Talaash: Searching for the perfect whodunit

November 30, 2012

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Thomson Reuters)

The worst thing to happen while watching a murder mystery is someone telling you the twist in the tale even before the movie began. The second-worst thing is when you figure out the twist yourself, halfway through the film.

Call it a result of watching too many whodunits as a kid, but the twist in Reema Kagti’s “Talaash” was apparent an hour before it ended. After that it was just a matter of waiting to see how it plays out. No surprises there either. Kagti makes a stylised film, a murder mystery that also has an emotional undercurrent and borrows strongly from well-known Hollywood films of the genre (I won’t say which ones for fear of revealing the plot).

Aamir Khan plays troubled police inspector Surjan Singh Shekhawat, who moves to Mumbai after his son’s death in a freak boating accident. Wracked by guilt, he roams the streets of the city that never sleeps at night, leaving his wife Roshni (Rani Mukerji) to deal with the tragedy on her own.

Shekhawat is assigned the case of Armaan Kapoor, an actor who dies after driving his car into the Arabian Sea.

It soon becomes obvious Kapoor was being blackmailed by a pimp, but it is unclear for what. When the trail leads him to a brothel, Shekhawat enlists the help of Rosy (Kareena Kapoor), a prostitute who seems to know many of the players involved in the case. Kagti sketches a motley cast of characters, including a neighbour who talks to the dead (Shernaz Patel) and a crippled pimp who wants to make a quick buck (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

Kagti also creates the right mood, and it is this that will suck you right in. Mumbai at night is a different city, and the director uses it well to tell her story. The slums, the police stations, the roads, the flickering lights — they add to the intrigue.

Halfway through, the magic wears off and you are left with a plot weighed down by an unnecessary emotional subplot involving Shekhawat’s dead son.

Like many whodunits before, Kagti puts an “emotional core” at the heart of “Talaash”, but it doesn’t serve much purpose except to slow the film down. What should have been a taut thriller about a murder that doesn’t seem like a murder becomes a film that isn’t here nor there. The red herrings are obvious, and so are the motives, and the director has a tendency to over-state its plot points.

Kagti dwells on Shekhawat’s personal tragedy far too long, with songs and flashbacks, taking away from the urgency of the mystery at hand. What is wrong with making a murder mystery just about the murder? Does it have to have an “emotional” angle?

It’s a credit to Aamir Khan though that he carries off even these heavy bits flawlessly. Rani Mukerji, sans make-up and dressed rather shabbily, plays the part of the melancholy wife with restraint. Kareena Kapoor pouts, smiles and plays the mysterious girl on the street to the hilt, sometimes overdoing her act.

Despite its glitches and slow pace, “Talaash” is likely to keep you engaged for the 140 minutes you spend watching it. The trouble is, it doesn’t stay with you much longer.

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