In cinema, a thriller is made or marred by how it ends. And unlike what Hitchcock likes to think, a good ending is not necessarily an ingenious twist, an unearned laugh or a sensuous kiss; a great thriller can end ideally with a scene in which the mystery lingers on or even a scene of melancholy or ironic reflection at what has happened. One would recall, for instance, the final moments of The Third Man in which Holly Martins waits on the road outside the frozen Austrian cemetery while Anna Schmidt, the woman whom he loves unreasonably and who loved the man whom he killed in cold blood in Vienna’s sewers, walks by coldly, unforgivingly. Or how at the end of Khamosh, the camera with lurid solemnity gazes up from the level of the corpse at the faces of the film crew staring dumbstruck in amazement in the full glare of the arc lights. Bad things happen in most thrillers and some things are broken beyond repair.
Reema Kagti’s Talaash – a film about a respected policeman investigating a baffling case and thus discovering a cupboard of dirty linen – is a competently made and fairly believable thriller that is ruined beyond repair by an ending that is not so much as completely preposterous as much as it is clumsily directed. The fault, it must be said, is not in the idea of a murder mystery probing and prodding a city’s underbelly ending with an audacious, even fantastical surprise that lends the grub and grit of the story a greater significance. The novel Brighton Rock and numerous of G.K Chesterton’s Father Brown stories have accomplished it with both ingenuity and realism and yet, in both cases, the mystery lingered on beyond the breadth of the pages and the fantastical or surreal elements were interwoven deftly into the narrative. This film, on the other hand, not only ends with a twist that a sharper, more discerning viewer can predict easily but also hurriedly tries to tack it to a largely unnecessary sub-plot that belonged to another film as if to explain its distracting importance.
A body is found drowned in a car off the seafront of Bombay. Inspector Sanjay Shekhawat, played by Aamir Khan with convincing but unmemorable sternness, is assigned the case and as he starts asking questions and picking up clues, what unravels is something more sordid about the victim and the film tugs us loyally to the said underbelly, by introducing a few morally dubious men and women who are aware of a more troubling truth behind it all. It has the elements then of what should be a nocturnal thriller in the style of the great noirs of the days of John Huston, Carol Reed and Fritz Lang, even as, being a lavishly mounted production from a major studio and featuring stars who would have hardly agreed in the case of more grimy realism, it sometimes looks too good to be convincingly seedy. Everyone seems to be living in aesthetically artistic houses and even the cheap hotels and the cacophonous fleshpots on the screen seem to be decorated too gaily.
But even these are forgiven, to some extent, by virtue of the clever casting of mostly believable and unfamiliar faces populating this underside of the city and the occasionally realistic dialogue (having Anurag Kashyap as an assistant writer naturally helps) given to them. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, playing a limping scoundrel who concocts his own plans to gain from the thickening muddle, lends even more credibility to the proceedings; crooked, deceitful and yet utterly vulnerable, the actor also conveys a sense of lovelorn pathos, of a perverse dignity of a scrappy mongrel of these mean streets.
But all this promise comes to waste in the film’s end. After many a red herring is fished out of this tide of amorality, our unsmiling policeman finally hits upon the damning truth which literally swims to him in the form of the supposed femme fatale who has been helping him so far in fits and starts. It is a startling scene that could have been directed with less obviousness; after all the film’s effort to convince us of its manufactured realism, Kagti tries to sell us the idea of a supernatural miracle and one wishes if only she had a deeper skill to show and not tell. As it happens, we are presented yet again with a sight of the too-luminous-for-her-own good Kareena Kapoor, wrongly chosen to play a part which demanded not beauty but believability itself. And the film oddly becomes a Gothic story without any of the eerie suspense or wonder.
But even that is not the problem with the ending of Talaash. Throughout the film, there is another story running along with the main murder mystery: that of Shekhawat’s inability to reconcile with the accidental death of his son. Borrowed almost completely from a large part of Daphne Du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now, which was itself the source of one of the greatest thrillers ever filmed, this story only further dims the earnest intent of the rest of the film and feels like a contrivance to explain the ending for dunderheads. It would have made perfect sense in a different film of its own; the only reason why it takes so much of this film’s time, even as it deceives us by adding a broken marriage angle to Shekhawat’s life, complete with a song, too, is because, again, of the ending.
Not only is Shekhawat forced to admit that there was indeed something supernatural about the case but he is also, needlessly, led further in the closing scenes to even believe that the solution to his own dilemma is also a supernatural one. The narrative glue that sticks together these two threads is too weak to be convincing; in trying to straddle both Gothic melodrama and gritty noir, Kagti ends up, with that ridiculously convenient ending, making us lose our interest in whether our policeman solves his case or gets over his guilt. After all, in a thriller, all’s well only when it doesn’t end well.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.