“Talaash”… Water, water everywhere

Posted on November 30, 2012

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At the beginning of Jab Tak Hai Jaan, we watched Shah Rukh Khan make his appearance while defusing a bomb as the people around him spoke admiringly of his heroism – but the film, it turned out, wasn’t interested in heroics at all. Reema Kagti’s Talaash similarly dismantles the halo around its hero Aamir Khan, who plays the dour Inspector Suri Shekhawat. (His dourness is doubled thanks to a thick moustache that curls downwards, resembling the emoticon for a frown.) As he drives up to the scene of an accident – a car swerved off the road and flew into the Arabian Sea, killing its driver – an awestruck subordinate tells him, “Bahut suna hai aapke baarein mein.” This hint of far-reaching fame makes us expect another valorous saga like Sarfarosh – the film, instead, is an existential mood piece. Perhaps it’s too soon to declare that the biggest Bollywood stars are playing their age, shying away from overt heroics, but consider this: the driver of the doomed vehicle is himself a big Bollywood star, whose heroism is reserved for the shooting spot, where he’s seen guns blazing, in front of a green screen. Out on the streets, though, he’s a coward who meets a most unheroic death. Coincidence or commentary?

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The talaash of the title, at first, suggests the search for answers. Why did the car end up in the water? Was it suicide? If not, who was behind the accident? In short, we seem to be in for a nail-biting police procedural based on a “high-profile case.” But gradually, that search takes a backseat to others – a father’s search for peace, a wife’s search for a husband who’s vanished into a void of self-flagellation, and a forgotten victim’s search for closure. Kagti brings this all together with a sure touch that her first film, the fitfully entertaining Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., never hinted at. Even if the resolution leaves you underwhelmed – and despite the artfully placed pointers to seediness, with ragpickers, porn DVDs displayed proudly in stores, derelicts and druggies, some may feel Talaash is just classily dressed up crap – the film is so beautifully made and so atmospheric that several scenes stick in mind.

Like the one where Suri and his wife Roshni (Rani Mukerji, who really should stop slathering pancake on those freckles; she looks lovely here) go to a mindless Ajay Devgn entertainer – a world far, far removed from that of Talaash – to forget their troubles at home, only to find that life doesn’t always work the way you want it to. Suri, instead of watching the movie, amuses himself by watching his wife laugh, but when they exit the theatre, they run into a living-breathing reminder of the source of their unhappiness. (And that goes back, again, to an accident that occurred in water.) Kagti sticks to an even tone most of the time, rarely turning up the volume except in the emotionally loaded songs, so the dramatic showpieces, when they occur, are a punch in the gut. The quieter moments are equally powerful, like the lingering nighttime scene between Suri and the prostitute Rosie (Kareena Kapoor), filled as much with silence as dialogue.

Watching Talaash is also a reminder of how a female writer-director (Kagti wrote the movie with Zoya Akhtar) can clue us into the nooks and crannies of a story or a character that we would not usually get from a male filmmaker. I am thinking of the undercurrents in the scene where Suri and Roshni witness a bunch of lively kids from their colony dance to Jhalak dikhla jaa on stage, or the alternate what-if scenarios that torment Suri’s mind, or the time Roshni spends in unpacking things in her new home, or the character of Frenny (Shernaz Patel), a psychic who waltzes into Roshni’s life bearing a cheesecake. She comes off, initially, as creepy or plain crazy, but she gradually becomes the eccentric anchor for the film’s paranormal themes. (And what a relief it is that she’s left out of the closing portions, with only her handiwork driving the final scene – again by the water.) There’s also the grace bestowed on a couple of female characters, prostitutes both – Madhur Bhandarkar, rubbing his hands with sadistic glee, would have kicked them right into a sewer. Even the rug-pulling, at the end, isn’t presented with a magician’s flourish but as the quietest of epiphanies.

These touches elevate the material, which sometimes feels derivative, perhaps even silly – and all the actors do solid work. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who seems incapable of appearing in a bad movie or delivering a bad performance, is especially good as the token comedian (insofar as a serious story will allow for comedy) – he gets a big laugh out of the cell phone in his pocket, and even his name, Timur, sounds like wordplay. (Did I mention that he’s lame?) I walked out of Talaash not so much exhilarated as thoroughly engaged, but (spoilers ahead) films like these have their own afterlife, inviting us to think back on how it all fits – the dog barking at the beginning, the leitmotif of flowers, the phrase “pehchaanein jhoothi hain” in the song that plays over the opening credits, Suri telling the streetwalking Rosie “Tum pehle se narak mein ho,” Rosie’s repeated knowing smiles, and even her name, which resembles Roshni’s. The only thing that left me puzzled was the use of mirrors in scenes with Rosie, right from her introduction as a reflection on a glass tabletop. Isn’t that…? Shouldn’t she…? But how can…? The search continues.

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.