Make no mistake, Talaash is a Vikram Bhatt film.
Which isn’t to say Bhatt actually made it (though he or Mohit Suri or Pooja Bhatt may well have at some point, who dare keep count) but that it has a story built on the exact same pulpy foundations. Just yank out the invariably catchy Pritam soundtrack, replace Emraan Hashmi or Randeep Hooda with Aamir Khan and throw in major heroines where Vishesh Films would have cast unfamiliar models. (The only key character in Talaash who isn’t a top actor is, actually, the one who plays a top actor.)
To give credit where due, director Reema Kagti and her crew show significant flair in terms of creating atmosphere. Cinematographer Mohanan has always dealt strikingly well with shadows and darkness, and the film emerges as a fine looking mood-piece. It’s a somber, well-assembled film in contrast to the quick and flashy schlock that would have been doled out by the aforementioned merchants of middlebrow masala, and while the film’s craft — and the acting chops shared by its considerable cast — can’t at all be denied, it must also be said that perhaps the trashier approach may have worked better for this material. Or, at the very least, made for more fun.
Allow me to make my case, then, without once discussing the film’s plot. No spoilers here, folks.
There are a few essentials for a police procedural film, all rather basic: either the crime should be a stupefying one, one which raises many a “how in the world” question and flummoxes audience and investigator; or the suspects should be interesting and complex, those whose motivations become clearer only when the film gets less murky; or the investigator himself should be a compelling protagonist, someone who makes you either care about himself or the case, ideally rooting for his success. And if all else fails, then it should be thrilling enough to hide the lack of the above.
Alas, Talaash ticks none of these boxes. It starts off well, but simmers far too long before it gets to the boil. The case — of an actor driving off the highway and into the sea — is only marginally intriguing since the police never really explore its mechanics, and the suspects it throws up mostly insignificant. The cop Aamir plays from behind a Hulk Hogan moustache is doggedly dour, frequently unreasonable, and a really bad husband. Not the sort of man you want to celebrate, no. And, as said, the film gets more than a bit long in the tooth, hinging on a final twist that isn’t too hard to see coming.
Which is all dashed exasperating, considering just how good this film could have been. It’s great to look at, with brilliantly art-directed frames bursting with detail. The music’s good, even if the songs sometimes interrupt the narrative when playing on too long. Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Raj Kumar Yadav are routinely excellent, Siddiqui effortlessly stealing most of the film. There are some deftly edited intercuts, most situated from the cop’s point of view, effectively flashing back and forth within the realms of past and possibility. Aamir is as stoic as his character needs him to be, Rani Mukherji is plaintive but wasted, and much of the film’s verve comes from Kareena Kapoor’s streetwalker, who, like Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman in the most recent Batman movie, thankfully doesn’t ever seem to take the film or its clunky lines seriously.
And my lord, what lines. Even in good scenes, the dialogues jar, sounding either b-movie or trite or incredibly textbook. Given the film’s unhurried pace, this often makes it play out like an old telefilm. Khan mouths the word “talaash” with promo-cutting heft, characters spell things out unbearably simply, and in a film about drowned people, lines like “dard mein doobe…” are used with great intent and disappointingly little irony. Indeed, the film is awash with obvious metaphor. (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)
There is one good, true line about cheesecake, though.
It is also a film trying to be subtle while drawing attention to just how subtle its trying to be. To wit: a frazzled Shernaz Patel accosts Aamir on the street, grabbing his arm, something that confounds the indignant policeman, and this simple moment is broken down into her touching him, him looking at her, him looking pointedly at her hand on his arm, him stiffening, then reacting. A brothel-controlling Madam talks tough, but repeatedly backs down whenever glared at. Pimps meticulously change their SIM cards at the first sign of trouble but bigger fish use their personal cellphones for monkey business.
Ah, and odd visual cues: a big poster from the awful film Showgirls proudly displayed in the red-light area, advertising actual showgirls. Um, okay. A yellow rubber slipper floating by itself in the water — meant to be an evocative memory, but probably nightmarish to fashionable women simply because it’s a Croc.
Am I being too cruel? Perhaps, but because of the wasted opportunity. Someone asked me if Talaash was a watchable film, and indeed it is. It’s better put together than a lot of the films we see here, and definitely strongly acted, but ends up so, so much less enjoyable than it deserved to be. In the end, I didn’t care about the case or the characters: not cop, wife, pimp, kid or hooker — ah, I might as well pick the dead actor who kicked the whole story off; at least the poor guy had an Eraserhead poster in his room.
Rating: 2.5 stars
First published Rediff.com, November 30, 2012