Tahaan (2008): Sense of space exemplified

What is the purpose of life? How must it be defined? Who owns the mountains, valleys, and forests? How black and white are good and evil? Why do some fail to appreciate relationships of trust we share with pets? Why do usurpers exist among the good? Why does it matter where weapons are made when their purpose is the same? Doesn't that question apply to humans as well? How do I get my donkey back?

There are endless debates and discussions to be had on each of these questions, age and company -- of the self would certainly be applicable -- notwithstanding. So, having an innocent but street smart eight year-old boy, who encounters militants and the military on a daily basis in a land ripped apart by decades-old conflicts, ask himself and others these questions, makes for a remarkable film directed by Santosh Sivan, which knows its sense of space and successfully translates it for its audience. Hit play and read on (this is the contemporary edit of this folk song featured in the film).

Tahaan (Purav Bhandare) is that eight year-old in Kashmir. The son of a [possibly] militant father who is feared dead, and a mute mother (Sarika) who works hard to raise her two children (Sana Shaikh plays Tahaan's teenage sister). Their grandfather (Victor Banerjee) provides for the family and instills admirable values in the children before passing, which results in little Tahaan losing favorite and indeed most valuable 'asset', his pet donkey named Birbal. The new owner, via a purchase from the moneylender (Rahul Khanna in a cameo), is Suhan Daar (Anupam Kher), who gifts Birbal to his orphaned nephew Yaseen (Dheirya Sonecha).

As the distraught Tahaan tries to reclaim his pet, he must navigate through the treacherous terrain in which there's no knowing whom to trust. Daar's worker Zafar (Rahul Bose) seems to want to help. Teenager Idrees (Ankush Dubey) seeks a secret transfer of goods (a grenade or two, perhaps?) and more in return for help in getting Birbal back. But will the street smart Tahaan succumb to others' demands for undying love of his pet? At what cost to himself and to others? Will anyone genuinely care to help? Be sure to see Tahaan to discover. It will be sure to surprise!

It's atypical of Bollywood. Each performance (from the senior-most to the children, to the donkey!) is splendid. Kids Bhandare (especially, give Darsheel Safary company, kid!) and Sonecha are outstanding. Sana Shaikh (this is the first I've seen of her) would ideally get more roles after this. We've seen enough of Kher, Bose, and Sarika, to know all they're capable of. The combined effect of the performances is nothing short of synergistic.

There's no playback singing and no conventional songs, but the background score and music (by Ustad Allarakha's son, Taufiq Qureshi) are a fantastic complement and leave a mark long after having viewed the film. It's authentic folk music that adds much charm to the settings in the film, and the flamboyance and specificity with which it is integrated makes the viewing experience rather personal, and aids tremendously in delivering that sense of space.

The sound mixing (Paul Schwartz) is also top notch. Water pounding on rock, snow melting in fire, sparrows in a snow-covered field, an animal frustrated in mistreatment, a gunshot in the distance and the reactions of birds to it, and glass containers full of tea colliding, are merely some examples of moments made effective through emphases on sound. Each instance is purposeful.

Which brings us to the cinematography and art direction. The film is (yes!) shot on location in Jammu and Kashmir, which is quite an achievement in its own right. It captures the breathtaking visuals that are rightfully associated with what are truly wondrous landscapes and soulscapes. Long shots through some key segments convey with assurance limits within which not only Tahaan, but the vast majority of the people impacted by continued strife in the region, must live. The camerawork is a definite strength -- a race between Birbal the donkey and a mule is delightfully shot (it even involves lovely Rasika Dugal in a special appearance as Nadira, but I'll let you discover her role in the film).

Any film successful in making its audience see the world through the eyes of a donkey as it is being scolded or as it follows its favored owner deserves to be showered with compliments! And any film saying it how it is, must, as well! (It's interesting to treat the text in blue with respect to the sense of space too, isn't it? :D)

Among the scenes most impactful is one in which children of the neighborhood are playing their version of 'chor police' (cops and robbers). Anyone who's grown up playing the game, or G. I. Joe, or even paintball or laser tag, will identify with it and wonder. This little scene is splendid. The sequences that capture the conflict in the region are effective as well, and there's something to be said of the subtlety with which the turmoil is captured. When was the last time one could say that of a film based in the region?

What I appreciate most is feeling like an eyewitness and not as one being narrated to. It almost bears the power to have the audience evaluate their sense of space in the world. It's difficult to create that on film, and Tahaan does so effortlessly, which is testament to the people in and components of its making having worked in unison, and to the knowledge of the subject matter carried by those who wrote it. The film with sensational performances sans the sensational plot elements stands out for its simplicity.

My only complaint is that it's too short, with a run time of a little over 100 minutes. That's still plenty to get a whole lot across, which the film does within the scope of the questions noted at the beginning of this post. It's heart-warming. It's real. It's a visual spectacle with a lyrical equilibrium. It's how films should be made. No cinema lover should miss it.

Movie rating: 4/5 (Brilliant!)
Quite clearly one of the best and most under appreciated of 2008, and well beyond 'just another film on Kashmir' with a universal underlying theme that celebrates human spirit. Really glad it was made.

Music rating: 4.5/5 (Excellent!)
Its integration is near-flawless.

My classification: PG-13 (For theme)
No issues with language, few with visuals.

Official website: iDreamProduction.com/website/tahaan/

Also see: Ramchand Pakistani (2008)

And finally...
I saw Slumdog Millionaire (2008) last weekend. Didn't find it engaging, nor did I find it entertaining. There's little else that's real about it in addition to the portrayal of the mistreatment of children (which is accurate). Overall, Tahaan is a heck of a lot more 'real' (which is a debate I'd gladly enter into), ye lovers of 'non-escapist' cinema :P Sadly, bechaare gadhe aaj tak badnaam hain (poor donkeys are still given a bad name)...


Bhargav Saikia said...

I have Tahaan on DVD. Will watch it tonight! Thanks for the reminder! :)

Bhargav Saikia said...

By the way, have you seen Sivan's Halo?

Anonymous said...

Wow, the stills give me a feeling I had when I saw The Kite Runner.
I wonder if this is coming out in the Netherlands too :)

theBollywoodFan said...

Bhargav: Sure. Do stop by to share your thoughts. I watched bits of it again to be sure I wasn't overstating its qualities. I never should have worried about it. Haven't seen Halo. And I really want to see 'Before the Rains' starring Nandita Das too!

Anonymous: Good luck finding it! It seems to be available at most online retailers, at least. I think you'll like it! The visuals are quite stunning, beautifully captured.


Krishna said...

It's really nice to hear about this movie from you. Actually I really appreciate good piece of cinema with element of civility and being with your blog, it has become much easier to decide. Music, I am following from many years now, I think and really love it but somehow not in a regular practice of watching movies though I always keep track of them(like updating my database :) ) , but surely it has gone into the list of movies, which I would surely love to see when I start doing so.

theBollywoodFan said...

Thank you, Krishna. Civility in cinema, you say! Doesn't it often seem to stem for purposefulness? I'm with you on this brand of film in particular. Good luck with your list of films, and I hope you start seeing some soon!

Darshit said...

I must must must see this.

It was on my List of Movies I missed in 2008. And still I haven't seen any of them. I'm angry with me :(

The detailing of sound is excellent. I have this soundtrack and its really outstanding.

Its surprising, you didn't liked SM ! Its not 'that' great like ppl are treating it. But overall as a *film* I found it quite entertaining. Would like to read more what you think abt it.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Fine- u sold me on this one. Besides, with victor and kashmir in it, i'd watch it for sure.

Darshit said...

P.S.: That 'text in blue' is just too perfect :D

theBollywoodFan said...

Darshit: I think you'll like it! I just re-read your comment, and I think you need to start catching up on some of these, fast! :) Taufiq Qureshi certainly knows his music. And that text in blue is apt for the title (and for me at this point, LOL). It's a function of the person, not of time, you see. Ah, the things I learn from Juhi Chawla :)

As for Slumdog Millionaire...one possible reason (and it's a big one) might be that we've seen the elements and themes it contained, explored in much more detail, and frankly, just much better, in Hindi film.

And the whole 'it's the reality' argument just doesn't work for me, because the idea of Jamal, who is up to date with celeb gossip, can use a computer, speaks perfect English (often with a British accent, to top it off!), but is still always branded as an 'uneducated boy from the Juhu slums', is hardly 'real'. And I know this is where suspension of disbelief comes into play, and that we do this all the time with Hindi film, but SM just didn't sell it as well, in my humble opinion. The dialogue was average. So was the acting in the second half (although each of the four kids did great).

I'll stop before I get into any more trouble, LOL. Of course, I'm happy for the recognition some of the people associated with the film have received. :)

Shweta: You can't go wrong if you see it for Kashmir! I can't even recall when the last time was we saw the real Kashmir in a film. Victor Banerjee was only there for a brief role, do take that into account.

Darshit said...

Oh yes, Shweta reminded me what I forgot to mention last comment. Surely looking fwd to Victor B.

sunil said...

If you get the chance, please do check this (and any other movie of his!) out:


Interview with the film maker

When you watch this documentary, you realize the meaning of the words "painfully beautiful".

theBollywoodFan said...

Darshit: He has a small but significant role! There's a storytelling scene which every grandkid out there will relate to, that's all I'll say :)

Sunil: Thanks for the links! I'll definitely try looking for it (the second link didn't seem to work). That's a telling account, I know Sivan starts off Tahaan with something on the lines of it being 'a fictitious tale with non-fictitious events', and he's even stated his inspiration came from a newspaper article on Kashmir and the plight of her people.

Nicki said...

I have this movie just lying around too but haven't gotten to watch it. Shoot, I'm so behind anyways. Thanks for the reminder~

Anonymous said...

Ooh, this looks so good :) Will find it immediately...(for some reason, looks like Vishal Bhardwaj's children's movies)...

Joss said...

Now this is an absolute must!!! I wonder how I am going to get hold of it though. It doesn't seem to have surfaced over here yet. It could be a long wait, like it was for Slumdog. That was worth the wait, but I don't think I will be watching it too many times further. The music, on the other hand, is another matter. Fantastic!!!

PS I am hoping ot watch Meenaxi tonight so hope to get back to you on that one, finally!

ajnabi said...

This looks amazing! Thank you for posting about it... I can't wait to see it.

theBollywoodFan said...

Nicki: Check it out when you get a chance. I'd be very curious to know what you think about it, so do write about it or stop by to share your thoughts.

Memsaab: It's easy to get lost in, just so visually stunning. Too bad we never got this in cinemas here, but at least seeing it in the home theater works. I saw it a second time before writing about it...it was just as good then as well, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I have yet to see Vishal Bhardwaj's children's movies, but remember you discussing them, for which I shall stop by your blog. This one is interesting, I was really not expecting it to be the family movie it turned out to be.

Joss: Good luck finding Tahaan. The music gets a lot better after having seen the film! It is also easier to see than Slumdog, although it does have its share of anxiety-inducing moments, which it handles rather well. And my fingers are crossed for your viewing of Meenaxi. :)

Ajnabi: It's much fun, and its quality is noteworthy. I can only hope you all enjoy it as much.

Darshit said...

Just now watched this finally. Absolutely loved Tahaan and all the characters. Putting my thoughts on a post :)

@Joss I just can't get enough of Meenaxi these days. Also after visiting majestic fort of Jaisalmer where it was shot.

TheDoug said...

Sita-ji, Ironically I hadn't been to your site for a few weeks, so when I saw your latest comments/review for TAHAAN, (which I just viewed two days ago) I concurred with most of your lauditory comments. I thought the length of the film served the themes of the film and for myself I found the short running time a 'breath of fresh' air from more traditional 'bollywood' filmfare. (Now I must view AFTER THE RAINS in the context of my Netflix list!)

theBollywoodFan said...

Darshit: Really, really glad you enjoyed it! I enjoyed your post here, all those lovely screenshots!

TheDoug: Sita-ji's a dear friend over at Bollywood Food Club! Tahaan is certainly a breath of fresh air by most definitions, and Before the Rains sounds interesting (although it seems to be geared to a very different audience). Thank you for your visit and comment, and you're welcome here any time. :)

Anonymous said...

I haven't heard of Tahaan before this but I'll look out for it.

And I felt much the same as you did about Slumdog Millionaire. Like you said in response to Darshit's comment above, it does nothing we haven't already seen done, and better, in Hindi films.

Bhargav Saikia said...

I still haven't watched it :(
This weekend definitely, after I get rid of my coursework.

bollyviewer said...

This sounds exactly like my kind of movie! That "Will you drink tea?" screen shot is beautiful - it captures childish playfulness so well! Even in conditions of such turmoil, kids will be kids. Off to order my copy of Tahaan NOW.

I've been fence-sitting about Before The Rains - Nandita Das+Linus Roache tempt me but Raj-sagas usually end up disappointing me. So I'll just wait for your review before deciding!

And isnt it strange about Slumdog Millionaire? The only Indians who liked it (among my acquaintances) were the ones who have spent decades in US and consider the British accented Jamaal a "realistic" portrayal of slum-dwellers! And my non-Indian acquaintances are puzzled by my not liking such a "feel-good" film. Guess those of us who were brought up on Bollywood prefer our masala to be "fantastic" and "reality" realistic, with as little shit involved as possible!

Anonymous said...

Adab theBollywoodFan!

Wait just one minute before you take that mistaken credit from TheDoug away from me. I'd officially like to take credit for this post and all of your posts for that matter. :)
All the best!

theBollywoodFan said...

Emily: Sounds like a plan, do stop by after you see it! As for Slumdog Millionaire, I liked the idea of the game show and the flashbacks, but it lost credibility as it moved on, and fast. It did do wonders for the primary audience, though (I presume the non-Bollywood consuming population comprise it). On a related note, Filmi Girl recently shared this interesting piece.

Bhargav: I hope you enjoy it!

Bollyviewer: I really enjoyed watching all the children and their wonderful performances. I'll look forward to sharing an opinion on Before the Rains, hopefully by mid-May.

And ditto to the deal with Slumdog Millionaire. My experience has been almost the same, although there is the occasional Bollywood-consuming Indian friend who thinks it's 'awesome'. There's such a difference in perspective which I think is fun, frankly. I've heard/read some say of that scene with Jamal and the AB autograph, that it is hilarious. I thought it was rather sick, and quite a sick sense of humor, if that is its defense. Oh, well.

I am armed with at least five pure Bollywood 'feel-good' films at work, so at least SM serves some purpose. We've got to start somewhere with this cross-cultural experiment involving the masses.

Adab Sita-ji! Oh, no, I hope my comment didn't give the appearance that you are somehow absolved from credit here, because you're most certainly not. As my longtime blogging mentor, it's your right (no kidding)!