‘Tahaan’ - poetic portrayal of life in Kashmir amidst strife (Film Review)

September 6th, 2008 - 3:20 pm ICT by IANS  

Film: “Tahaan”; Cast: Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose, Sarika, Victor Bannerjee, Purav Bhandare; Writer-Director: Santosh Sivam; Rating: ***A fable like fragility runs through Santosh Sivan’s latest film. An exquisitely shot, wonderfully performed work of art set at a lyrical low-octave mellow pitch where you can actually smell the spices from a slow-burning chulha as they cook up an ambrosial aroma that permeates the greenest valley on this side of Frank Capra.

Like Capra, Sivan believes in the inherent goodness of the soul in his characters. There are no bad guys in “Tahaan”, not even the militants whose guns boom intermittently in the poetic tranquility of Sivan’s Kashmir as little Tahaan (debutant Purav Bhandare) uses all his innocent skills to hold on to his best friend in the world - a donkey.

The strange, stirring and indelible bond between child and nature, and between the child of nature as well as the extraneous circumstances that define the human condition have always fascinated Sivan - both as a director and a cinematographer.

In his directorial debut “Terrorist”, a young girl (Ayesha Dharker) journeyed from environmental incorruptibility to human-bomb status without forfeiting the fluency of her innate nature.

In “Tahaan”, the delightfully natural boy comes close to being a human bomb. In a heartbreaking twist to the tale, little Tahaan makes friends with a callow militant(Ankush Dubey) who promises to bring back the child’s darling donkey Birbal in exchange for unknowing acts of terrorism performed by the unsuspecting boy.

The militancy of Sivan’s Kashmir is so gently portrayed, you wonder if such cinematic faith in human nature is a sign of wisdom or the prognosis for creative naivete. The army men smile and shower affections on our little hero, the militants introduce him to the bomb as though it was part of his playschool curriculum.

All is well in paradise as long as the poetry of the human heart flows in sharp rhythms. That is precisely what Sivan does. He captures the elegiac ethos of a civilisation that has seen its best in the past but nevertheless clings innocently to the hope of a better future.

This is the innocent, uncorrupted territory that Satyajit Ray travelled with little Apu 50 years ago and most recently Ishaan in “Taare Zameen Par”. Tahaan’s journey is far more metaphorical.

A limpid lyricism runs through the picaresque plot as Tahaan encounters various men - from his wise and wacky grandfather (Victor Bannerjee) and a good-hearted cranky sage (Anupam Kher) to a dimwitted womanizer (Rahul Bose) and a practical businessman (Rahul Khanna).

These people crowd our impressionable hero’s consciousness, creating a kaleidoscope of quirky adventures.

In the way that Sivan handles the child actors - not just the delightful Purav but also Dheirya Sonecha who plays Kher’s lonely grandchild - the director seems to have discovered Iranian cinema before Iran discovered it.

Tahaan’s experiences convey the magic of poetic but basic revelations on life as layer after layer, the bitter-sweet nuances of the quirky experiences at the lowest level of existence comes flickering to life.

“Tahaan” functions at its own pace. There’s no effort to hasten or motivate the narration to any pitch for effect. The plot moves at its own rhythm. The sights and sounds of the valley are captured with the casual grace of a poet who has spent too much time in the lap of beauty to be shaken by the disturbances that have suddenly cropped up in arcadia.

The best performance comes from Sivan’s camera. It captures the essential incorruptibility of Kashmir without plunging the pilgrimage into the pristine into over-sentimentalisation. The performances flow out of the plot and not vice versa. The actors underwhelm the narration, nurturing the tender tale with their supple and subtle expressions of artless candour in a world of roses that guns have sneaked into.

It would be criminal to single one out of the many brilliant ‘non-performances’ (no one acts, they just react to the serene poetry of their surroundings). But Sarika’s muted despair as she goes from abandoned wife to harried but indulgent mother remains with us long after the last flicker of this fragile but strong film peters off.

“Tahaan” is not your big, booming, terrorist entertainer like “A Wednesday”. Nor is it your carefully crafted, sensitively pitched treatise on terrorism like “Mumbai Meri Jaan”. Its appeal is far more profound and intangible. The fable is a playground for Sivan’s tenderest thoughts on the nature and quality of the human touch.

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