Incredibly Bad Film Show: Talaash

Dir: Suneel Darshan
Star:
Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor, Pooja Batra, Raj Babbar

talaash1Bollywood films are all the rage now, with the Oscar-winning success of Slumdog Millionaire – even if was directed by the very un-Indian Danny Boyle. However, it is safe to say that not every product pumped out by the Mumbai studios over the years can quite claim to have been unjustly overlooked by the Academy, and Talaash is certainly one such case. Now, we are generally fond of the bright and breezy style favoured by film-makers on the Asian sub-continent. Three hours long? Not a problem. Enlivened by colourful dance numbers at regular intervals? Bring it on. Serve that sucker up with a keema naan and we are so there.

However, there are just some kind of films that do not suit this kind of treatment. Bollywood horror movies, for example, are a) pretty rare, and b) crap, for very good reason. When the participants are breaking out impeccably-choreographed moves, it’s almost impossible to sustain a mood of fear and abject terror. [Unless you’re watching Dancing With the Stars] Talaash is in exactly this category. It’s the kind of story which needs a completely different, non-musical approach. Chan-wook Park, director of Oldboy, would probably have been a great choice to take the story here in the proper direction. Which would be bleak, nihilistic, and everyone dies. Without bursting into song at any point, I should stress. To prove my point, here’s the synopsis.

Babu works for three underworld dons, and when arrested, refuses to talk, in the knowledge they will take care of his wife and children. But when he finally gets home, he finds his family near-destitute. Enraged, he betrays his bosses: their revenge is to take his young daughter Pooja, and raise her to sell as a sex slave, with the chilling phrase, “She’ll be married every night, and widowed each morning.” When Babu tries to fight back, he is beheaded in front of his wife, and Pooja is abducted. His wife goes insane and spends years in a mental hospital. His son, Arjun, becomes a high-profile vigilante, and is now ready to find the killers, in their new identities, and face the many obstacles keeping him from rescuing Pooja and restoring his mother’s sanity.

Now, don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly whistling a merry tune after reading that little storyline. However, the makers insist on treating it exactly as if it were the usual ‘boy meets girl’ fluffiness, so when Arjun finally discovers Pooja’s location, rather than – oh, I dunno, going therehe and Tina break into a musical number [below right] involving, for no readily apparent reason, a horse and a speedboat. Or, going the other way, another musical number is immediately followed by an attempted rape on Tina, still wearing the same costume in which she was happily bouncing around, not minutes before. The words “unevenness of tone’ don’t even begin to describe how all over the place this is. If you randomly spliced together I Spit on Your Grave with The Sound of Music, you’d be getting there.

talaash2Ah, yes. Tina. I completely forgot to mention her massively botoxed self. She is the daughter of one of the bosses involved in wrecking Arjun’s life, and for a long time we thought she was going to end up being Pooja. As a result, we spent the first two hours with our flesh crawling every time she and Arjun made doe-eyes at each other; it was like watching Princess Leia kissing whom everyone knows now is her brother, multiplied by a factor of about 1,000. At least they never sang about their love for each other. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or not that this potentially incestuous subplot doesn’t develop – though I guarantee you, it would have done in the Chan Wook-Park version.

The hero is played by Akshay Kumar, who is one of our favourites and is well-suited to this role, since he can bring the appropriate level of angst to proceedings. However, once again, this carefully-constructed brooding intensity is completely derailed when Arjun starts busting out moves like he was Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Any hopes for sustained gritty realism are completely dashed the first time we see Arjun as an adult, where he leaps off the seat of a speeding motorcycle, flies through the windshield of an oncoming truck and then proceeds to beat up the arms-smuggling occupants. This does set the scene for the grand finale where he is shot twice in the chest, beaten up and still then manages to get up and fight the villain.

Credit Kumar for apparently doing a good deal of his own stunts, not least a sequence outside a train which is all the more impressive because you know there’s no blue-screen involved. That scene involves him having to race along the roof, and stop the train before it crashes into a school-bus stuck on a level crossing. This is because Tina – for a jape – has fed everyone on it save Arjun, including the driver, opium-laced candy balls. Oh, how the long winter evenings must just fly past. Fortunately, Indian trains have brakes that allow them to stop dead, inside about fifty feet, with a decorative shower of fireworks from their wheels. That’s part of a lengthy chunk set on the “palace on wheels”, which includes some of the most unfunny comic mugging I’ve ever seen. And I have sat through most of Wong Jing’s lesser works. Maybe it’s cultural, and Mumbai audiences were rolling in the aisles. If so, then this “we’re all the same really” is palpable nonsense.

talaash3Arjun discovers he needs to go to South Africa, where he is helped by a former senior detective in the Mumbai force – now a South African taxi-driver, which must say something about the salary earned by an Indian cop. There he meets a ‘hostess’, and we were now convinced she was going to be his sister, forcing Arjun to commit suicide after committing incest. We really must stop watching Aki Kaurismaki films. In a thoroughly implausible twist, he convinces Tina her father is a villain, and she then makes her father see the error of his ways, and ‘fess up where Pooja is being held. Arjun goes there to rescue his sister, only to be caught, beaten and forced to watch as Poona is auctioned off since he arrived the day of the sale. This is remarkably lucky, since an entire decade has passed since her kidnapping. I’m impressed with the bad guys’ restraint, feeding, clothing and keeping a young girl for so long, before selling her. Such charitable dedication can only be applauded.

Their lair is simply fabulous, with the auction taking place somewhere that looks more like a Vegas show-lounge, though lacking the taste and restraint you’ll customarily find in the decor at such places. It also includes a fire-pit, inside which Arjun is chained and forced to watch proceedings. Inevitably the sale takes the form of a fabulous dance number, which does much the same for sex trafficking as Pretty Woman did for street prostitution. The hero breaks free and snatches his sister; sudden cut to them on a motorcycle being chased through the South African streets. Quite why a 160-minute long movie couldn’t apparently be bothered to show any more than this, escapes me. The showdown between him and the lead villain [played by the same guy who was Gobindar in Octopussy] then follows, with entirely the expected resolution. Refreshing to find a director who refuses to counter the audience’s expectations in any way, it would appear.

The entire thing is available on Youtube: it really doesn’t do the epic, sweeping scale of the movie’s awfulness justice, but here’s a clip where which Arjun and Tina have just located Pooja. As noted above, they sing about their love, before heading off to the villain’s lair. It’ll give you some idea, though sadly, the Youtube version is shorn of the auction itself. You do however, get to see the most painful example of blackface since The Black and White Minstrel Show went off the air. Enjoy.

C-
[March 2009]

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The Middle Ages: Sanitized for your Protection

joust

One thing I’ve noticed in my eight years here is the fondness the United States has for taking history and re-inventing it, in order to make it ‘better’ – which can mean anything from ‘more palatable’ to simply ‘more fun’. A simple if unscientific study shows what I mean here: if you Google the term ‘America lost in Vietnam’ you get just over six million hits. If, however, you search for ‘American won in Vietnam,’ that number soars to somewhere above thirty-eight million. Looks like Arizona native John Rambo was right when he asked, “Do we get to win this time?” though perhaps even more disturbingly, “America won World War Three” gets 693 million hits.

The Renaissance Fair, while not uniquely American, is certainly largely so, and seems to me another example of that strange trait. We in Europe have little or no interest in recreating the Middle Ages as a group. We’ve been there, done that, lanced the buboes. But America didn’t exist at that point – okay, I know a few Native Americans would argue with me on that, geographically, but I mean as an independent country. It’s as if the United States feels the need to make up being late to the national party, by going back and rehashing all the centuries on which they missed out. Historical accuracy is more an afterthought at a Renaissance Fair: suspension of disbelief is rendered almost impossible, when the crowd are less likely to be dressed in tights and chain-mail than jeans and chain-mall attire.

baebesWhat started as a class activity at the home of a Los Angeles schoolteacher, Phyllis Patterson in the early 60’s, has become a good deal more. Patterson’s backyard endeavour is now the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, which has over two thousand costumed performers, seven parades per day, fourteen stages of entertainment and around 150 artisans. Who knew the Middle Ages were so much fun? [It’s also helped spawn quite a few names. Charlie Sheen, Rosanna Arquette and Penn Jillette are among those who have worked at it]

And it’s far from being the only such event. Virtually every state in the country – even Alaska – now has them in a variety of shapes and sizes, from one-day events all the way to monsters like the Texas Renaissance Fair. That takes place over the best part of October and November, and has pulled in more than 370,000 visitors. Right up in the top rank – probably among the five biggest, nationwide – is the Arizona Renaissance Festival, which first took place in 1989 and now occupies a 30-acre site so far out to the south-east, it’s beyond even the suburban sprawl of Phoenix. It’s clear that entertainment comes first and foremost: the official press release describes the festival as “a Monty Python movie come to life.” And they clearly don’t mean the one about Brian, either. It goes on: “enjoy the pleasures of a simpler time in a storybook town… continuous music, dance and comedy shows, shop for wonderful arts and crafts, plus games, rides and a feast of exotic food and drink.” What? No killer rabbit? Not very like a Monty Python movie after all then, is it?

We had free tickets this year, including the Pleasure Feast, a six-course banquet, which was as much a variety show as a culinary experience, but worked pretty well as both. The food was certainly better than the average dinner theatre, I found myself thoroughly entertained – though any show where they keep coming past and filling up your tankard with more beer, is likely to skip fairly easily through the doorway of my critical acclaim. Stuffed to the gills, we rolled out of the banquet hall and began wandering around the fair. Or faire. Or fayre. For antiquated spelling is just about mandatory, with “Ye Olde [insert product] Shoppe” being par for the course.

Inhabiting the grounds are a large number of characters, though it was hard to be sure who were actually employees and who were paying customers, being a bit more extrovert than they should. This is where I begin to find things a little creepy: an interest in the past is fine, but when you feel the need to take on an entire independent character from a different time period… Here, the RenFest begins to occupy much the same ground as the Society for Creative Anachronism which, curiously enough, also started during the 60’s in a Californian backyard [likely not a coincidence: as they say, if you lived in California and remember the sixties, then you weren’t really there], who re-create the Middle Ages “as they ought to have been.” Chris used to be a member, and attended Pennsic War, their central event which draws 10,000+ each yet to Pennsylvania. She, however, opted to stay in hotels, an eminently sensible choice and is no longer a member – our review of the film Darkon gives some more insight into this general field of human activity, if you’re interested.

kingqueenI have a theory about such groups and those who choose to inhabit an alternative persona: basically, it’s because they’re more or less unhappy with their actual lives. I don’t really want to go into this in depth, since I recall getting into a lot of flak in the anime community when I put forward much the same hypothesis about those who take part in cosplay, though if I recall, I was somewhat less diplomatic about expressing myself. [The line was somewhat alcohol-fuelled, and went something like “I stopped playing dress-up when I was eight.”] I certainly acknowledge the importance of escapism as a release-valve, but the principle expressed by Roman playwright Terence in the second century B.C. applies: Ne quid nimis or, “Moderation in all things.” But if you’re not a professional actor, then it seems a legitimate question; what exactly are you escaping from, by turning yourself into another person? However, it’s been a long time since I saw so much cleavage in one place, though the quantity was not necessarily matched by the quality, it has to be said.

Thoroughly unqualified psychological analysis aside, and back at the RenFest, we headed over to the jousting, being big fans of theatrical, staged violence. Did they really have cheerleaders in medieval times? They did here, with four knights, each assigned to a section of the crowd, and each with a rabble-rouser – us being the rabble – to ensure that we gave full support to the knight of our choice. Was this historically accurate? Or more something inspired by A Knight’s Tale? Painstaking research – literally, minutes spent on Google – were unclear on this. And what the hell was a pirate doing taking part in the joust? Johnny Depp has a lot to answer for, but since there are a couple in IZW too, we are hardly in any position to be critical.

Sadly, we had to leave before the Fight to the Death, scheduled for 5pm. Still, having got our fix of senseless mayhem, we headed back, passing the giant turkey leg stall [obvious question: what do they do with the rest of the giant turkey?], the belly-dancers and the ax-throwing, as well as less traditional features such as the photo booth or ATM – sorry, Ye Olde ATME – and returning to the modern world in the thoroughly authentic recreation of a 20th-century car-park. While amusing enough, I can’t say I’m too sorry to be back and definitely prefer the land of high-speed Internet, satellite television and microwave popcorn to the Middle Ages. Or even the Middle Ages as they ought to have been…