I finally buckled down to seeing writer-director Sujoy Ghosh's much loved and immensely entertaining sleeper hit from last year - Kahaani (thank you Netflix streaming!) It's well known that Kahaani has a twist in it. And its a fairly well guarded one because a year after the release, I still didn't know about it when I sat down to watch. To be fair, I avoided reading reviews and cut off most conversations about the movie with friends by declaring "I still haven't seen it!" My friends are kind enough to respect that.
However, knowing about the twist causes me to watch a movie differently. A thirdways through Kahaani I had developed several hypotheses. Half way through I had figured the twist out. I'm not saying this as a matter of pride - most people would find reason to pity me because I "can't enjoy movies anymore". I assure you I enjoy movies just as much as everyone else. I treat movies with a twist as a treasure hunt. I suspect a lot of viewers do.
So what's a 'twist' anyway? A twist in a movie is an unexpected turn of events. It can be caused by the injection of a new element in the plot like a new character, an event that transforms a situation, a hidden relationship or a secret trapdoor. Twists can happen all through a movie. A good recent example of this is Looper - a clever, if somewhat logically muddled, and absorbing film set in the future. There are clever plot twists pretty much throughout the movie.
When people talk about 'twists' in movies, sometimes they refer to what is known as a surprise ending. Kahaani is one of those movies - as is Talaash, a movie I recently saw where the twist completely surprised and disappointed me. Surprise endings are tricky to handle because if they don't hang well with the rest of the story, they can leave the viewer feeling cheated. A common surprise ending is when we are told that most of the movie was a fiction of someone's imagination. There are some famous examples of this (Life of Pi, The Usual Suspects). This twist works best if you deliver a solid film with closure and just a few lingering questions before you pull an about turn. Sometimes a filmmaker will choose to invert the world of the film in the last few scenes - making you reevaluate the story entirely (The Sixth Sense, The Others, Primal Fear, 1968's Planet of the Apes). Often twists are gimmicky and appear to be added just to tie up a movie (Men In Black 3) or used to challenge the viewer by allowing for multiple hypotheses (Memento). At least once I've seen a - I have no good way to describe it - meta surprise ending. That would be Se7en in which a madman kills a key character in a rather grisly way and sets up his own death in order to complete his mission.
Any which way, when I know a movie features a big twist, I'll watch for clues everywhere. Most people tend to think that is a great way to suck the joy out of a film. Contrary to that opinion, twist hunting is a pretty fun way of watching a movie. Viewers, even the ones who pride themselves on being fans of mindless entertainers, draw conclusions and anticipate events in real-time during a movie. (If they didn't it would be impossible to build suspense). Smart filmmakers will know you are on the lookout for a twist and will fill their movie with conflicting clues and misdirection. M. Night Shyamalan's last few movies - which unfortunately put his career in a downward spiral - were filled with these tactics. Psycho and Friday the 13th both had early misdirection to throw you off track (and both featured Mommy Dearest in key plot points).
On to the two recent movies I've seen of this kind. The twist in Talaash left me underwhelmed because it felt like it came out of nowhere. If you were to swallow the minor infringement of logic scattered throughout the movie around a key character's interactions with the physical world, the story did hang well together around the surprise ending. Was the disappointment then tied to the fact that director Reema Kagti had not honored viewers by aligning with the conclusions they were forming in their head? When a viewer says "What man! That twist didn't make any sense!", are they really saying that the surprise ending was something they hadn't anticipated in any reality? I got the feeling Talaash was underwritten in terms of making the twist work really well.
Kahaani on the other hand didn't suffer from this issue at all. Because word of the twist would be out once the movie played in theaters, it really helped that Sujoy Ghosh does have a bit of a twist midway through. So if you were looking for one, once you are past that mid-film twist, you tend to take your guard down and think that with the twist out of the way the rest of the movie will play like a straight thriller. (Truly joyless people like me second guess everything till the end). The ending might have surprised many, but the events that lead up to it put all kinds of thoughts in the minds of the viewers. When the twist came, it wasn't too far off from the incremental possibilities the viewers were anticipating in their heads as they watched.
Like Kahaani, Talaash had an appropriate amount of emotional heft to build misdirection, but the payoff from the twist simply wasn't there because it didn't line up in any way with how the movie had progressed. Sure there is a parallel story that is along the lines of the twist, but it isn't integrated into the main story in a way that tweaks your train of thought. Compare this to a movie like The Sixth Sense where the twist is similar to that in Talaash but very much in line with the premise of the movie itself (i.e. one can interact with dead people). The payoff in The Sixth Sense was enormous - it remains the gold standard of surprise endings.
It would seem that a filmmaker can slide the rug out from under the audience's feet, but not so violently that they land in a place where they can't get their bearings.