Everyone’s seeking something. Identity, most often than not. Some find, some sink. Bollywood happens to be in some sort of a no-man’s land in that respect. Most of the time we don’t even know it’s looking…
What made me want to write this? Partly, a vague and naïve belief that our cinema can be saved. Especially by some who are in the very thick of commercial cinema’s circus ring. Not that it’s a bad thing, at all. But my expectations may be. And that brings me to lay them out and examine them. And with it, the reality out there, of our craven, exhilarating, diseased, infectious, addictive, inconsequential film world.
Talaash is a good film. It is tight, engaging, dramatic and emotionally expressive. It has a superb theme at the centre manifested in multiple strands connecting it. For what I think must be the first time in my cine-conscious life, I had a good word for Aamir. I had sat through an Aamir film without cringing at his non-performance and I loved him for that. But it bothered me big-time. Why do we insist on the surface so much? Why can’t we, for once, scrape out the skin and lay bare the soul of a story for absolute, complete and total consumption? What are we so scared of?
I kept getting distracted by the holes everywhere in the film that personify this superficial approach we take to things. Symptomatic of the entire sensibility of our hallowed Bollywood. And in so many ways representative of what the Excel world has come to embody.
Somewhere in the mid 2000s, Bollywood began to see beyond its general upper class fetish. It began to set its stories outside perfectly manicured sets of lavish bungalows, choosing instead, a milieu its audience lived in. You see, a few stark films had been received well and Bollywood’s herd mentality swooped in. With classic insecurity, it then mixed this trend with populism and dreamy stuff. Meanwhile, the so-called parallel camps that really wanted to break-free were busy choosing style over substance or let’s say form over hard-core story-telling. Garish, loud, escapist stuff always won hands down, and stars were always less available for anything with a remotely realistic setting, the story notwithstanding. After all, she is a whore no one cares for in Bollywood. Hence, when a film like Talaash comes out of the blue it’s a delicious prospect. Funny, how the traditional suddenly seems out of the ordinary just because it is on the verge of extinction.
From there began a worse kind of prositutionalising (if that’s a word) of the realist film. All you needed was your heroine in Fab India clothes, nude lipstick with lesser gloss and mascara-ed eyes without fake eyelashes, unclean-looking (‘looking’ only for that lived-in feel) houses, crowds made of junior artistes that rarely get work with Dharma and a little swearing. It didn’t matter if it was uttered with a convent-educated polish. It didn’t matter that none of it was convincing because it all looked so real. Looks after all is what Bollywood is all about, isn’t it?
And there and that’s why we are able to overlook Kareena speaking in perfectly correct Hindi and classy accent when playing a prostitute. We hardly notice when Rani playing a woman so heart-broken she couldn’t care about her appearance, flicks a strand of unkempt hair off her face like a diva would to avoid spoiling her painfully dressed-up hair. We pass by an entire police force that is so upright and intent on its job when the fact alone removes all doubt of the film being realistic. We gulp down a suitably grungy red light area if its characters are duly wearing garish, ill-matched clothes. Nothing strikes us as out of ordinary when the police-prostitute relationship comes with no disgust, no statement and completely without any hint of the dirtiest power plays that informs that world. Our eye-lids don’t bat when a prostitute is put in the care of a really nice woman running a rehab/NGO and chapter closed all hunky dory. And so on. It all appears properly realistic so what are we cribbing about?
Because appearances are not always deceptive. At times they are representative of what lies beneath.
Excel Entertainment that began with the era-defining Dil Chahta Hain, has made an admirable reputation for making films with strong content. (Except of course, the Don films but then when you have SRK who’d bother with content anyway. He himself doesn’t anymore.) But why are they always so sanitised? Far-removed from going beneath the surface?
Why is glamour suitably replaced with just-about pretty when upper class and just-that-much scruffy for any of the stratas below? Why aren’t emotions all-consuming, why do characters who even when behaving ordinary seem affected and why do the stories, although full of lovely moments, keep us at a distance? It’s as if an invisible glass curtain has fallen in between. There seems a desperate reluctance to approach anything that is extreme, anything that isn’t middle-line. What began as a fresh perspective on story-telling seems to be fast developing into some sort of a middle-of-the-road voice that’s saying nothing new, happy to simply tone down the intensity of what both extremes have been doing for ages.
And so we have a dispassionate Rock On, a squeaky clean and naïve Lakshya, exotica pretending to be exploratory Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, an underwhelming Karthik Calling Karthik, a neither flaky nor deep Honeymoon Travels and now a funnily packaged thriller Talaash that simply cannot make up its mind about its physical or emotional landscape.
I’ve really liked all these films (with the exception of Rock On, which I found extremely mediocre and too populist to have true merit.) because they have been well-told stories and refreshingly non-self-conscious. But through them all I have waited for a film from the Excel stables to max out its subject, take the juice out of it and compel me to go ah-a because their films do display a fresher approach. Luck By Chance is the only exception that takes a dangerously close look at its subject but its singularity as an example makes me regard it as one of those rare flashes of brilliance that talented people are capable of but some hardly show often. And Excel, despite its premeditated insistence on an extremely sanitized reality, has the potential to show that brilliance more often than it does. The other bigger reason I felt like writing this post.
There were so many things going for Talaash but this insistence on a safe distance from any sort of crudity called out the entire game. If not for Nawazuddin Siddique and Subrat Dutta, the carefully-cultivated setting would have been faker than those pretentious Fuji apples. I didn’t write it off, despite the finale which I’d have readily bought had the film only set it up right. It had a beautiful, somber mood, carried through faithfully, successfully smearing the narrative with a blanket of bleakness that served it so well. It stayed away from incorporating formulaic elements and actually went so far as to have three top stars shedding all their vanity to actually serve the film, an almost unheard of feat, leave alone unachievable. It had Aamir Khan get into the skin of a character for a change, for God’s sake! Yet, it stopped short of the brilliance it could have been.
The curious thing about it is that it’s out-of-the-box and extremely traditional at the same time. It mixes genres not in formulaic Bollywood style but to serve its own purpose. But having done that, it doesn’t create anything new. It is well-written, tight and engaging but stereotypical at more places than one, picking its people and places more out of tested territories than a kicking imagination. It is very well-directed yet unfinished…so many rough edges, so many moments where the lack of attention to detail shows through. And these become big holes in what informs an entire sensibility and ‘type’ of film Excel is fast becoming synonymous with. Despite an actively engaging two and half hours, these holes are all that remained with me.
Bollywood abounds in horror stories more horrifying than Ramsay films so I accept that it is probably impossible to make an honest film and still earn money. But I do need to ask, if compromises (artistic, intellectual or of mere effort) are absolutely necessary, can we find a way to do them so they don’t come in the way of pure-blood story-telling and some really memorable cinema that surely we are capable of? Or we aren’t?