Film Review: ‘Talentime’ Charms with its Sharp Romance and Family Drama and a Slew of Original Songs
A talent search competition has matched two hearts – that of Melur, a Malay-mixed girl and an Indian male student, Mahesh. Melur, with her melodious voice, singing whilst playing the piano is one of the seven finalists of the Talentime competition of her school organised by Cikgu Adibah. Likewise Hafiz, enthralling with his vocalist talent while playing the guitar, divides his time between school and mother, who is hospitalised for brain tumor.
Director: Yasmin Ahmad
Cast: Mahesh Jugal Kishor, Pamela Chong Ven Teen, Mohd Syafie Naswip, Jaclyn Victor
Language: English, Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tamil
Runtime: 120 minutes
Talentime is the last feature-length film that Yasmin Ahmad gifted us before she passed away several months after this film was released in 2009. It’s not a trailblazing film, nor does it have brilliant cinematography. Like Rabun, it has a straightforward story. But with both Yasmin’s prowess in storytelling and her ability to capture the essence of her characters in full display, Talentime is an endearing, lovely film from beginning to end, touching on universally heart-tugging themes like family, love, and grief.
The film centres primarily around an interracial couple, between Melur (Pamela Chong), a Eurasian girl, and Mahesh (Mahesh Jugal Kishor), an Indian boy who has impaired hearing. Melur is selected to be a finalist for Talentime, an inter-school talent competition, and Mahesh is selected to chauffeur her back and forth between her house and the rehearsals.
From the audition day to the competition day, Melur and Mahesh slowly fall in love with each other. Interweaved around this story are multiple subplots which, in many ways, are just as interesting as the main plot, if not even more. There is, for instance, Hafiz (Mohd Syafie Naswip), a Talentime contestant who is talented in singing, and whose mother is hospital-ridden. Melur’s hilarious family also takes the spotlight several times throughout the film, sometimes acting as comical relief, sometimes glimpsing into the complex racial dynamics of a Eurasian family in Malaysia.
And never once does the film feel unbalanced with its multiple subplots. The film focusses on the Talentime competition itself and lets the characters, relationships, and plots develop organically around it. The result is a romance and family-friendly film that transits seamlessly into biting social commentaries whenever necessary.
Just like her previous films, Yasmin tried as much as possible to celebrate multiculturalism in Malaysia without painting the country in too positive of a light. Racial and religious tensions often come to the fore, bringing to light how injurious stereotypes can be. The film navigates through these issues sensitively, and ultimately asks us to discard such stereotypes we have of one another.
Even so, with deft management of the scenes and beats, Yasmin was careful not to let such heavyweight issues take over the film and sour its overall uplifting, festive atmosphere. The film is replete with jokes and gags that don’t feel contrived, and it knows when to pivot from lively scenes into more sentimental, contemplative scenes to allow for some emotional variety.
The most impressive and entertaining aspect of this film, really, is the soundtrack. Yasmin cleverly leveraged on the Talentime competition to produce a soundtrack filled with original songs composed by Pete Teo, that are sung in English, Malay, and Tamil. Besides original compositions, the soundtrack also features Hindustani classical music that accompanies the portrayal of Hindu rites in the film, such as an open cremation ceremony.
But the ‘soundtrack’ which I was most impressed with is the number of languages spoken in the film. It was such a refreshing experience to hear Malaysian and British-accented English, Malay, Tamil, Cantonese, and Mandarin spoken across the two hours, compared to a film that is predominantly English. Yasmin clearly took delight in the racially diverse cast and explored the musicality of languages in Malaysia.
My biggest gripe with this film, perhaps, was its overindulgence in sentimentality, a criticism that Yasmin often received for her films. The main story of Melur and Mahesh’s relationship is portrayed a bit too melodramatic and a little unrealistic. The religious and racial tensions that obstruct their relationship are also resolved a bit too easily, harking back to the ‘Love Triumphs All’ trope that plagues a lot of clichéd romance dramas.
But perhaps such simplicity was intended on Yasmin’s part. With a storyline that is easy to follow, while occasionally segueing into mature themes, Talentime is a charming and fun film to watch. It’s really a shame that Yasmin Ahmad passed away so early, leaving us with only six feature-length films. I’m not looking forward to the day I finish them all.
Talentime is now streaming on Netflix, along with two other Yasmin Ahmad films, Rabun and Mukhsin.