In the bestiary of rich-poor romances, Taal ("rhythm") is a lackluster specimen. Laden with cliches, sodden with obnoxious product placement, and burdened by a bland heroine and a pompous hero, Taal's only distinguishing features are a zany performance by Anil Kapoor and a soundtrack by A.R. Rahman that far outshines the forgettable film it supports.
Manav Mehta (Akshaye Khanna) arrives in a Himalayan hill town from his education abroad, joining his family of industrial titans - including his formidable father Jagmohan (Amrish Puri) - for a vacation. There, he meets Mansi (Aishwarya Rai), the poised daughter of a singer named Tarababu (Alok Nath). Manav is instantly smitten and successfully woos Mansi, promising her that he will overcome the inevitable resistance of their families to their pairing. After the Mehtas retreat to their massive palace in Bombay, Tarababu and Mansi make a visit to the city to discuss the possibility of a relation. A standard-issue poor-but-noble versus rich-and-snooty culture clash ensues (helped along by some of Manav's smarmier relations), and Manav and Mansi renounce one another, each feeling that the other's family has given insult.
Instead of returning to their village, though, Tarababu and Mansi fall in with a famous producer-performer-composer named Vikrant (Anil Kapoor), who wants to give modern arrangements to Tarababu's songs and make a singing-dancing-modeling star out of Mansi, which he does, practically overnight. Mansi, still smarting from her broken relationship with Manav, adapts well to her new, successful life, until a marriage proposal from Vikrant forces her to face the possibility that her first love is lost to her forever. But a contrite Manav pledges that Mansi, Jagmohan, and even Vikrant will come to bow to the power of his love - that Mansi will return to him and the others willingly give their blessing.
There is a strain in recent Hindi films of movies whose characters are singing stars - not merely musicians, but giant superstars - providing a justification for breaking out into elaborate production numbers, but offering nothing of import to the story. This strikes me as defensive, an answer to perceived criticism (from westerners, perhaps) that songs come randomly from nowhere in Hindi films. "Look," these films seem to say, "the character is a singing star - now the songs aren't coming out of nowhere!" Particularly egregious examples that leap to mind include Dil to pagal hai and Hum tumhare hain sanam, but even better movies like Tehzeeb have submitted.
Taal suffers terribly under the weight of this needless conceit. Mansi rockets overnight from a simple village girl to an international MTV sensation with legions of screaming fans. This transformation would induce whiplash in a normal young woman, and would certainly have wrought some changes in Mansi's character or behavior in a well-written film in which her status as a musician was of any significance. In Taal, though, there no perceptible response to Mansi's drastic change in circumstances. Mansi's instantaneous stardom added nothing to the story apart from a platform for an army of backup dancers in flaming spandex bodysuits.
The production numbers were entertaining enough, but a good film can stand on the strength of its narrative and be enhanced by such storytelling traditions as musical scenes, without need of distracting and convoluted explanations for the songs. Unfortunately, Taal is not that film. The conflict generated by Manav's slimy relatives and Mansi's simple, proud father is beyond eye-rolling, an embarrassing slop of rehashed and recycled parts. The romance in the film's first hour is mildly charming, but Manav's arrogance quickly grows tiresome. Akshaye Khanna, with his crooked smile and soulful eyes, is better used as vulnerable and confused young men like Dil chahta hai's Sid; here, as cocky as a Shah-Rukh-Khanish dandy, he is perhaps even less charming than Shah Rukh Khan himself, and uninteresting as a hero; what use is a character with absolutely no doubts about himself? Aishwarya Rai adds little to the mix either, but then, she's given little to work with; whatever potential her story has is squandered in service of a cheap plot device.
The only interesting element in the film is the spastic Vikrant, and even interesting doesn't necessarily mean good. Anil Kapoor has his moments, but these are equal in number to the moments that too far over-the-top or that simply make no sense. Taal is fortunate to have a top-notch, pulsing soundtrack by A.R. Rahman which saves the film from utter uselessness. The soundtrack is helped along by some creative (if over-spandexed) picturizations, especially the first rendition of "Ishq bina", which is thrilling and acrobatic before it unfortunately turns into an ill-placed Coca-Cola advertisement three quarters of the way through.