|(credit: Reliance Big Pictures)|
Of all the genres most impacted by cultural tenability, the one I miss the most in this cynical age is the whodunit. We're sharp enough by now that when sitting down to watch a murder mystery, we have our mental checklist at the ready, full of things like, “The most obvious suspect is going to disappear and/or die a third of the way through at the latest” on down the line to a bunch of things I won't get into here because they'd telegraph what happens in Talaash, the latest Aamir Khan picture, co-starring Rani Mukerji and Kareena Kapoor, directed by Reema Kagti.
Talaash (roughly “Search” in English, appropriately) stylishly, and at its own pace, presents the audience with a real head-scratcher of a whodunit: beloved movie star Armaan Kapoor (because of course his name's Kapoor, he's a movie star, and this is Mumbai) inexplicably drives his car off the road into the ocean and drowns, right by Mumbai's red light district. Inspector Surjan Singh Shekhawat (Aamir Khan) heads up the investigation, which reaches from the movie business to the criminal underworld, to Inspector Shekhawat's own home, where he and his wife Roshni (Rani Mukerji) struggle with the death—by drowning, quelle coincidence—of their young son, Karan. The investigation leads to a mysterious prostitute who gives her name as Rosie (Kareena Kapoor), who despite appearing to be at the center of the murder conspiracy, helps the cops, specifically Inspector Shekhawat. In the mix are pimps, blackmailers, long-suffering sex workers, born losers looking to hit it big, red herrings, everything a good crime yarn needs.
Director Reema Kagti and co-writer Zoya Akhtar end up using the familiarity of the material to their advantage, crafting an impeccably structured mystery yarn that, in tipping a few answers early on, only deepens the surprise of the ultimate resolution. Going into any detail about what that resolution is would ruin the immensely satisfying surprise, so I'll put it this way: it's something that a) only an Indian movie could pull off this awesomely, and b) pursuant to point a) sticks the landing as smoothly as it does in large part through the transcendent power of movie stars.
Aamir Khan's performance in the lead is its own bit of misdirection. Aamir is not only sporting a mustache of epic mustachely epicness (seriously, Aamir's 'stache in this is FUCKING AMAZING) but the ferocity of his charisma and the absolutely unimpeachable craft of his acting—in the complete service of the movie rather than making himself look good—obscure the fact that this story is really driven by its two heroines.
Rani Mukerji is less Aamir's wife in this than Aamir is Rani Mukerji's husband; that's not just semantics, Aamir's one of the fucking Three Khans, for fuck's sake, no one's that big. Well, so you'd think until you see the scene when Rani has enough of Aamir's moodiness and just fucking breaks him off some. She takes one of the biggest movie stars in the goddamn galaxy and just flat out “motherfucker please”s him. That scene is but one highlight; she doesn't have a huge part but when she's on screen she is on screen.
Now, Kareena Kapoor. Okay. There's a limit to how specific we can get about Bebo's role in all this without giving up the whole movie, so this paragraph's going to be a little short on proper nouns and a little long on vaguely allusive language. Let's try this: Bebo's performance and the way Kagti films her throughout intertwine seamlessly, each perfectly defining her role in the grand scheme of things. In the moment, some of her beats seem a little awkward, and her motivation really cloudy even by femme fatale standards, but in the end it all retroactively makes sense.
|(credit: Reliance Big Pictures)|
However, rather than continue on with Bebo-worship, let's talk about what a great goddamn job Reema Kagti does directing this her second feature. The cinematics are polished, if nothing extraordinary, but the pacing is exquisite, and there's something to be said for the fact that Aamir and Bebo—both of whom have extremely high bars—are even better than normal and Rani shiiiiiiines. Yeah, they're movie stars, but there's more to it than just casting someone charismatic and turning the camera on: when everyone's a notch above their standard the director did a good job. And, not that it has any bearing on the movie itself, but it's always nice to see young women directors making movies, especially when the chances are good that they'll crack the hallowed 100 Crore Club (long story short for Western readers: 100 crore is a billion rupees, grossing which means it's a big-ass hit; only 16 movies have yet crossed that threshold, out of approximately zillions of releases.)
Talaash is not uncommon in recent Hindi cinema in that it takes its formal and structural cues more from Hollywood and Western cinema than it does traditional masala, which prides itself (and I mean this in the most ardently supportive way possible) on stories that make emotional rather than logical sense, feature extravagant, brightly-colored song picturizations, and treat subtlety as though it was something that was overthrown along with British colonial rule. Talaash, conversely, is a narrative constructed with mathematical precision that certainly doesn't slack on emotion and emotional pay-off, but still assembles the pieces of its puzzle in a way much more Western than one would customarily see in a Hindi picture even five years ago. “More” shouldn't be read as “completely,” however. Talaash takes the best of both 'woods, Holly and Bolly, and crafts an eminently satisfying crowd-pleaser of a crime drama that requires some leaps of faith on the part of the audience, but rewards those leaps of faith with a seamless ride. What answers it provides are not the ones you think you're going to get, but they're the right ones. It's a damn good time at the movies.