There’s something about the way Deepika Padukone smiles through her tears that hits one right in the gut. Director Imtiaz Ali, working with the actress for the second time, seems to know this all too well, and he exploits it to the hilt in his latest film, Tamasha.
Of course, Ali has shown at various times in his career that he knows how to tap into previously unseen potential from his leading women, from Ayesha Takia in Socha Na Tha (2005) to Alia Bhatt in Highway (2014). However, Tamasha is actually not Padukone’s story. It’s the story of a young storyteller named Ved Sahni, played by Ranbir Kapoor at various ages and levels of facial hirsuteness, who grows up in Shimla, a town that Ali depicts as being a lot more idyllic than it has been for decades in reality.
A dreamily-shot opening sequence — displaying the same stream-of-consciousness, back-and-forth kind of editing we saw in Rockstar (2011) — opens Ali’s latest film, showing us how young Ved consumes stories indiscriminately, be it a local production of Romeo and Juliet, a Ramlila, and a local, story-telling banjara he frequents (played by Piyush Mishra, who later ages hilariously to resemble one of those White Walkers from Game Of Thrones, but let’s ignore that for a moment).
Tamasha then takes us to the beautiful locales of Corsica in France, where Tara, Padukone’s character, meets-cute with Ved, who is now rakishly good-looking and full of Hindi-film-hero energy. They make a pact: to hang out with each other for the next seven days without revealing their real identities and to resist the urge to hook up. Spoiler alert: only one of these works out.
If you predicted that correctly and you’ve seen the trailer of the film, you already kinda know where the film is going to take you. This is about Ved’s journey, from idealistic storyteller to corporate stooge, and Tara is simply the catalyst. When she meets him again, four years after their holiday fling, he’s a product manager at a telecom company. She seeks the spontaneity of Corsica, but he’s become the guy who trims his beard too neatly and glances at his watch while waving goodbye to her.
Some of Tamasha’s best moments can be found in the portion leading up to the interval, where the editing becomes more staccato, the colours duller, and the moments less joyous. Ali reuses a quick montage that shows Ved’s robotic morning ritual multiple times, to hilarious effect.
But where it loses its way is in the second half, in which the screenplay gets rid of Tara and dedicates itself to Ved ‘finding himself’ in a manner that is more heavy-handed and melodramatic than it needed to be. For every sequence that the film pulls off — like one in which Ved starts deliberately shedding his corporate exterior Office Space-style, leading to a funny confrontation with his boss — it botches another — such as a well-written but erratically-pitched scene in which Tara meets a precariously vulnerable Ved, which would have worked had the background score not tried to guide us into ‘Look, this is what real love is like!’ territory.
The story arc, after all, is predictable, and beyond a point, all the film is largely running on is charm. It helps, therefore, to have two really charming leads. While Padukone steals nearly every scene she’s in — it’s amazing how captivating she is even when while doing something as mundane as nervously adjusting her dress before going on a date — Kapoor gets a couple of ‘acting showcase’ moments in the second half that he pulls off quite admirably.
One wishes, however, that the script had more meat and that supporting characters weren’t this sparse and lazily-written (Hirani-esque stern father who is secretly a softie at heart, check). I also wish Ali hadn’t simply used love as a catalyst for the character to find himself because, really, why must it be in films like these that the lead character has no other healthy and/or significant relationships until The One comes along?
Tamasha is, in many ways, a culmination of the recurring themes in Ali’s filmography. It is tonally messier than his last film, Highway, but more emotionally satisfying than Rockstar (which I disliked), and brings together elements from many of his films in a pleasing-enough manner.
Like most of his films, it ultimately boils down to whether you buy his brand of movie romance, where journeys and conversations often turn out to be irreversibly life-changing. Tamasha isn’t perfect, but it has heart and a sincerity of intent that sets it apart from many other films we’ve seen this year.
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