Talaash, Aamir Khan’s latest, is not just a film. It is a great story — post-Independent India’s first noir — a testament of collective guilt, portraying the loneliness not of the marginal but the marginalised — people — perhaps the majority — pushed into the cesspool of poverty stricken ideas, means and meanings — to a point where their identity as human beings becomes questionable.
Talaash is also about the epistemology of loss. With a grayish character named Sanjay Kejriwal, is it also Aamir’s caustic snide at a near namesake — an ex-associate of Anna Hazare (Aamir supported the Ralegaon leader’s anti-corruption stir during the August 2011 high point) — the man who later distanced himself from Hazare — invoking the ire of many?
In some sense, Talaash reminds you of Mahal — the ghost-love story of the 1940s — India’s classic, pre-Independence noir starring Madhubala and Ashok Kumar and directed by Kamal Amrohi. In Mahal, a young, married, urban, aristocrat son of a British-era Indian Rai Sahab returns to his native, eerily beautiful, but rusting, haveli at Allahabad near the banks of the Yamuna — a river that ends its run in the historic city. Played by Ashok Kumar, the son finds a portrait of an ancestor of his with similar features; the haveli is haunted by a legend that speaks of forbidden love between the aristocrat-ancestor and an ordinary woman — a love that ended in tragedy with the girl drowning in the river.
Ashok Kumar’s character in Mahal appears sad and quietly disturbed by a vacuum in his life. His nice, pretty wife — with whom he has an arranged marriage — tries her best to reclaim him; but he falls in love with the spooky, enthralling woman — or the image of a woman — the film never makes the distinction clear — of the haveli — who claims to be the spirit of yore —the ordinary woman who had died — someone who has come back to fetch her lover.
Filmed in a style ornate, rugged, sensational and minimalist at the same time — something very Lucknavi, rare and UP based — found only in the province’s Urdu literature — Mahal offers an aesthetically rich, lingering and devastating psycho-social-atmospheric critique of the pre-colonial, elite-Indian society — an entity asphyxiated by its decaying architectural splendor, rigid hierarchies and class structures that exclude love and the human touch — whether between lovers — or as in the case of Ashok Kumar’s character — between father and son.
Mahal’s tour de force was Madhubala’s character brought to life, also by the evocative lilt of early Lata Mangeshkar. Madhubala essayed the role of a gardener’s daughter — someone so subsidiary in the larger class constitution of the 1940s that her life or death just did not matter. It is obvious that beyond a spirit, the gorgeous Madhubala character is a nobody; she can make her presence felt — start meaning something to someone — only by impersonating as a dead woman — and duplicating her tragedy.
In Talaash, Kareena Kapoor is the 21st century Madhubala; a stunning, good looking prostitute, inhabiting a world where people like her, literally, are not supposed to exist. The law does not acknowledge their being; for society they are things in passing — used but not recognised. They go out with men at night — something terrible happens to them — they do not return; but there is no one to care — or even ask about — or if dead — to cremate them. What options do such people have for justice, revenge or even recognition: to fade away in the placid river as in Mahal; or at a severe individual cost to facilitate the drowning of their tormentors in the turbulent sea?
Art and films do not reflect their times in a mechanical manner. They refract reality, forcing us to see through a mirror darkly — Talaash begins by images of those condemned to live at the margins: the homeless, the beggars, the pimps, the rag-pickers, the street walkers, the urban poor and the nameless, the whores and the gangsters, the misplaced and the squalid, the misfits and the sordid — people left behind — but also created — and distorted — by the complex Indian miracle story — of the post-liberalisation years. Talaash’s characters include a housewife and her police officer husband who, despite their status of belonging to the ‘normal’ majority, are seething with pain, failure and alienation.
It is critical that a film like Talaash appears at the end of 2012 — a year marked for its pause and re-look at the India of the past twenty years: the country of malls, neo-riches, money and more money, shine, gloss, private and foreign capital — but also one with rising corruption levels, betrayals of trust, and disparities between rich and poor — where minorities, Dalits and the poor majority are ignored and suppressed violently; an India where the socio-political-communitarian values of an earlier — less wealthy but happier — pre-liberalisation India — are being eroded.
As Talaash’s caption says: the answer lies within; we are all victims of our defeats and tragedies; but what if our guiltiness has a social dimension? What if friends and fake scholars are involved in a conspiracy of silence that overlooks large scale corruption and local genocides?
Talaash offers a sober, tense and painstaking evaluation of post-liberalisation India’s social-class hierarchy. The world might or might not appreciate the originality of the film — but generations of Indians will look back with fondness at a work that, out of nowhere, reminded them of what lies beneath the glamour, illusions and mental prisons that constitute the very foundation of their lives today.