There’s a great scene in Talaash where the laconic Inspector Surjan Singh Shekhawat (Aamir Khan) gets a phone call from a Times of India reporter, probing for details of the high-profile case he’s working on: the death of a Bollywood star in a mysterious accident on Mumbai’s Seaface Road. Shekhawat bangs the phone down in irritation, goes out and asks his staff who has good connections with the media, and promptly confiscates the cellphones of all those who put their hands up. Nothing about this case should get out in the public domain, he says sternly – not until the mystery is solved.
The scene could well be a nice little in-joke cracked by the film’s makers—substitute ‘case’ with ‘plot’ and you have before you the problem of reviewing Talaash. Reema Kagti’s second directorial outing (after 2007’s delightfully quirky Honeymoon Travels) is a film whose effect depends heavily on plot. And because I think you should all have the pleasure of that plot unfolding, slowly but surely, on screen as well as in your head, I am going to try and write the impossible: a review that tells you everything you need to know, but gives away nothing.
So the film begins with an accident. A famous young man is found dead, and a quietly determined inspector is put on the job. But his investigation throws up more questions than answers. The dead man had sent his chauffeur home and was driving himself from a late-night shoot, which he never usually did. He hadn’t consumed any alcohol and his car was in perfect condition, yet it swerved clean off the road, into the sea. Then there is mention of a bag of money that ought to have been with him, but is missing. The one lead Shekhawat is sure of is a smalltime pimp named Shashi, but he’s missing as well.
Shekhawat isn’t doing too well on the home front either. His wife (Rani Mukherjee) is depressed, he’s all wound up inside, and the lines of communication between them seem to have broken down. As the case gets more and more opaque, his emotional life gets foggier. The one person who appears as a beacon of hope is a flirtatious young hooker called Rosie (Kareena Kapoor) who seems like she might both help him solve the case and soothe his frazzled nerves.
As you can see from the bare bones of this plot, this is pure Bombay noir, of the kind that has been immortalised by countless books and films in the course of the twentieth century: a seamy urban underbelly populated by sassy prostitutes and ostensibly kadak policemen, high class clients with low-level morals, hopeless pimps who turn hopeful informers. It is a bleak take on a bleak world, in which everyone is on the make and people are too caught up in their own day-to-day survival to care for much else.
As early as the 1940s, Saadat Hasan Manto had inscribed the city with this sad burden of unfeelingness. “No one in the building felt any sympathy for her, perhaps because their lives were so difficult that that had no time to think about others. No one had any friends,” he wrote in the story ‘Ten Rupees’.
Talaash certainly belongs in this tradition, setting the high life of the rich up against a seedy brothel complete with the requisite filmi-style madam and requisite low-life hanger-on (the marvelous Nawazuddin Siddiqui). But what it achieves is a rare balance. It isn’t a throwback to the happy-go-lucky noir of a Howrah Bridge, where there’s never any doubt that Madhubala’s lovely dancing girl will be redeemed – but neither is it interested in bludgeoning us with unrelenting tragedy, the way a Chandni Bar did.
Bad things happen, for sure, but not only bad things. And no one is an unmitigated bad person. Yet the film’s moral universe is underpinned by a satisfying sense of justice: acts that hurt people, whether by omission or commission, get their just deserts.
This balancing act extends to the look and feel of the film as well – there is grit, but there is also gloss. The film is beautifully shot, and comes with achingly lovely songs. It seems quite clear – right from the title sequence, where smoky streets filled with destitute chillum-smokers and brittle hookers are made the stuff of a late-night nostalgic-romantic tour of the city – that we are not here to see a realist police procedural.
That’s fine, and it’s a pleasure to see a film which pays its loving homage to everything from Dirty Harry to Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam to Shaan with such elegance. But the film’s desire for glossiness has its problems. For me, for example, the Rosie character, though beautifully written for the most part, often failed to work simply because there was such a hopeless eliding of the class differences that would exist between a Rosie and a Shekhawat.
It’s not that a cop can’t fall in love with a hooker, but surely there would be a clearer sense of what separates them, even if to provide additional frisson? The film’s weird refusal to acknowledge class status (while speaking incessantly of it) is made concrete, of course, by giving the role to Kareena Kapoor, whose ineffable poshness makes her attempts to sound like a streetwalker fall flat. One must concede that she has sluttiness down pat – she oozes sexuality with every gesture. It’s just that the gestures are Kareena’s, they never quite seem like Rosie’s.
There’s also the fact that Rosie’s role as ministering angel to the troubled hero is a reprising of every golden-hearted whore that you’ve ever seen, from Devdas to Muqaddar ka Sikandar. But my growing annoyance at the Kareena character’s other-regarding and self-sacrificing nature did receive a blow before the film was done, so I have no grounds for complaint. Meanwhile, as the Madonna to Kareena’s Magdalene, Rani Mukherjee does rather well with a small role.
As a sad-eyed housewife with the ironic name of Roshni, the actress brings a profound and identifiable pathos to her dark and solitary days in an even darker house. Rani has always had the capacity to be heartbreaking – and then unexpectedly feisty – and here she does both with aplomb.
I reserve my last words for Aamir Khan: if, like me, you have a lingering memory of the affecting boy-man with inner steely core – the one you fell in love with way back in Raakh, or Dil, and have been wondering about for years, you need look no further. Your Talaash has ended.