3 Stars (out of 4)
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When eight-year-old Angela (Aarnaa Sharma) was kidnapped and killed eight years ago, time stopped for her grandfather, John Biswas (Amitabh Bachchan). Not in a literal sense, of course, as evidenced by his increasingly stooped posture and shuffling gait. John’s wife, Nancy (Padmavathi Rao), uses a wheelchair that she didn’t need back when little Angela lived with them.
Figuratively, though, nothing has changed for John. Every day, he stops by the police station to ask if they have new leads in the case. Every day, the new police chief Sarita (Vidya Balan) tells him, “No,” with a mixture of patience and pity.
The kidnapping that turns John’s life into a daily nightmare pushes another life in a totally different direction. Martin (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) was the police officer in charge when Angela’s case went haywire. Unable to cope with his failure, Martin became a priest. But John won’t let Martin run from the past.
By happenstance, John finds a clue about Angela’s kidnapping. Shortly thereafter, a little boy goes missing under the same circumstances as Angela. Against Martin’s will, he’s forced to act as an investigator again — examining both John’s clues from the past and Sarita’s clues from the present — to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
Te3n is tense and chilling without being gory. The atmosphere is enhanced by a tremendous score by composer Clinton Cerejo. Bachchan himself sings one version of the sad song “Kyun Re,” making his character’s pain feel all the more heartbreaking.
The movie belongs to Bachchan, but his fellow actors are just as strong. Sarita is the story’s straight woman, and Balan plays her matter-of-factly. It’s not a flashy performance, nor should it be.
Same for Siddiqui’s low-key turn as the priest. Martin’s past arrogance led to catastrophic mistakes that he’s obviously learned from. In his new role, he observes more than he speaks. Yet, as Sarita correctly points out, Martin’s plan to leave things “to God” conveniently excuses the former cop’s inaction.
Bachchan’s performance is tragic and moving. Never has the superstar seemed so old, which is crucial, since that’s what Te3n is about even more than the crime — it’s about the horrors that time and age inflict upon us. It’s about getting old.
Remove the dead granddaughter from the equation, and John’s life is a pretty accurate depiction of the lives of many people in their later years. He’s not as nimble of body or mind as he once was. His world has shrunk so much that he fixates. His days are a routine of mundane chores, and he’s starting to forget to do some of them. He’s depressed.
It’s no wonder that no one takes John seriously when he keeps pressing forward with his own investigation. Even Nancy thinks that he’s lost perspective, and his refusal to cope with reality makes him a worse husband.
Director Ribhu Dasgupta uses “Stranger Danger” imagery to emphasize another age-related theme in the film: namely young parents’ concerns about their own parents’ fitness to care for their grandchildren. Both children are abducted by a hooded stranger in a black van while under the care of their grandfathers. Te3n‘s scenario is the extreme version of fears many parents have when, say, Grandpa wants to drive the kids to get ice cream or Grandma insists on babysitting even though she just had back surgery.
Te3n fails to wrap up the central mystery in a believable way, yet the volume of good elements early in the film offset its subpar ending. The movie is at its most thought-provoking when Bachchan is on screen, his posture and mannerisms emphasizing the extent to which his character has been broken by time and sadness. Enjoy Te3n for the thrills, but don’t overlook what the story is really about.