We had our first taste of Dibakar Banerjee with the delightful Khosla Ka Ghosla, released in 2006 after much languishing, a common experience for most small budget, starless films. The film was a beautiful depiction of the helplessness a common man goes through. Inspired casting, great performances and a entrancing storyline, had us all hooked. We did not even mind Tara Sharma who’s endearing non acting did not jar too much in the larger scheme of things. His subsequent films got darker and of course more star oriented, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Love Sex aur Dhokha, Shanghai and Bombay Talkies were all progressively disturbing, while being intensely fascinating. My first issue with casting arose in Shanghai which had brilliant performances by Imraan Hashmi, Abhay Deol and Tilottama Shome but really insipid ones from Prosenjit and Kalki. But Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!was something to look forward to; especially for my Bengali soul that has grown up the works of Saradindu. The promo had me hooked and I was all bated breath waiting to see if this Bengali classic could actually be turned into a Hindi film of quality.
A quick look at Byomkesh Bakshi, of the book fame is required here. Satyajit Ray and Sarandindu Bandopadhyay were deeply influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle and this is seen in their detectives. Both Feluda and Byomkesh were cerebral detectives who preferred brain to brawn; had a side kick and managed to solve cases more by deduction than investigation. Byomkesh was a ‘satyanweshi’ or a ‘seeker of truth’, an interesting tag for the character that also implied the absence of corruption. Rajit Kapoor had long since captured the Hindi speaking audiences heart by his rendition of Byomkesh Bakshi in the tv series on DD. But those who have watched quality Bengali movies will remember Uttam Kumar’s superb essaying of Byomkesh in the outstanding ‘Chiriakhana’. I do not have anything to offer on the new Bengali Byomkesh movies since I have not watched them, but the Hindi one was awaited for sure.
The great thing about basing a period film in Calcutta is that you do not need to do much to get an authentic flavour since every lane, old building and monument has oodles of character. This film opens with a shadowy murder and the grisly maiming of Chinese gang members. We then cut to the smoky recreation room of a college where young men are busy playing carom and we get our first glimpse of Byomkesh (Sushant Singh Rajput). That he is a jilted lover is established very early, as is his penchant for calling a spade a spade and getting beat up for it! Ajit Bandyopadhyay (Anand Tiwari), college mate and first client (and then sidekick), wants Byomkesh to find his missing father, Bhuvan. Byomkesh’s investigation leads him to the boarding house run by Dr. Anukul Guha (Neeraj Kabi), a super shrewd and observant man. Byomkesh meets the other residents of the house including Ashwini Babu (Arindol Bagchi) who was Bhuvan Babu’s roommate and Kanai Dao (Meiyang Chang), an apparently licensed opium dealer, and decides to move in to pursue his investigation properly.
Bhuvan was a gold medallist in Chemistry. Little clues in his belongings leads Byomkesh to Hind Chemicals, a company owned by Gajanan Sikdar who is also a local politician. The story of Bhuvan being employed in the same factory is revealed much later in the film. Anyway, here he meets Angoori Devi (Swastika Mukherjee), the femme fatale who when not belly flopping into the murky river next to Hind Chemicals, is portrayed as an actress of some fame. He also is introduced to Satyavati (Divya Menon), Gajanan’s niece, who’s brother Sukumar has started a fledgling party to counter that of his uncle’s. Lots of intrigue and drama follows with more than adequate complications, a few car chases, copious amounts of blood and gore and ends in a sort of predictable climax where Byomkesh miraculously gathers the entire cast around a table and spills the beans. I know a lot of people were quite taken with the apparent twist in the tale; but it was pretty predictable and would be even if I had not read these stories before.
What Dibakar Banerjee has created is a ‘film noir’. Literally translating to ‘black film’, this is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. However, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! lands up in the land of ultra noir where the darkness seems forced at times. The sets are nothing short of spectacular; the 1940’s look carefully sculpted into every frame. The costumes are well done and every Bengali will vouch for their authenticity. The cinematography is dazzling whether it be in capturing lazy curls of cigarette smoke from Swastika’s plum coloured lips or blood spurting from punctured eyes. So where does it go wrong?
In my mind, the first wrong is in the main cast. I really liked Sushant Singh Rajput in Kai Po Che and Shuddh Desi Romance. His characters in both films are strong, earnest, agile/athletic but not exceptionally bright and he does a great job with these. But give him the role of a cerebral detective and you see he does not quite fit. He is still pleasant and earnest but not absolutely convincing. And while I am happy to allow the director to get away with creating a film based on/inspired by Sarandindu Bandopadhyay’s most famous character, he cannot make Byomkesh into someone who does not look like the sharpest pencil in the box. The charisma which sets apart these cerebral sleuths from the hoi polloi is missing and that possibly is the weakest point of the film. The second jarring note was Satyavati who’s role while small, is pivotal to the film. Divya Menon just does not rise to the occasion. But a lot is right with the cast, the best of which is Neerak Kabi. In his first outing since the sublime Ship of Theseus, he delights again as the canny Dr. Guha aka….well whatever! The next star is Pradipto Kumar Chakraborty as Putiram, the much summoned head cook and butler at the boarding house. Almost no dialogues, but a presence that you cannot miss! Meiyang Chang also does a surprisingly believable job of his role given that he is one film old, not really from an acting school and has been an anchor before. Angoori Devi….aaahhh, Swastika‘s character could have been so so much more, but does not get a chance to shine as much as we wanted it to though she does have some memorable screen time and some exotic looks. The language used is also very modern casual, a mix of Hindi and English that somehow distracts at times.
A special mention has to be made of the soundtrack which matches and at times outdoes the pace of this thriller. The traditionalists would be rather disappointed with the tracks because they do not adhere to that period or any specific period for that matter. But we just could not stop ourselves from responding to the variety of music Banerjee has introduced in the film. Hip-hop, electronic sounds, jazz, rock and metal leap out of the speakers into your ears as the film hurtles through the streets of Calcutta. The music is very stylized and very interesting even while not quite in the same genre as the film. ‘Calcutta Kiss’ would definitely be my favourite of all the tracks.
A decent enough one time watch, the film would definitely have been a much better fare had there not been so much convoluted happenings (jilipir paench for those who understand!), specially in the second half. Enthralling in form but unraveling slowly but surely in content, this film lands up being a slightly middle class cousin to its potential of being lord of the land. Starting with the search for a missing person and going into multiple layers of very difficult to assimilate intrigue with the Burmese, Chinese, Japanese and British, not to mention the hapless Bengalis, was a tad much for my dyspeptic Bengali stomach to digest. The alu bhaja with cha pales in comparison!
Copyright © Taraa Vermaa Senguptaa April 2015