For years now, the spirit of Bollywood has poured itself into the nooks and crannies of American pop culture (you can see it in everything from “Moulin Rouge!” to the tabla beat of the Nick Jr. girl-power genie cartoon “Shimmer and Shine”). Once in a while, though, the genuine article — a Bollywood movie — gets a wide release in the U.S., and when that happens, it offers a rare opportunity for some serious cultural co-mingling. When “Lagaan” opened it 2001, it was like seeing a cinematic bulletin in the form of a blissed-out epic sports musical. (The most exotic thing about it isn’t that it was Indian — it’s that it was a four-movie movie about Indians learning to play cricket.) Now, the Bollywood industry is unleashing a very different sort of movie in America, different in that it’s actually much closer to what we watch everyday.
The fascination of “Te3n” (no, that’s not a misprint — the title is pronounced “teen,” which is Hindi for the number three, which refers to the trio of lead characters) is that although it’s a gritty procedural thriller about a kidnapping and child murder, with themes of loss, violence, justice, and revenge, the movie is much quieter around the edges than its American counterpart would be. This is an underworld drama in which the excitement of solving crime rarely overshadows the disturbance that crime causes (even for those committing it). “Te3n” may, in fact, be too quiet to succeed here; it’s both pokier and longer than it needs to be. Yet if you stick with it, you’ll know what it feels like to watch an extended episode of “Law & Order: Kolkata” in which the powers of law enforcement generate all the more intrigue for not totally knowing what they’re doing.
The central character, John Biswas (Amitabh Bachchan), is a grandfather with stiff limbs, a full head of grayish hair, and heavy-framed glasses, all of which combine to make him look like the soul of senior ineffectuality. For the last eight years, John has gone down to the police station almost every day, trying to get to the bottom of what happened to his 8-year-old granddaughter, Angela, who was kidnapped eight years ago and then killed. (The perpetrator was never found.) John holds himself responsible, but the police have little interest in re-opening the case. That is, not until there’s a second kidnapping eight years later, and this one bears such an uncanny similarity to the first one — same voice issuing muffled threats over the phone, same intricate ransom exchange plan, same sinister B-movie black van — that it seems all but obvious the original monster is back.
After eight years of agony, John decides to investigate the original case himself, and he starts to turn up clues. He spies a girl from an orphanage for the deaf and dumb wearing Angela’s long-lost white wool hat, which leads back to a charity donation made by a local Imambara, which adjoins a cemetery in which a metal trunk was dug up, and that trunk contained a pen, which bore the swan insignia of the Land Measurement Office, whose bureaucrats knew that John was selling some property…
The very banality of this detail is convincing (well, except for the part about the girl showing up in the hat), and also…a little banal. “Te3n” is two hours and 13 minutes long, and for close to the first hour, it’s watchable in a slightly sodden way. The original police inspector on the case, Father Martin Das (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), was so dispirited by his inability to catch the kidnapper that he had a spiritual breakdown, joining the priesthood because he could no longer believe in any plan that wasn’t God’s. The new case lures him back in: Still wearing his priestly collar, he becomes the unofficial partner of Sarita Sarker (Vidya Balan), the lead officer on the case, who keeps saying things like, “You may have stopped wearing the uniform, but you still sound like a policeman!”
“Te3n,” fortunately, grows both gnarlier and better as it goes along. The film actually has an intermission, and the first half ends with a cliff-hanger, as the ransom exchange of the first kidnapping is duplicated, this time with the police on the ball. The director, Ribhu Dasgupta, creates some distinctly Hitchcockian suspense centered around a crew of Army cadets on a train (one of whom we’re led to think is the kidnapper in disguise). Then there’s a chase, and the kidnapper is caught and revealed, at which point your jaw drops open at least halfway.
But is he really the kidnapper? “Te3n” is a remake of the 2013 Korean thriller “Montage,” and the movie has a curlicued, good-guys-pretending-to-be-bad-guys (and vice versa) twistiness that is very Korean. Frankly, the twists, when they come, are more gripping than the atmosphere of fraying sadness. Amitabh Bachchan, the fabled Indian actor who plays Johnny, gives the kind of impacted, implosive performance that brings to mind the depressed-everyman Al Pacino of a movie like “Manglehorn,” but most of the other cast members, compelling as they are, don’t get enough to work with. “Te3n” desperately wants to succeed as a human drama that transcends the facile suspense of who done it. The movie doesn’t fully live up to that ambition, but the good news is that it’s just Bollywood enough to show you what deeply familiar thriller conventions feel like when they’re made with different spices.