(Editor’s Note: SPOILER ALERT. For those who have not watched Talaash yet, this story contains spoilers.)
The ghost in Talaash is lucky.
She can sashay into the hotel where she once took her more upmarket clients. She can linger at the seedy brothel where her madam still runs a brisk business. The lonely beach where she’s buried has not been turned into some ghastly beachfront promenade with a Café Coffee Day and trident lighting. Her old haunts have not been bulldozed into malls and multiplexes. In a city that is notorious for moving on with merciless unsentimentality, time has had the grace to pause for her, so she can roam Mumbai’s noir-ish streets as if it was yesterday once more.
Talaash is not a "universal film" because it has a "supernatural element" says Aamir Khan. He's right. Ghosts feel terribly old-fashioned in our new India. That’s not because we have become a more scientifically rational country but because we literally have less and less space for them. In traditional Bengali folklore, for example, there are shaankchunnis, the ghosts of women unlucky in love. Petnis wear saris and lure men away from home and hearth. Brahmodoityas are the ghosts of Brahmins and might bless you or curse you, depending on their mood. Mamdobhoots are the ghosts of Muslims. Mechhobhoots like fish (not surprising since these are Bengali ghosts). The Skondhokatas, the headless ghosts of people who died in train accidents, sound terrifying but because they don’t have heads, you can trick them easily. Unlike the nishi. They take on familiar voices and call people by their names in the dead of night and lead them away, never to be seen again. That’s a lot of ghosts. We just don’t have room in a modern city of 750 sq feet 2BHK apartments for entire spectral family trees anymore.
Ghosts don’t just need cemeteries. They need rooms, preferably with high ceilings, and secluded nooks. They need sturdy mature trees – neem, bel and ponds choked with moss. They require public space that has the right balance of habitation and desolation. When our ancestral home in Kolkata was torn down, I remember asking my mother if we could at least save the neem tree. We couldn’t. Apartments only have room for potted marigolds and money plants. But petnis and brahmodaityas can’t haunt marigolds. In signing the death warrant of our houses we have rendered the ghosts homeless.
In this year’s Bengali sleeper hit, Bhooter Bhavishyat, a mansion-full of assorted ghosts in Kolkata confront that very real prospect of eviction when a property developer sets his greedy sights on the grand old building they call home. Not surprisingly, the dead spirits of a yesteryear Bengali movie siren, a British koi-hai kind of burrasahib, a Kargil war hero, to name just a few, see an eternity of going up and down the escalators at some shiny new mall as a fate worse than death. They complain, they don’t count for much in modern India. They have no voting power and little nuisance value.
Eventually they have to take their future into their own hands and form a sort of co-operative spirited resistance movement. They decide to scare the living daylights out of the promoter, not because they are particularly interested in being scary, but because it’s a matter of roti, kapda and makaan.
What is truly tragic about their pitiful plight is that our most popular fictional ghosts were not necessarily malevolent. They shared space with the living fairly amiably. The ghosts in the Satyajit Ray film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, based on his grandfather’s story, liked to sing and dance and have a bit of a rumpus. In Leela Majumdar’s book Shob Bhuture , a childhood favourite, ghostly siblings, Shiji and Guji slithered up water pipes and sat up nights with the young hero regaling him the most exciting adventure stories about crocodiles and storms. In Paheli, the ghostly Shah Rukh Khan fell head over heels in love with village belle Rani Mukherjee and wanted to settle down happily ever after with her. (Incidentally that gives poor Rani the dubious distinction of having starred in one film where her husband is a ghost, and now in another where her husband is in love with a ghost.)
The box-office success of films like Talaash and Bhooter Bhavishyat might give the future of ghosts a little commercial reprieve. Satyajit Ray’s son Sandip is bringing out a Christmas release based on three famous ghost stories his father had written. “I think there is a demand for good ghost films,” he told The Statesman. “Children and parents can watch these films together.” But this modest glimmer of success is just a passing fancy. It will not solve the existential crisis of ghosts in the 21st century.
Vietnamese American writer Andrew Lam once wondered what immigration did to ghosts. He remembered his grandmother worrying that his grandfather who had died during the Vietnam War had never once visited her in her dreams in America. Lam wrote:
"Child,” Grandma would sometimes ask me. “Do you think ghosts can cross the ocean?”
But there’s something even sadder about the notion of ghosts who are homeless in their own homelands, lost in the map of a changing city, among people who don’t know their names and don’t care.
At least the lonely ghost in Talaash found a sympathetic ear in the unwitting police inspector. In the new India, the nishis can keep calling out our names. But in a city full of strangers, who will bother to answer?