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)
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)...