard not to agree with Manav – Mansi was clearly much happier living a quiet life, singing, dancing and doing yoga in the mountains. On the other, I did have a knee-jerk reaction to that – the moment a woman starts making a career, her would-be-lover tries to convince her that she’s happier not having one? argh…
The bit that really made me cringe though was the whole necklace theme. There’s a scene where Manav tells Mansi he doesn’t go to temples. He tells her different people see God in different things and says he believes a part of God is in him. That in itself I actually liked. But I cringed when he bought a necklace in the temple shop and gave it to Mansi, essentially saying that when she wears it she’ll be worshipping the God in him.
To be fair, it’s a somewhat two-way street. Manav happily wears a scarf on which Mansi has embroidered their names and declares to his family that the scarf means Mansi owns him. But there’s never any mention of the Goddess in Mansi or worshipping her (on the other hand there is also no mention of him “owning” Mansi, so make of that what you will).
Debating how much sexism there is or isn’t in this film is a tricky business I think. Certain gender norms are simply part of the social circles depicted in the film, to represent them differently would feel false, even if one doesn’t agree with them. And to complicate things, it’s also true that different women feel differently about the roles society puts them in – for some they are comfortable, for some not comfortable but acceptable and yet others find them very much against their nature. Is it sexist to show female characters that are comfortable in traditional gender roles? For me, personally, I think it’s important that films portray all kinds of women – both those who are happy in traditional roles and those who are career women, tomboyish or otherwise outside of the “norm”.
And on the whole, I don’t think this film does that badly on its representation of women. Mansi is actually a rather well-rounded character (she is, btw, definitely the lead of the film – Manav has less screen time in the second half of the film). While she’s an innocent village girl at heart, there’s a certain kind of independence and strength about her. She has her passions and interests. She loves singing and dancing (her father is a folk musician and she has a great relationship with him) and teaches yoga to a group of village girls (I really liked all the yoga scenes in the film!). She has two loyal friends too. In the romance, Mansi is definitely the more passive (i.e. pursued) character, but she certainly does tease Manav back. And Aishwarya Rai really gives a terrific performance – I think the best performance of the film (and this film generally has a lot of good performances!).
The film does fail the Bechdel test though. Pretty much all conversations between women are about men unless you count the one line of dialogue where one of Manav’s relations unpleasantly remarks that of course Mansi’s first friend in their house would be the dog.
Finally, something that I find quite interesting on the whole sexist/feminist front is that even the conservative Bollywood films from the 90s acknowledge that not just women, but men can also be eye candy and fun to sexualize. There’s a beautiful song in the second half of the film where for part of it they have Manav solo, in an unbuttoned shirt, dripping wet – all clearly done to titillate. It’s very sexy.
And it’s kind of weird for me that you can have a very gender-conservative film like this be perfectly happy sexualizing a man and yet a modern TV series like Firefly (which I recently reviewed) is not comfortable doing so, even though it has a lot more sexual content and is happy portraying women doing very macho professions. Weird, huh?

The second half of the film is, IMO, the weaker part. The whole pop star plot feels a lot more far-fetched and there are few very cheesy soap operish moments (of course Manav has to run into a burning building). I also didn’t particularly like Vikrant as a character (or Anil Kapoor’s performance for that matter) and he’s got more screen time than Manav in the second half.
Manav is also annoyingly confident that he will get the girl in the end, as long as he perseveres. He keeps telling everyone who tries to stop his involvement with Mansi that his love is so true that they will all personally bring Mansi to him eventually (he says this to his father and even to Vikrant, Mansi’s would-be husband). His confident talk annoyed me so much that I actually found the one scene when his confidence is finally broken extremely satisfying. That said, it is a rather beautiful scene in and of itself. There’s no dialogue that directly suggests he’s lost hope, it’s more the manner in which he behaves, how he clings to his dog – he really looks defeated.

Overall though, it’s a really beautiful (if rather old-fashioned) movie with an amazing sense of the language of film. It’s unusual to see a film (Bollywood or otherwise) that does so much “showing” in place of “telling” and where the scenes have so much going on in the background.
It’s quite a challenging film for the cast as well because of how much happens in between the lines or without any dialogue at all, but they all do extremely well.
For anybody who likes romance this would be a good one to watch. For those not inclined that way, it’s probably a film to approach with caution although if this sounds interesting then you might want to give it a go.

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