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Surface tension

The pre-release marketing campaign for Talaash borrowed its biggest idea from the thriller itself: It hinged on suspense. Very little was known about Reema Kagti’s second movie, starring Aamir Khan, until the day of its release, and the lack of information only fanned speculation about the plot. Was it a neo-noir or, as debated on Internet forums, a ghost story? The promotions were deliberately low-key, in contrast to the high-decibel publicity that accompanies the average Hindi movie; the cleverly edited trailers were designed to throw audiences off track.

There are two views to this kind of strategy in the Hindi movie trade: Either you are so confident of your film that you don’t need to promote it aggressively, or you are trying to put a spin on something unremarkable. In Talaash’s case, it’s more of the latter than the former.

Talaash is firmly in the mould of 1970s Hindi thrillers: It is modest in its ambitions but generous in exposition. The screenplay by Kagti and Zoya Akhtar explains every move and every line of dialogue to audiences who might have been distracted by an SMS or popcorn (there are also numerous flashbacks for good measure). The plot concerns inspector Surjan Singh Shekhawat’s hunt for the key that unlocks the mystery of Armaan Kapoor’s death. Kapoor (Vivan Bhatena), a movie star, drives his car off the road and into the sea at one of Mumbai’s waterfronts. All the signs point to a suicide, especially after there are murmurs of blackmail and Kapoor’s possible dalliances with prostitutes.

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Hunting party: Aamir Khan’s cop collaborates with Kareena Kapoor’s prostitute in ‘Talaash’

Surjan is arguably diverted by his tense domestic situation. Like Tom Cruise’s John Anderton from Minority Report, Surjan and his wife Roshni (Rani Mukerji) haven’t gotten over the death of their son in a drowning accident. Surjan blames himself for the tragedy and internalizes his guilt, while his wife takes recourse to counselling sessions and séances. Surjan’s simmering tensions drive him into the lap of insomnia, but he never seems to be wrenched apart by tragedy. He seems more irritated than troubled—his permanently furrowed brow might as well have been a birthmark. The recurring motif of Surjan diving underwater in search of answers isn’t taken anywhere beyond the obvious.

Surjan gets some succour from Rosy (Kareena Kapoor), a hooker who spells oomph in capital letters, but the reason behind that is not the possibility that Surjan hasn’t had a roll in the hay since the day his son died. Mum is the word, but keen Hollywood watchers will get the drift pretty quickly.

Kagti, who previously directed the multi-starrer Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd, displays competence and confidence in setting up her story, but she doesn’t follow up with imaginativeness. The film ticks along efficiently despite being saddled with a handful of ordinary tunes by Ram Sampath, but it rarely conjures up a sense of foreboding the way, say, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense or Robert Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath did. There is no lack of effort on the crew’s part: K.U. Mohahan’s cinematography and Sharmishta Roy’s production design attempt to set the tone for a moody, literally dark story set in Mumbai’s underbelly.

But Talaash is an Excel Entertainment film, and suffers from that company’s obsession with perfection and luxury. The hookers look like ramp models slumming it out; the brothel inhabited by Shashi and Taimur (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a lame hanger-on with big dreams who inserts himself into the proceedings, as well as the hotel where the hookers ply their trade, are artfully sleazy. There’s more polish than spit, so when Taimur meets his predictable fate, you wonder if it is because he is the most unkempt of the characters.

Siddiqui’s performance matches the earnestness with which most of the actors approach the trite material. Various theatre and indie actors pop up in small parts: Raj Kumar Yadav plays Surjan’s sidekick, theatre actor Sheeba Chadha is a worldly-wise prostitute; Shernaz Patel plays a kooky medium who connects Roshni with the spirit of her son.

There is some pointed dialogue (by Farhan Akhtar, with inputs from Anurag Kashyap). “I don’t laugh easily," Surjan tells the madam of a brothel that may have links with Kapoor’s death. “There have been moments of happiness," Rosy says when asked by Surjan about her life. Nothing earth-shattering here, but nothing offensive either.

Talaash’s plot thickens and curdles, but the process remains hidden from view. The twists come when expected; the characters behave as expected. It soon becomes evident that the thriller of the year title remains with Kahaani. Meanwhile, the hunt for an original, multilayered thriller that addresses the realities and limitations of the Indian policing system continues.

Talaash released in theatres on Friday.

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