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Talaash – Seeking the ‘real’

Posted: December 1, 2012 by fattiemama in cinema, film, Thoughts

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…

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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.

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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?

Any answers?

Fatema Kagalwala

Fatema Kagalwala puts on those nostalgia-wala goggles and remembers Rajesh Khanna.

I have a very 70’s generational angst. I have a theory that we, all of us born in the 70’s are marked. And politely speaking quite fucked. We are the in-between generation constantly straddling two worlds, one full of a traditionalism no longer serving us, and another of modernisation hurtling us to a place that has stripped us completely of our original identities. We have one foot in both. Our childhoods were wrapped in what was probably the blackest period of modern India – the 80’s where decay, political, social and personal was at its ugliest, poverty and disillusionment with the Great Indian Dream had left us utterly hopeless and arts were a shadow of their original selves. Maybe, it is for this that I (we?) continue to feel like an alien in this uber-modernised, superficial millennium and keep asking myself ‘Where do I belong?’ And probably it is this that makes me misty-eyed with nostalgia, sense of loss and emptiness when I but merely watch a yester-year film song especially of the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s.

Films and the heroes we loved in our childhood keep us connected to our past and the entire world it embodied. No other medium or star can do that for us, but yes, film heroes can. And that’s why when I heard of Rajesh Khanna’s demise yesterday I had a lump in my throat like he was a long-lost childhood friend. His going brought up all that sense of immense loss and pain that had been growing ever since Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor left us.

I was having lunch when I heard it. My first reaction was ‘Don’t go!’, ‘Don’t do this to us…’ ‘We need you…’ I was screaming inside, ‘You don’t know the way you keep us connected us to ourselves…’ ‘We don’t recognise this world we live in but with you it’s bearable…’ ‘What will we do without the dreams you gave us to dream?’ I felt I had lost yet another link to myself, my past, my world. It wasn’t about cinema anymore. It was about the world Rajesh Khanna was a part of, the world he kept alive for me. The world I could go to at will, to rejuvenate myself. A sort of coming home when tired… Rajesh Khanna, Dev Saab, Shammi Kapoor symbolised a world of gentility and innocence that I was born in and then rudely shaken out of before I had my fill. They kept me connected to what was no more…And now they are…

Rajesh Khanna the star and Rajesh Khanna the man were both something that I wasn’t personally attached to, like I was to Dev Anand, the first man I ever fell in love with. Yet, his charming smile, the innocence in his eyes, the warmth he invested in his characters and his eccentrically crooked style, all remained endearing to me no matter how frail a shadow of himself he became. In my eyes, he remained Anand, Arun, Raj and Kamal, none of his later life pursuits ever diminishing all the beautiful worlds he had created for me in my childhood. It must be the dreams he (and others before him) sold to my wide-eyed child that makes me cling to a world that has long past…

A world where innocence meant thinking that when actors died in films they died in real life…

Where women scraped the mud of an actor’s car tyres and marked their foreheads with it as sindoor…

Where an autograph or a mere sighting of our favourite star would leave us in a tizzy for days…

Where the word ‘matinee’ gave us shivers of delicious delight be it pre-fixed to our loved idol or show…

Where we dressed up for a film outing and carried tiffins to movie halls…

Where we were willing to sit on the aisles if need be and would get up dance when we felt like…

Where we could sit on the footpath to watch a film being projected at a random street celebration…

Where we made films run for months and months never tiring of watching it for the 5th or 15th time as long as it was in the halls…

Where it was a big big deal to escape school / college to watch that film’s first day first show…

Where first day first show meant a lot more than our careers ever would…

Where men were gentlemen and women ladies…

Where stars were gods…almost…

…until they passed on. And left us bitter about the fact that they are mortal after all.

This is less of an obituary to a man we all loved and will continue to and more of an obituary to the passing of an era he and many like him embodied. An era that holds the key to me, an era that gave me my roots only to find that they no longer sustain me in this weird world I find myself living in. I will always live by the dreams that you, my childhood stars showed me and hope it will suffice. Because now that you are gone, what else do I have?

Saying goodbye with one of my most favourite Rajesh Khanna song.

Thank you for that world

Thank you for those dreams

Thank you for those movies…

Without them, my childhood wouldn’t have been half as beautiful.

Rest in peace.