This is possibly the first time this writer has hesitated to review a film after one viewing. Not because Reema Kagti’s Talaash was difficult to appreciate or critique but because one felt so drawn to its central theme and motifs that it demanded a second, closer look. Also, over the years, it has become evident that it isn’t possible to do justice to a good film with a hasty review.
Since Talaash was described as a whodunit/noir thriller in the pre-release publicity and the initial reactions to the film were primarily along these lines, while watching the film, the viewer’s attention is sometimes drawn away from individual scenes and characterisation, to finding clues to the mystery, which, you realise, are strewn all over for the discerning eye.
The second time round, the focus was entirely on its cinematic pleasures––both as a masterful character study of the troubled protagonist and an elegy on Mumbai, a city of lost souls, many of whom, live and die in oblivion (as Kareena Kapoor’s Rosie wistfully says to Aamir Khan’s Inspector Shekhawat). Yet, because it's a make-believe world, everyone gets their just deserts (albeit in strange ways).
It’s fashionable to doubt the credibility of a Hindi filmmaker (often with good reason) and ascribe blatant plagiarism (or the euphemism ‘inspiration’) from some Hollywood or Asian source. With Talaash, one heard the names of past thrillers being thrown up, although it would be hard to make a direct connection beyond broad thematic references.
In fact, the film with which it actually has a parallel belongs to an entirely different genre, and frankly, even if Ms. Kagti has watched this film and in some way drawn inspiration from it, she has made the concept her own.
In Nanni Moretti’s heart-breaking, award-winning Italian drama The Son’s Room, a reputed psychiatrist, Giovanni (Moretti himself) is faced with the sudden, accidental death of his teenage son Andrea. The doctor, who is entrenched in his profession to the point of boredom, finds himself unable to address his trauma and sinks further into depression with each passing day.
His marriage starts disintegrating, he’s unable to focus on his patients’ problems, nor get himself to speak of the boy’s accident with anyone. He keeps revisiting that fateful morning in his head and conjures alternate scenarios in which he prevents his son from going diving with his friends. He goes to sports shops to understand what could have gone wrong with the diving equipment; he tortures himself by playing the tune he was listening to in the car the exact moment when his son was counting his last breaths.
But he can’t get over his grief, because deep down, he holds himself responsible for the accident. Ultimately, it’s the arrival of a girl Andrea met and briefly loved at a school camp that offers a resolution. She visits the family and they drive out to drop her and the boy she’s travelling with on a trip, all the way to the border. Life goes on and the protagonist realises there’s nothing else to do but get on with it…
Talaash, like The Son’s Room, is a psychological drama, rather than a murder mystery, because the accident and the subsequent unravelling of the case (including the Rosie character) are used to service the emotional catharsis that the troubled hero, Shekhawat, must arrive at to liberate himself from the guilt of his son’s death. The investigation is a ploy to send him diving into the recesses of his mind for answers.
Like Giovanni, Shekhawat is unable to communicate with his wife, is often seen brooding, waking up in cold sweat or not sleeping at all, revisiting the accident to rearrange the events in his head, and while he continues working on the case with determination, we can tell that he’s under tremendous strain. It is at this point of despair that he first meets Rosie.
His wife (Rani Mukherji) grieves more openly, like Giovanni’s wife too does. Roshni talks freely about Karan with the psychiatrist Shekhawat has asked her to see, and buys into her new neighbour’s (Shernaz Patel) claim that she has a link to the afterlife and can help her connect with Karan. For Shekhawat, who is constrained by his rational thinking and his tough cop exterior––as Giovanni is ironically limited by his knowledge of the human mind, and the strategies psychiatrists employ to pacify inner demons––it seems impossible to either grieve or come to terms with the loss.
To the inspector, Karan’s death too is a murder mystery involving a negligent father who took a nap as his 8-year-old ran off with his friend for a spin in the lake and drowned. The cathartic closure that the skeleton and the cremation in the final minutes bring, tie up the loose ends.
On the other hand, Talaash is also a mournful lament on Mumbai and everything this city stands for. The title sequence (evocatively shot by K.U. Mohanan), shows the metropolis for what it really is––its superficial gloss and shining lights cutting out those living in the shadows––the beggars and rag-pickers, vagrants and prostitutes who crawl out of their holes at night, covering up their bruises with make-up or drowning their misery in cheap drugs. The lyrics of the accompanying song, emphasise this schizophrenic character––"Muskaanein jhoothi hain, pehchaanein jhoothi hain / Rangeeni hai chaayi, phir bhi hai tanhai”.
In Kagti’s and co-writer Zoya Akhtar’s imagination, the Sea Face Road (which looks a lot like Worli Sea Face) is not far from a neighbourhood of brothels and shady hotels like the Lido. In the real world, such an idea sounds far-fetched, because even in an over-crowded place like Mumbai, the super rich inhabitants of the posh sea-lining areas of South Mumbai try to stay insulated from the underbelly, which, as it happens, resides in the central parts, a few kilometres removed from their sky-rises and penthouses.
The brothel with its callous madam (Gulfam), oily pimp Shashi (Subrat Dutta), ageing prostitute Nirmala (Sheeba Chaddha) and lame handyman Tehmur (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) himself the child of a prostitute, is a microcosm for the world that wants to wish away its very existence and not unlike Shyam Benegal’s Mandi in that sense. In fact, the character of Tehmur seems a direct descendant of Tungrus the dimwit handyman brilliantly played by Naseeruddin Shah.
Inside the brothel are cages where young girls are locked up till they’re readied for business; thugs keep the girls under control and the gaudy decor and painted faces heighten the despair of this squalid world. When a lowly receptionist at a shady hotel contracts a dreaded disease, the city can accommodate him no more and he must go back to die in his grotty rural tenement.
Elsewhere, educated professionals are equally alienated, as illustrated by the Shekhawat couple, unable to reach out to each other and in the absence of a support system, grappling with their grief in lonely corners. The rich have the resources to buy their way out of trouble, but they too are riddled with anxiety and moral bankruptcy––manifest in Sanjay Kejriwal (Suhas Ahuja), a tycoon’s son, and Sonia Kapoor (Pariva Pranati) the deceased movie star’s wife. In the claustrophobic environs of an overcrowded metropolis, a clash with the seamier side seems almost inevitable and the result is ultimately disastrous for everyone concerned.
Talaash understands and articulates this class conflict and the unhappiness and depravation which cuts across segments. Money is the only legitimate currency of human interaction and regardless of station, everyone is in for a fast buck.
The city sucks the life out of people long before they die, and millions of forlorn souls and crushed dreams weigh on its conscience. Which ties in beautifully with the suspense and suddenly, the dead become motifs for something much more than convenient plot contrivances in a murder mystery.