By no means is Talaash the end of your search for the perfect whodunit. But there is so much going for this compelling, slow-burning, well-acted tale set in the dark, grimy underbelly of Mumbai that you can barely take your eye off the screen.
As a suspense thriller with a paranormal edge, it certainly isn’t action-packed. Yet Talaash, which relies far more on the intricacies of psychological drama than on the disquieting impact of visceral shocks, is riveting all the way through to its surprising, if a tad dissonant, end.
From the moment director Reema Kagti and cinematographer K.U. Mohanan unveil the seedy side of the city’s nightlife in a brief and evocative prelude (enhanced by a smoky Ram Sampath-composed number) that sets the tone, the film telegraphs its intentions quite unambiguously and sticks to its chosen tone and tenor.
This isn’t your average heap of cheap thrills designed to project a superstar’s crowd-pulling clout, logic and sense be damned. Talaash is a restrained, offbeat and occasionally beguiling shot at a genre that popular Hindi cinema seems to have abandoned to its own detriment.
The Mumbai that we see in Talaash isn’t the Mumbai that Hindi cinema usually sells in Teflon-coated doses – a glitzy city of gilt-edged dreams, never-ending parties and extravagant fashion shows overrun by underworld dons who live life on their own terms, encounter cops who can do no wrong and models and molls that strut their stuff with abandon.
In Talaash, the city is devoid of all surface shimmer. In fact, the film takes the moniker of ‘the city that never sleeps’ quite literally and transfers the trait to its male protagonist. He is a man who stays awake all night as he scours the streets in his police vehicle, chasing law-breakers.
But this is an Aamir Khan film, so it is the demands of the script that determine the amount of time that the male protagonist is apportioned on the screen. Yes, the superstar does not hog all the limelight even though it is his strong and emotionally beleaguered character that is at the centre of the drama.
In fact, the only chase scene in Talaash – in the last quarter of the film – does not even feature Aamir. He does not fire a single shot from his revolver. Well, he does not even wave the weapon at anybody. He delivers only one physical blow – a punch to the face of a red-light district thug who tries to stop him from rescuing a girl from a brothel. That’s all the ‘action’ that Talaash proffers.
Apart from the insomniac and workaholic police officer, his lonely and depression-prone wife (Rani Mukherji) and a mysterious and pretty streetwalker that he encounters on his nocturnal rounds (Kareena Kapoor) are the key figures in this often bewildering but always engaging drama about individuals grappling with loss, sorrow and a breakdown of relationships while clutching at straws in the hope of deliverance from their sorry plight.
The quality of the screenplay written by Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar – every frame is crammed with dramatic and spatial details and even when the film appears to be somewhat sluggish there isn’t a single scene that comes across as superfluous – lifts Talaash well above the ordinary.
Admittedly, there are elements in the film that might not be entirely convincing to a questioning mind, but they all add up in the larger narrative design.
Talaash is intelligently structured – it goes back and forth in time as the investigating officer struggles to piece together the mystery behind an unexplained fatal road mishap involving a male movie star whose speeding car veers off a sea-facing road and plunges into the water.
The greatest triumph of Talaash is in the manner in which it delineates its gallery of intriguing supporting characters. None of them is a mere blur.
Certainly not the voluble Parsi widow (Shernaz Patel) who summons the spirits of the dead in secret séances or the lame and artless criminal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who works for a pimp and dreams of making it big one day.
The latter precipitates an eventual untying of the loose ends of the case but not before he is led horribly astray by blind ambition.
The other minor characters, too, leave a mark. Among them are a rookie cop (Raj Kumar Yadav) who is often left befuddled by his superior’s ways and an ageing sex worker (Sheeba Chaddha) who is resigned to her fate until a lucky break sets her free.
The perfectly modulated performances by the lead trio give Talaash its frisson. Aamir Khan sinks his teeth into the cop act with effortless ease but underplays his hand to accentuate the introspective nature of the troubled man.
A deglamorised Rani Mukherji plays her role with finesse and a great sense of empathy, while Kareena Kapoor is at her seductive best.
Not to be missed.