The question a film like Tahaan begs one to pose to the filmmaker at the absolute soonest is simple: did the story come first or the child? Young actor Purav Bhandare -- in the titular role -- is so comfortable in his naive, scrappy, Kashmiri skin that he holds us, enthralled, as he sets out on his ragtag, seemingly harmless journey.
The film is about the Kashmir of today, family, cross-border terrorism, good and evil, unlikely friendships, and contains more than its fair share of philosophy. The journey itself, mercifully enough, doesn't hold any such lofty pretensions: Young Tahaan traverses the wilderness and the weather because he wants to get back his donkey.
And it's a spellbinding trip, this movie.
The 'problem' with trying to analyse a film directed by a genius cinematographer is that even when narrative slows down or 'filler' shots are thrown indulgently into the mix, Santosh Sivan makes the whole film look so bloody enchanting that you have no room to complain about the slightest possible niggles. If indeed there exist mistakes, and they are this visually captivating, then give us a tapeful of bloopers -- we'll eat it up.
Capturing Kashmir with a raw eloquence and a very fluid camera, Sivan goes at it mostly up-close, preferring to linger on the boy and his fellow supporting actors, occasionally cutting to natives with faces dripping of character. And then, without warning, he'll pull back and open wide -- and our jaws will drop, because Kashmir is really as startlingly beautiful as it gets.
He's shot in similar climes before -- most memorably in Mani Ratnam's visually astonishing Dil Se -- but here everything is quiet and understated. It is Kashmir yet it is backdrop, the director seems to want to emphasise, and his intentions must be appreciated greatly. However, what a helluva backdrop it is.
The story is preciously simple, and, is told in a lovely, almost Iranian fashion. Majid Majidi's fantastic everyday minimalism clearly has an influence on Sivan, and it's heartening to see an Indian filmmaker so assuredly stark. The scenes of the child running, by himself, are evocative of Francois Truffaut's masterpiece 400 Blows, and while young Tahaan -- the name means The Merciful, we are told in a throwaway line that completely eschews expository dialogue -- may not be as conflicted as Antoine Doinel, he does have a simpler, much harder to resist, impishness.
Thematically, the film builds up so gradually, delighting over the everyday details and taking it nice and easy, that it makes the plot hard to predict. Yet this is a film with a very specific storyline, and while we get a light taste of things to come earlier on -- with a fantastic scene showing young Kashmiri boys playing at pretend-militants, much like we would have played at cowboys or He-Man as kids -- the end comes at us with sinister simplicity.
And, like the best thrillers, you're constantly wondering how the film will end. 'Will he shock? He couldn't possibly... What if he? Is there enough time for...?' Your brain races on and on, trying to keep pace with the dogged donkey-loving protagonist, and Sivan handles the balance extremely well.
The performances are top-notch. Sivan surprises us by casting actors Bollywood routinely misuses -- an utterly watchable Anupam Kher [Images] being a prime example -- by giving them natural parts and using them with tight restraint. Sarika [Images] delivers powerfully as the lad's mute mother, and Rahul Bose [Images] is an absolute treat as a slackjawed yokel.
The film does, however, belong to Purav, Sana Shaikh (who plays his sister Zoya), and young Ankush Dubey (the rather alarming Idrees) -- the latter clearly the kind of talent that deserves to be snapped up immediately. The other two need to go to school.
And you need to go to a theatre. Take the kids too, please.