The Dirty Picture Project: Tamasha

[Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University is running the Dirty Picture project that reviews blockbuster Bollywood films from a feminist perspective. This particular review is by law students, but anyone who would enjoy this and is capable of carrying the work out is welcome to join in. Please do write at ccg@nludelhi.ac.in with ‘Dirty Picture Project’ in the subject line if you would like to be a part of the project.]

By Suniti Sampat and Bhargavi Vadeyar

 Imtiaz Ali’s attempt at creating a modern love saga that is unlike any other

Tamasha, as its name suggests, is high on drama and is certainly a story well told. But does Imtiaz Ali manage to deliver something different from the usual sexist content that is routinely doled out as entertainment to audiences?  

In this coming-of-age story, the leading female character,  Tara (Deepika Padukone) is a tool in Ved’s (Ranbir Kapoor) journey of self-realisation, though her role is perhaps a defining one. Their dalliance is initiated in the sun-kissed locales of Corsica. Our heroine is a stranded damsel in distress, having lost her passport and other belongings. Ved steps in now, the knight in shining armour.

What Happens in Corsica stays in Corsica (Thankfully)

The two decide to spend the next few days as strangers to avoid a stereotypical interaction based on societal norms. Ved wants to be free of such societal expectations; shockingly, this appears to be so that he could then behave in an inappropriate manner with Tara. Though this could be seen as a comment on societal norms and stereotypes on sexuality, it leads to a slightly discomforting exchange between the duo.

Ved believes that he should not be expected to behave in a ‘decent’ manner, now that they are in a foreign land like Corsica. He declares that in an ordinary set-up he would look for reasons to touch Tara, who plays along and says that then she would have to act as though she dislikes the attention. While the intention of the writers may have been to mock sexual stereotypes through this exchange, it may have the alarming effect of encouraging the often-prevalent notion in Bollywood that when a woman protests, she does so out of consideration for societal norms rather than because consent is in fact lacking.

On balance, however, Ved does re-assure Tara that he has no interest in trying to pursue her. They therefore enter into a “what happens in Corsica stays in Corsica” agreement. In their brief time together in Corsica, Deepika’s sexuality is treated in a regressive manner. A particularly cringe-worthy scene is one where in the midst of hauling a suitcase, Deepika’s cleavage becomes visible. Not being one to miss such things, Ved comments  “Aap ke husn ki waadiya dikh rahi hain,” ( the vales of your beauty are visible)  perhaps as an indication that she should cover up. Way to make someone feel uncomfortable! In response our heroine unabashedly removes the shrug and flings it in true filmy style, causing Ved to jokingly cover his face in a pretense of embarrassment. There are equally problematic sexual stereotypes ahead in this movie which is touted as a modern love saga. In one scene, when our duo is out of money, Ved wishes aloud that he were a woman, so that “chorai ke pe izzat bech sakta” ( could sell my dignity at the marketplace).

Ved’s sexual entitlement is further displayed when Deepika catches him staring at her and he rather forcefully says, “Dekh Raha Hoon”. An extremely disturbing conversation about “Jism ki Bhookh and “Kitna touching allowed hain” ensues. Again, this may be an attempt at mocking stereotypes, but the discomfort from the staring translated off-screen, and felt very real. The filmmaker perhaps fails to realize that such representation could lead to normalisation of  inappropriate behavior.

Heer toh badi sad hai

Finally, when it’s time for Tara to leave, one can sense some hesitation on her part to fulfil their no strings attached agreement. The two share a passionate parting kiss and this could well have been the usual end to a summer fling. Alas, it is not so. Tara must pine for Ved. Not for a month, not even for a year, but for four painful years! In contrast, there is absolutely no indication that Ved felt even a trickle of emotion about her leaving. But then, it’s always the woman who is more vulnerable about matters of the heart, and a woman always wants love more than the man, or so the stereotype goes anyway. The gloom of lost love follows her to Calcutta and to Delhi. As she finally locates Ved, one can see the gleam in her eyes and hesitation in her step as she makes herself noticeable for him to approach her. There is no nervousness and hesitation on his part as he confidently approaches her.

Of broken hearts and unfulfilled expectations

They decide to give a fresh impetus to their relationship. But this is the real world, which brings with it the mundanity of an everyday working life. Ved leads a rather boring life, seldom veering from his routine. They have their first date at a Japanese restaurant. It’s all very stereotypical, with Ved picking her up in his car and dropping her off. She invites him upstairs and they have sex. It must be mentioned that Ved rather endearingly removes his watch and belt before making out with Tara, presumably to avoid hurting her. They continue to go on these predictable dates. In one instance, Tara asks Ved searchingly if this is what love is. He responds amorously by stating that he loves her too. The viewer is left with the feeling Tara’s statement was a question, an expression of incredulity that there is nothing more that this love affair has to offer.   

Things come to a head when Ved proposes. Tara shockingly states that Ved is not the man she is in love with. She did not want to be with this “well-behaved, polite and decent product-manager”, but with the man he was in Corsica. These are the first indications of Tara’s exercising autonomy, as she seeks the excitement that she felt in Corsica. She walks off, with a sense of repentance about having broken Ved’s heart. However, we now know that Tara is a woman who knows what she wants, and this is perhaps the only time in the film that her character is portrayed so clearly.

It’s  (just) Ved’s happy ending

Unfortunately, despite this brief illumination of her character, Tara fits the manic pixie dream girl (MPDG) trope to the T. Her character is never properly fleshed out, with no references to her own family. The viewer is not sure what she does for a living, though one may assume that she occupies an important position, as a number of people seemed to be working under her, carrying her suitcases et al. Tara, unlike Ved, seems to have no friends that she turns to in times of emotional turmoil; the only social interaction she has in the movie is with Ved.

As a typical MPDG must, Tara is attractive, immaculately dressed at all times, full of jokes and functions as a plot device to ensure that the male protagonist achieves self-actualization. She seems to have no troubles or unfulfilled goals of her own. This is even more disappointing considering that Imtiaz Ali’s last venture (Highway) had a female protagonist for whose characterization he received much praise. Unlike with Highway’s Veera, there is a reluctance on the part of the filmmaker to fully explore Tara’s character.  

Lest we forget, this is Ved’s story. Tara’s rejection of him is used as a tool by the filmmaker to initiate his process of self-realization. Within Ved’s family, it seems that he holds in regard only his father’s approval; what his mother and grandmother think are side-lined. Indeed, these two members of his family appear to function only as props for the story line. Apart from Tara, there are no other named female characters, which means that the movie miserably fails the Bechdel test at the very first step.

However, it is nice to see that Tara is given due credit for Ved’s transformation. A particularly heart-tendering scene is one in which he is applauded for a performance. He bows down in the direction of Tara in front of a large audience. They blow kisses at each other and one can see that all is well in their world. In this modern saga, Ved and Tara are portrayed as equals. There is an understanding that Tara has certain expectations from their relationship and from Ved.  However, one is left with the question: Is Tara happy too? Why does the film not dwell on her dreams and ambitions? Like most stories, these questions about the woman are left unexplored.

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