Note: The 3.25 star rating in the above graphic is for Taish the film. Our critic's rating for the mini-series is 2.75 out of 5 stars.
Language: Hindi-Punjabi (with some English)
There's an intriguing new experiment in town. ZEE5 is launching writer-director Bejoy Nambiar's Taish in two versions: a six-part mini-series with episodes of around 30 minutes each and a two-and-a-half-hour feature film. The total duration of the series is 34 minutes more than the film. This could have translated either into greater substance or more fluff in the series, or simply, interesting but differing takes on the same storyline, depending on the choices made in the writing and editing process. So which is it?
Taish means wrath and passion. The story has two interlinked strands, both set in the UK. One is about the feuding brothers, Kuljinder and Pali Brar, who are gangsters. The other is set in a wealthy doctor's home where the elder son, Rohan Kalra, and a friend, Sunny Lalwani, arrive to celebrate the wedding of the younger son, Krish. The series opens with an act of extreme violence involving two individuals. The reason, revealed much later, fades into the background as that single deed sets off a chain of events with calamitous consequences for both groups.
The introductory scene in Taish is gory and shocking. From there the narrative shifts to another potentially bloody scene 10 days earlier where the target was the same man. Swiftly and seamlessly, the tension passes and a lightness takes over, night-time melts away and daylight floats on to the screen as the action then moves to the wedding festivities where we soon discover that beneath the surface gloss and mirth are prejudice, conflict and a troubling secret from the past.
At first, the series holds attention by combining an easy sense of humour at the Kalra wedding with the suspense about the motivation behind that initial murderous act. It gradually wanes though, remaining engaging while it lasts but not distinctive enough to be memorable.
Nambiar's filmography stretches back to 2011, covering Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam (Shaitan, David, Wazir, Solo). He has always been technically strong, his weakness has so far been a tendency to allow style to trump soul. Even my favourite of his works so far, Solo, was teetering on a precipice from where it repeatedly risked plunging into over-stylisation if his overall writing with Dhanya Suresh and the sincerity of their hero, Dulquer Salmaan, had not kept pulling it back from the edge.
Taish the mini-series thankfully does not show off its luxurious look, but the nuts and bolts of the screenplay (by Anjali Nair, Kartik R Iyer, Nambiar himself and Nicola Louise Taylor, with dialogues by Gunjit Chopra and Nambiar) feel somewhat familiar and borrowed from a generation of Hollywood action/mafia/crime directors who continue to be hero-worshipped in Bollywood, given rave reviews by Hollywood critics and Oscars although they have begun repeating themselves.
So yes, the series stays mildly absorbing till the end, but it feels neither novel nor profound. Sexual abuse, for instance, is thrown into the blend as a plot twist that could have been exchanged for another heinous violent crime without changing anyone or anything in the story. As the series rolls along, the characters are made relatable more by the fine array of actors playing them than by depth of characterisation. The only ones who feel like full-bodied, fully-fleshed-out individuals are Rohan's girlfriend Arfa and Krish, played nicely by Kriti Kharbanda and Ankur Rathee respectively.
Despite these limitations, several other actors too turn out impressive performances. Jim Sarbh as Rohan switches gears from funny, irreverent, almost clownish, cowardly man-child to grim, grieving, terrified and ultimately determined man with the seeming effortlessness he has displayed throughout his brief career (Neerja, A Death In The Gunj, Padmaavat). Harshvardhan Rane is devastatingly good as Pali and every cell of his being seems to embody his longing for the woman he loves, Jahaan played by Sanjeeda Shaikh with whom he shares an electric chemistry. Shaikh herself is inconsistent. Fukrey and Fukrey Returns' Pulkit Samrat, who has the least well-rounded character of the leads, is wonderful all the same as the wild, hot-blooded Sunny. And among the supporting actors, Saloni Batra who plays Jahaan's sister Sanobar has a particularly striking screen presence.
Here's the curious thing: Sunny feels sketchily written in the series but not in the film and the only reason I can think of " although the story of both is precisely the same " is that the approach is vastly different. In a medium where even a minute can change the world, 34 minutes is a huge difference in duration and the film is served well by the drastic changes wrought at the editing table. The film does not open with the gruesome episode on which the curtain rises on the series; the film begins with Pali's heartbreak. As a result, the series unfolds as a suspense thriller about how that deadly attack took place, what the motivations of the attacker were and who's who, following which the mystery becomes about how far a situation could possibly spiral out of control. Taish the film though starts with a human being whose pain is poignant, and proceeds as a cautionary tale about impetuousness, love and vengeance, about regret for one's actions when it is too late and a desperate need for forgiveness.
In comparison with the film, Taish the series (which I watched first) feels pretentious in retrospect. The film is neater, cleaner and sharper, and I would be curious to know which edit Nambiar and his editor Priyank Prem Kumar prefer. If ever there was a project that could illustrate to a student of cinema that editors are storytellers and that there is more to editing than just chopping, it is this. The film does not subtract any information from the narrative, it simply tackles the same information in its own way. The series is too spread out, it makes incremental revelations about the introductory passage, initially shifts back and forth in time, and consequently, perhaps unwittingly, draws too much attention to its storytelling style at least in the first two episodes. The film is linear, establishes Sunny's relationship with Rohan and Krish so that we are already invested in them before a life-changing incident occurs " it thus remains focused on the people in the narrative rather than the narrative devices employed.
This is not to suggest that Taish the film does not share some of the series' writing flaws; it does. For one, Rohan's reaction to a particular guest at a party suggests that he has not seen the man for a couple of decades " considering that the fellow is a long-time family friend, as we are later told, it is inexplicable why they have not encountered each other in the intervening years. Second, Pali's agony arises from a decision taken by Sanobar that makes no sense when you hear her explanation " her goal, which cannot be revealed here, could just as well have been served by giving Pali and Jahaan what they wanted. Third, there is no particular reason why the story is set in London and not a large north Indian city like Delhi or Gurgaon, no cultural or geographical specificity in the UK that has an iota of an effect on the plot, nothing. And the concern raised earlier in this review about the reference to sexual violence applies to both the film and the series.
In the end though, these issues impact the film less than they do the series.
Taish benefits greatly from Harshvir Oberai's eclectic cinematography, ranging from expansive frames of the pretty English countryside to a small washroom where a man finds himself alone with a killer. The most arresting though is a scene that unfolds in an oval mirror on a richly designed wall. Barring gratuitous shots of self-inflicted bloodshed in a prison cell, Oberai's work in Taish is lovely.
Bollywood has too often used Punjabi as a tool to convey boisterousness, comedy or aggression. The softer, gentler aspects of the language get space in the conversations between Pali and Jahaan in Taish. Of course this means subtitles are crucial to the experience of Taish, but for some reason the series is not subtitled as of now. The mix of languages " Punjabi, Hindi, English " in the dialogues and the lyrics is logical, relevant and neatly done.
Taish's writing is well complemented by the spectrum of moods and understated emotions in Gaurav Godkhindi and Govind Vasantha's original background score and the songs by a selection of talented musicians and singers.
Taish the series is fair enough, but it is the film that manages to effectively convey the wrath and passion of the title, making it Nambiar's best work yet.
Taish is streaming on ZEE5.
Rating for the series: 2.75 (out of 5 stars)
Rating for the film: 3.25 (out of 5 stars)