A bird’s eye shot of the splayed, lifeless body of Tehmur (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is an important shot in this film. Tehmur, a lowly factotum of Mumbai’s red light district, son of a sex worker himself, is named after the feared invader from the north, Tehmur Lang (the lame). Noir humor, Bollywood ishtyle. Tehmur’s t-shirt bears an image of Humphrey Bogart, complete with rakishly tilted fedora, straight out of the Hollywood noir film The Golden Falcon, seemingly mocking the thwarted aspirations of this small-time crook.
Welcome to Bollywood noir country.
A femme fatale. A dangerous woman. Smoldering Kareena Kapoor is Rosie, a sex worker with the best come-hither look in town. She will lead our protagonist, insomniac, alienated Inspector Surjan Singh Shekhawat (Aamir Khan) where he probably ought not to go. Her promise is to be a salve to his pain, and he seeks her out in the raw underbelly of a city where sin is the dhanda (profession), traded by pimps and madams. We see the Inspector step into the hotel elevator, and walk into the room. And as he sinks into a bed, so far from his marital bed, the sleep that has eluded him for so long comes, finally, mercifully, in a hotel room on the wrong side of Mumbai.
Things have not been going well for Inspector Shekhawat. His investigation of a film star’s murder is going nowhere. His marriage to Roshni, played by Rani Mukherji, is in serious trouble. A tragic event has shaken the foundations of their matrimonial life. The couple have reached an impasse whereupon they have retreated into a brooding numbness. The audience yearns for them to cross the divide, to reach out and embrace each other, but they are tired now, and neither can make the effort.
Things were not always this way, and we see vignettes of moments from happier times. There was love then, and laughter, and not just a spreading silence. Will the siren call of a street-walker in high heels serve as a final blow to the tottering edifice of this marriage?
And then there are the tragic drownings. How will the intrepid Inspector solve the case, heal the rifts in his marriage, resist the temptress, keep away the psychic neighbor, and reset his nocturnal circadian rhythms? As the title tag says—the answer lies within.
The film is shot on location, and Mumbaikars will recognize their city, with all its extremes. The privileged lives of film stars appear in sharp contrast to those who subsist on the margins, bringing to mind Dhobi Ghat. The lives of the rich and poor intersect in ways that reveal power asymmetries, but cowardice and callousness are found on both sides of the class divide.
The characters are well-inhabited. Aamir Khan’s handlebar moustache is a bit distracting, though it, no doubt, accentuates his machismo. Rani Mukherji manages to look rather comely in her simple saris. Her marked lack of makeup contrasts with the (overly?) glamorous lady of the night, Kareena Kapoor, who looks, well, simply deadly.
Writer-director Reema Kagti along with script buddy Zoya Akhtar, fresh from the commercial success of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, have given the ever versatile Aamir Khan the theatrical range to explore a character that is complex, contradictory and angst ridden and the studied peformer that he is, Khan digs a little deeper into the dark side of his mind and presents a portrait of despair with admirable restraint and subtlety.
A dark, brooding, sensibility pervades the film. The camerawork is jittery and tense. Unreliable narrators abound. The fast-paced plot twists and turns with entertaining regularity, with thrills and suspense galore, and the ending is unexpected and climactic. With such excellent ingredients, it is safe to announce Talaash as a cinematographic triumph.
Geetika Pathania Jain is a Bay Area resident who saw Talaash with her friends in an AMC theater within ten minutes from her home. She is amazed that Bollywood films can be seen in mainstream theaters with such ease.