All the World’s a Stage: Tamasha and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo
Tamasha and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo have similarities – both films revolve around stage performances, both films involve a double role for the hero, both films ask whether the heroine will be able to tell the difference when the man she loves is secretly replaced and so on. But one of these films has a much stronger social message than the other.
Prem Ratan Dhan Payo and Tamasha are two movies that would not get along if they met at a party. One is a sentimental old fashioned type, the other is intensely modern and ridden with angst. And yet, they have a surprising number of elements in common. Both films revolve around stage performances, both films involve a double role for the hero, both films ask whether the heroine will be able to tell the difference when the man she loves is secretly replaced, both films involve an attempt of a son to live up to their father’s expectations, both films end by encouraging a character to follow their heart to their destiny. But one of these films has a much stronger social message than the other. Surprise, it’s the one made by Sooraj Barjatya!
Tamasha starts as a love story, a man and woman meet on vacation, agree to learn nothing about each other and to keep it as a vacation friendship, and then part. The woman (Tara) cannot forget the man and his wonderful crazy spirit. Years later, she runs into him again and finds that he is very different. The man, Ved, is a middle manager with a quiet life of work and routine and none of the spirit she loved on vacation. They date, and eventually he proposes, and she turns him down because he is no longer the man she fell in love with. This sets off a massive reaction within him as finally all the dreams and desires he has hidden his whole life come bursting out.
Tamasha’s message, if it has one, is to allow children to follow their own dreams and destiny, to encourage them to be creative and quest for happiness rather than success. This is a wonderful message, of course, but in a post-3 Idiots world, this is no longer a vital message. At least, it is not vital as it is presented in this film. Our hero, Ved, is from a well off and loving family. He has been given a good education and a certain amount of freedom and space (he lives on his own in Delhi rather than in his father’s house). His only problem is a certain timidity and sensitivity which made him unable to make his case to his father for what he really wanted out of life, which lead him to go down the wrong path years ago which eventually leads to a massive nervous breakdown in the present. I have sympathy for this character, I am concerned about him, and I want him to be happy, but I am not sure that he deserves to have an entire film devoted to giving him happiness.
The brilliance of 3 Idiots was that it had 3 characters, each with their own challenges, balancing each other. While each individually may not have deserved an entire film devoted to their journey, the 3 combined certainly did. Other films, like Udaan or 2 States or Taare Zameen Par justify their tight focus by showing main characters with more unusual challenges, not just an unsympathetic father but an actively abusive one, not just a disinterest in school but an actual learning disability, not just an unsympathetic father but an unsympathetic father who has become a family secret that is preventing his marriage. Tamasha, instead, has only one main character whose difficulties are (unfortunately) common, and, even more unfortunately, are nothing in comparison with the struggles of many other youth of India. This is not to say that that the struggle of an artist to achieve his destiny is unimportant, just that it must be given its proper importance in comparison with the other ills of the world, rather than being positioned as the only cause for an entire narrative.
The importance of our artist hero’s journey can only be justified by the brilliance of his eventual creations. And what we are shown at the end just doesn’t live up to expectations. This is somewhat unfair, as a film can never fully capture the magic of a live stage performance. Which is perhaps why films in the past have not attempted to accurately convey a stage performance, instead choosing to present them as fantastical, and filmic, montages. The song “Malang” from Dhoom 3 condenses a massive live performance with multiple sets, costumes, and a defined plot arch into one 5 minute song. Aaja Nachle devotes over 15 minutes to a full performance of “Laila Majnu”, but that is still not long enough to realistically encompass a performance with multiple songs, sets, etc. In these films, by presenting a stage performance as a film performance, the narrative purpose was better served. The audience for the film was convinced that the artwork justified the struggle to create it. In Tamasha, the final stage play, brilliant though it could conceivably be when witnessed live, just does not convey on film the proper level of importance needed for the audience to remain sympathetic with the struggles of our hero in creating it. And this sympathy is necessary, because all of his struggle is internal, is self-centered. The whole point of the film is what is happening to him, what others are doing to him, how he is suffering for the brilliance inside of himself.
Trailer of Tamasha
Prem Ratan Dhan Payo
In contrast, our hero Prem from Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is all about giving of himself to others, about externalities. This is apparent in the stage performance with which he is introduced at the start of the film. A formal performance with minimal audience interaction is interrupted by heckling. In response, our hero Prem forces the heckler to join the performance he disparaged. When the manager of the theater company critiques and abuses his performers, he receives the same treatment, forced to replace the performer he insulted. Eventually, the lines between the stage and the audience become fully blurred as Prem leads the performers into the seating area.
While Prem is introduced as a performer and an artist, it is not an important part of his character for the rest of the film. He quickly becomes absorbed into the life of his doppelganger, a prince. He takes the prince’s place while he is recovering from an attack, and spends the rest of the film living in a palace and solving the problems of royalty, not artists. He reconciles the prince with his estranged siblings, solves the prince’s romantic problems with his fiancee, and identifies and defeats the prince’s enemies.
Prem’s character for the rest of the film is set by this introduction. He is constantly going out and giving of himself, trying to make his part of the world better. He donates his profits to charity, he selflessly agrees to risk his life to help his royal doppelganger, he spoils his newly acquired sisters, and he eventually gives up the woman he loves for what he sees as her own happiness and the happiness of others. His only flaw, really, is that he has no flaws. While Tamasha’s main character gives us an entirely internal journey, Prem’s gives us one that is fully external. It is not so much a journey of Prem learning about himself and how to be a better person, as it is a journey of others learning to know about him, and how truly good he is.
Ultimately, however, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is the more balanced narrative and therefore has the more balanced social message. In Tamasha, every character besides our hero is solely defined in relationship to him. We have his girlfriend, his father, his storyteller, his boss, his friends, and so on. They have no characteristics outside of this. We never learn what his girlfriend, the ostensible co-lead of the film, does for a living. We never learn if his father has any other children. We never learn if his boss is a self-made man or inherited his company. At the end of the film, our hero tracks down the storyteller he spent his childhood listening to. The storyteller is clearly ill, being lovingly cared for by relatives. And yet our hero only cares about him as a storyteller, in the limited way he used to relate to him. He has no concern for him as an elderly man who needs patience and sympathy. For a film that is supposed to be about breaking free of labels and defined social categories, our hero isn’t very good about seeing other people as more than the limited personalities he has decided to give them.
In Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, while the character sketches are brief and superficial, they are at least unique. Even the female characters, who are usually the weakest part of the narrative of an Indian film, have defining characteristics and personality. Of the three female main characters, one is an independent and short-tempered woman who has difficulties relating to others, one is a sports mad young girl who shares her sister’s short temper but has not yet become bitter, and one is a gentle and kind woman who feels an enormous sense of responsibility to others. Their separate stories and personality serve not only to enrich the narrative, but to make a social statement, that women are just as important in the world as men, that their reactions and experiences are important and should be considered, that their happiness is important.
Tamasha has a conscious and aggressive social statement built in, that people should be allowed to find their own happiness and be themselves. But what we learn from how it treats it’s own characters is that people don’t really matter. There is no need to care for or be considerate of others, people are interchangeable elements in your own life story.
Trailer of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo
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