Rani is technically just a supporting character, but her role is the secret motive and power and goal of the hero. It’s a fascinating kind of role, she has to be isolated from the rest of the plot, but at the same time not isolated, since her reactions drive Aamir in everything he does for the rest of the plot. It’s her sadness, happiness, strength, sorrow, and so on, that make Aamir angry, confused, dedicated and so on.
This is one of those movies (I like to think there are very few of them, but there are probably a lot) that I did not get on the first watch. The mystery isn’t that mysterious, the supernatural philosophy wasn’t clear to me, Rajkummar Rao was wasted, there’s just a lot to pick at. But then I talked about it with other people and watched it again after talking to them, and suddenly it fell in to place, and now it is my favorite Aamir movie. Well, tied with Ghulam and Dil Chahta Hai. But not Rang De, because that is too BIG to be merely a “favorite” movie or merely an “Aamir” movie.
For me, this is the best Aamir performance and role in the past 10 years. He isn’t doing one of his big perfectionist high concept roles, he isn’t an alien or aging 20 years or playing a 17 year old genius or anything like that. He is just playing a man, a mature man who has sorrows and strengths and challenges and a past. A normal man who also has all the fascinating layers that any normal person has, a character who is built from the ground up, not through some single idea given from on high (“Secret Twins!” “Scuzzy Music Producer!” “Mangal Panday!”)
What makes it even better is that Aamir’s normal middle-aged man isn’t made into the center of this filmic universe. This isn’t a film that screams out “Man Pain!”, Aamir’s character has problems, but time is also spent to show that his wife Rani Mukherjee has her own internal life, and so does his informer prostitute Kareena Kapoor, and of course Sheeba Chaddha once again as always steals the whole movie.
Nawazuddin is there too, this is one of his last “small” roles before he graduated to being a little too big to have the time for these roles. Just focusing on Nawazuddin, it’s fascinating to use him as a marker for the quality of the performances around him. Nawazuddin is, right now, considered the highest possible “pure” actor. And in this film, if you put him against Kareena or Aamir, he just doesn’t seem that special. They are perfectly capable of matching him. They may not always choose to be “pure” actors, but they have it within their toolbox.
The ones that really stand out to me in this large cast are Sheeba, as previously mentioned, and Rajkummar Rao. Rajkummar’s character really has almost nothing to do, his best scene involves him standing in the background watching other people talk, and yet you notice and remember him.
Overall though, it is all about our 3 leads, powerhouse major stars who are else, as this movie will remind you, powerhouse major acting talents.
But to talk about that, I need to get into SPOILERS!
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I’m gonna skip to the big reveal at the end: Kareena is a ghost. The first time I saw the film, it felt like a lame twist that cheapened everything before. The second time, I realized the film felt so much stronger and deeper because of knowing what Kareena was.
You see, on the first watch, you get distracted by the love triangle between cop-wife-prostitute, by the mystery. But that’s not what it’s about at all. That’s just what you think it is about when you think Kareena is a witness, not a victim. And all the bits of the film that don’t fit the usual mystery with the hero cop investigator torn between the “good” and “bad” woman, they feel like mistakes, like the director lost focus.
But on a second watch, I realized that Reema knew EXACTLY what she was doing the entire time and was building the film carefully, sucking us in with what we thought we knew, what Aamir thought he knew, before showing us that the world is upside down and we shouldn’t be looking for our strong policeman hero to save everyone, we should look for who is going to save him.
The surface plot seems like a usual mystery. A young movie star dies in a car crash when his car suddenly spins out of control for no reason and goes into the see. Aamir is hired to investigate and spots oddities, that he was driving himself, he had a bag full of cash, etc. etc. Aamir is the new cop in town, he easily earns the respect of his subordinates, he isn’t afraid to question anyone and anything, hero hero hero stuff. Along the way, he sees a streetwalker, Kareena, and pulls her over to ask questions. She gives him confusing leads and he finds himself drawn to her.
Meanwhile, we also see the little people Aamir is investigating. A pimp who has a mysterious hold over the dead movie star, his abused girlfriend who watches him and searches his room when he doesn’t come home. The pimp’s gofer (Nawazuddin) who has a crush on an aging prostitute Sheeba Chabbha who loves him back but doesn’t believe they can ever escape this life. The sad lowly parts of the city that the cop is their to organize and control and so on.
And we get Aamir’s homelife, his wife Rani struggling to settle in in this new town, and struggling with her own grief over their son. His new neighbors, his new bright young assistant Rajkummar Rao. The usual (seemingly) background for a cop.
But interrupting this nicely moving film noir plot are little oddities. Aamir can’t sleep and can’t talk about his son, keeps having nightmares. Until he meets up with Kareena late one night, she takes him to a hotel, he talks, and she smooths his forehead, and he finally sleeps. What is that scene about? Or Rani’s odd interactions with their neighbor, sister of one of Aamir’s constables, who keeps popping into their house at all hours and trying to ingratiate herself. Why include that? And of course the way Kareena somehow seems to know everything all the time for no reason.
If you are watching it as a noir with odd interruptions, the reveal that Kareena was a ghost, murdered by the movie star, her pimp, and Nawazuddin after a car accident, left to die for fear of scandal and then buried in a deserted stretch of beach, that just seems ridiculously coincidental. Along with the fact that the “mystery” wasn’t a mystery at all, there was no real “murder” at the heart of it, just the ghost Kareena suddenly appearing in the road in order to startle the movie star into driving off the road after returning from paying hush money to her pimp. And then Kareena surprised Nawazuddin into dying as well, and her pimp, and finally startled Aamir into driving his police jeep off the road while transporting his suspect, the last man to kill Kareena, the movie star’s lifelong friend who arranged the evening. So really, nothing Aamir did or discovered or anything else actually matters. The noir-mystery part of it completely falls apart in a very lazy sudden way.
But if you watch it the other way, as a study of grieving people and the power of death within life, then it all comes together beautifully. Aamir is fooling himself, thinking that he is the powerful in control cop. Rani, the officially “depressed” part of the couple, is actually the healthy one. Aamir can keep focusing on her, on making her take pills and go to the doctor, on his work solving mysteries and running the city, and ignore everything else in his life where he has no control.
And the whole film is about him just accepting that there are things bigger and more powerful than him. That is what ties it all together. Aamir has to learn that it’s okay to lean on others, to appear weak before his subordinates (Rajkummar’s awkward witnessing of his fight with Rani), to admit that he can’t fully solve this mystery, to reach out and late Kareena save him when his car goes over the cliff, and most importantly, in the end, to let Rani save him, to lean on her for strength instead of insisting she is the weak one and he the strong one.
It’s not as simple as a heroic hero who must be the savior. It goes all the way back to the beginning for Aamir, not this murder investigation, but the death of his son. It’s such a terrifying death. His son and his friend are playing by a lake while Rani and Aamir lazily sleep and watch. They go by the dock, and suddenly Rani and Aamir hear and see the boat take off, and then crash. They dive in and swim out, find one boy right away in the water, but Aamir dives and dives and never finds his son. He is just gone, slipped away in front of them, just out of reach.
Aamir tortures himself, we see that, playing it over and over again in his head, how he could have stopped the boys and suggested another game, gone with them, anything but just laying there and not even watching. That’s what he can’t let go of, this sense of responsibility, that he could have stopped it, should have stopped it. Rani can be medically depressed, the weak one in the couple, he is in control, he is fine. He is fine in front of his subordinates, he is fine in front of their old friends, he is fine for everyone. Except for the two women who are closest to whom, Kareena and Rani. Kareena knows, from the beginning, that he is not fine. And she helps him discover and understand why that is, helps him confront his demons. And Rani knows too, but also knows that if she pushes he will run.
Kareena needed someone like Aamir, not a cop, but a strong good man who would want to save someone. A strong good man who was a little broken, according to the rules of this film, ghosts appear to those who are broken, who have been touched by death. But it’s not that she uses him. That would be the simple ghost story. No, they save each other. She lets him in, lets him see a bit of her sadness and loneliness. And repays him by giving him a unique kind of comfort, letting him open up to her. He finds her body and finally saves her from anonymous forgotten death. And she reaches done through the water to pull him up at the end, bring him back to life, fully back to life, not just saved from this water but from the water he has been lost in searching for his son over and over again.
Rani is something different. Their marriage in this film is just wonderful. You can feel the familiarity of a top notch actor and actress who have worked together for most of their mutual careers. But it’s also how the marriage is written. Rani is silent while Aamir talks in most situations. You see them at a dinner with a couple they know in Bombay, Rani says almost nothing, and eventually just stands up and leaves, and Aamir confidently pontificates on her treatment and how “she” is having a hard time with her grief. They go to a housing settlement show, the little kids of the building, and then walk home together, their neighbor approaches and tries to talk about their son, Aamir immediately and harshly shuts her down and pulls Rani away. And through all of this, Rani is silent. But it’s not a silence of weakness. It’s a silence of knowledge. On some level, she knows that her husband is struggling just as much as she is, maybe even more. And the best thing she can do for him is let him have his journey, let him talk himself into confidence, let him stay up all night away from their bed, let him be away from her and lost in himself. That’s how marriage works sometimes, you don’t have to talk it out, you understand each other more deeply than that, talking is just what happens on the surface.
We see in a flashback that Rani and Aamir’s marriage used to be fun and funny and full of love and sex and happiness. But personally, I almost feel the flashback cheapens it. I don’t need to know they “used to” love each other, because I can see how much they love each other now. Aamir loves Rani enough that even as he blocks everyone else out, he can’t let go of her, dragging her with him to Bombay, to social events, wanting to spend time physically with her even if they are emotionally miles apart. And Rani loves Aamir enough to let herself be the sick one, to let herself be the one he can take care of as long as he needs that.
What makes the change is when Rani starts to come to life again. Their neighbor is a medium, gives her letters written by their son from the afterlife. It helps Rani, finally, stop worrying about him, get past her own immovable breaking point. And gives her the strength to confront Aamir, to try to push him to the same point. She can stop worrying about her son and start worrying about her husband.
Aamir can’t handle this. He retreats to the new woman he can “save”, the replacement for his wife, the prostitute Kareena. And it’s only after he finally “saves” her, that she saves him. And he realizes he needs to be saved not just by the stand in for his wife, but by Rani herself.
And that’s the ending. Not the solution to our mystery that is really a ghost story, not the reveal of Kareena’s identity and the end of her revenge, but the resolution to grief, acceptance of death. That’s what ghost stories are all about, really, humanity trying to make sense of death, of that sense of someone suddenly being gone, there and then not there. Aamir went through his own ghost story, and what it did was bring him back to where he started, the dock where he last saw his son, looking out at the lake where he died. And Rani coming to hold him, to save him, to find him.
(No real reason to include this, just wanted to cheer myself up with a happy Rani-Aamir song)