It was around 2001 that a new awareness briskly entered Bollywood. After several slow years at the box office, an insuperable war with the pirate industry, and an increasing dependence on the global market, filmwalas realised that 'puraney formula ab nahin chalega'.
Across the board, they called for 'films of substance', films with an international panache (urf Hollywood). And, stepping into the breach, the twenty and thirty-something freshmen of the industry were entrusted to 'modernise' Bollywood.
The wide celebration of new and young directors as the embodiment of a new-found originality in Bollywood is in a way yet another gimmick. They too look to and reproduce the West for the same reasons that previous filmmakers did. They are the new faces of the old quest for modernity that is the very logic of post-independence India, and of which Bollywood is a vital embodiment.
The focus of the latest phase of Bollywood has in fact hardly been about 'substance' but rather about appearance. Or ishtyle in filmi lingo. Take last week's directorial debut of Vijay Krishna Acharya (a.k.a. Victor), who belongs to the coterie of Yash Raj Films, as evidence. His film Tashan literally means style.
Secret siren Pooja (Kareena Kapoor), anglophile gangster Bhaiyaji (Anil Kapoor), English-muttering call-center dude Jimmy Cliff (Saif Ali Khan), and Kanpuria goon Bachchan Pande (Akshay Kumar) are caught up in a swindle affair involving 25 crores. The film has the slick gloss of a Tarantino-esque thriller, and the climax scene features martial arts combat on a scaffold. But at heartTashan is a tired tale of that well-worn Bollywood theme - vengeance, and a faulty one at that.
Anyhow, that is the least of Victor's concerns. His mind is more focussed on the glamour value and stylishness of the project, and on that ground he does okay. The film is generally a showy affair. Kareena's bikini is not just a matter of silly titillation: on it hangs the very raison d'?tre of Victor's project, and in a weird way, also the logic of Bollywood's newfound modernity. Yet Victor needs to learn that there is more to film style than just being faddish and catching the audience's eye with sharp costume changes.
Tashan's westward, maverick, cowboy scheme is not an unconscious one. On the contrary, Victor keenly engages with the East-West binary he creates through ongoing wrangling between his characters. The scenes with Anil Kapoor trying to improve his hopelessly funny English with accent-coach Saif provide more than a few gags. But Akshay Kumar as the boor from UP, Saif's counterpart, ultimately steals the show.
The film is fairly entertaining at times, showing a trace of irony that even its successful forerunners Dhoom and Dhoom 2 (which Victor wrote) didn't have. But its 'life mein chahiye tashan' message doesn't have much to offer to Bollywood's yearning for 'substance'.
Director: Vijay Krishna Acharya.
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor,
Anil Kapoor. 2008. 195 min.