Warning: This review contains significant spoilers.
Most thrillers have a twist toward the end, a surprise revelation that spills new light on the narrative or yanks the viewer into a new perspective. The danger for the makers of thrillers is that the full experience of the movie turns on the effectiveness of such moments. Handled well, a thriller's twist can leave a viewer gobsmacked and tingling. Such thrillers are the ones you watch over and over, looking for clues that hint toward the revelation to come. They are the movies you discuss with your friends, arguing endlessly over what the narrative means.
Reema Kagti's Talaash ("search") is not one of these thrillers. Instead, it is two hours of taut, consistent filmmaking craft, undermined in the end by a facile and unsatisfying twist. The movie features intense performances and a seductive, appealingly creepy noir mood. But instead of psychological insight or lasting mystery, Talaash's great promise delivers only a hackneyed spook-revenge tale.
Talaash's tagline, "The answer lies within," promises a psychological resolution, and indeed the film could have been a fascinating psychological study of a man broken by loss and guilt. Had the answer indeed lain within - had the apparition of Rosie (Kareena Kapoor) been not a real live ghost but a hallucinatory construct of Inspector Shekhawat's (Aamir Khan) troubled conscience - Talaash could have had something compelling to say about the waste that unchecked grief can lay to a life and a marriage. The movie offers much foundation for this kind of study. Deep in denial, Shekhawat orders his wife Roshni (Rani Mukherjee) into therapy. But he refuses to acknowledge the toll his own grief takes on him, in sleepless nights and unspoken sorrows. In one powerful sequence, Shekhawat remembers and reimagines the preamble to his young son's death, conjuring several alternate histories in which Shekhawat makes different choices that prevent the accident. This is a man rotting from the inside with his own guilt.
But this delicate, promising thread is rendered a red herring by Talaash's twist. As a hallucination, as a manifestation of Shekhawat's troubles, Rosie could have helped lead him toward insight or even redemption. As a ghost, though, she is just so much voodoo woo-woo with no connection to what happens in Shekhawat's troubled mind, nothing to say about coping with deep grief, a mere plot surprise for its own sake that sheds no light on the central drama of Shekhawat and Roshni's life. All of that careful psychological exploration is unsatisfyingly wasted.
As alternative to pure psychological study, Talaash could have left its resolution to the viewer. Part of the thrill of a movie like Inception is that no one knows for certain what really happened in the narrative. Rewatchings and endless debates lend the movie lasting value - a gift from the filmmaker that keeps on giving. Talaash, though, leaves no such open questions. Instead, it is unambiguous that we are to interpret Rosie as a real ghost; Shekhawat finds her body right where she tells him it lies, including the distinctive ring that her apparition wore. Talaash could have offered a rich array of puzzles to chew on - if Rosie is Shekhawat's figment, what caused Armaan Kapoor to drive his car into the bay? What does it mean that Shekhawat had a nearly identical accident? Instead, there's nothing left to debate.
Thus Talaash is doubly unsatisfying - once in cheating the viewer out of the lasting pleasure of ambiguity, and again in that the certainty it presents is so improbable and lame. Rosie as vengeful spirit, exacting punishment from those responsible for her death is boring and unsatisfying. Worse, it is without meaningful connection to Shekhawat and Roshni's grief-stricken, troubled marriage. Indeed, that Rosie is a ghost implies that the mysterious letters they receive from the dead boy are real as well. Thus Shekhawat and Roshni are absolved of coming to grips with their son's absence, allowed instead to continue to communicate with him. This is not character development; it is a dreadfully facile non-resolution.
It has been pointed out to me that another Reema Kagti film, Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., also includes a supernatural element - one of its couples has very real superpowers. Despite the goofy unreality of that device, I unreservedly adore the movie. There is an important difference in tone, however. Unlike the gritty street realism of Talaash, Honeymoon Travels has the air of a fable, and each of the couples' stories can both be viewed as a literal vignette and read as a metaphor for some aspect of communication between spouses. Aspi and Zara's superpowers, which they both had and hid from one another since childhood, stand for all the secrets one keeps from one's partner out of fear of being misunderstood and judged. In Talaash, Rosie too could have been a rich metaphor. Instead, she is nothing more than a middling spook, barely worthy of campfire story or urban legend.
Talaash wastes all Reema Kagti's well-crafted moods - the restlessness of the night in Mumbai's red light district, the oppressive dimness of Shekhawat and Roshni's apartment, the creepy wide-eyed friendliness of Roshni's neighbor, Frenny (Shernaz Patel), who claims to speak with the dead. The movie squanders some marvelous performances too, especially those of Rani Mukherjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Rani is achingly sympathetic in as mature, real, and unglamorous a role as she has ever done (her work in Yuva compares). For all I love Rani's effervescent cuteness in romantic comedies, there is no doubt that she has the chops for a role like this one, and I love to see directors give her the chance to use them. Siddiqui is fascinatingly physical and diminutive as a hungry errand-boy who opportunistically gets involved in a blackmail scheme connected to Shekhawat's investigation of Armaan Kapoor's death. It is a shame that Talaash wasted all these great efforts with its supernatural faffing about. What had all the makings of a very memorable movie is considerably weakened instead, to a merely passable ghost story.