Directed By: Dibakar Banerjee
Produced By: Yash Raj Films
Starring: Sushant Singh Rajput, Anand Tiwari, Neeraj Kabi
Based on the stories by: Sharadindu Bandhyopadhyay
Ten minutes into Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, a man in a Fu Manchu moustache lazily munches on noodles and broth while mouthing the lines “Bring me back my opium.” I screamed ‘Blue Lotus!’ at the top of my lungs and the entire cinema hall, including my school friends, turned like I was hoarding heroin in my underwear.
For months, Banerjee had been tantalizing us with carefully incongruent pieces of his newest venture, with the two theatrical trailers garnering numerous theories on whether the infamous Bengali detective is lifted off Sherlock Holmes, Tintin, or as per the ostensible source of inspiration, Sharadindu Bandhyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi (with an ‘i’). Banerjee has always been known to turn the initial fluff of his movies into something grotesque and fascinatingly repulsive- that was the idea behind the critical appeal of LSD. Byomkesh Bakshy (with a y) is no different; after the obscure and admittedly stark un-bollywood scuffle over opium in the beginning, followed by the aforementioned Shanghai conversation across the vapours of noodle soup and a hot assistant, both dripping with noir panache, he brings us to the chaotic streets of war-torn forties’ Calcutta where we delve right into the Shintin of India- a demure Byomkesh barely out of college.
“Is Duniya Mein Aise Hi Kuch Nahi Hota.” This philosophy lands our detective in several delicious action scenes. He isn’t anything like the Byomkesh Bakshi from Sharadindu Da’s stories, whom we adore and look up to- he is awkward, inexperienced, black-and-white, and decidedly chalky when it comes to nuance and diplomacy. He messes up small talk, makes blasphemously silly mistakes and vindictively curses himself for everyone’s misfortune. He’s but a noob tossed into the unrelenting pandemonium that surrounds a city hollowed by the British, as is aptly brought out in the poetic “Jaanam” played against an aesthetically awesome sequence of Calcutta where
Bakshy Babu enters for his first case. The case in question would soon blow up into a bloodbath of lust, betrayal, loyalty and, surprise surprise, drug deals, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Suffice it to know that while this may not be Banerjee’s best film, it is certainly the trump card of 2015- the best movie to have laced the silver screen in a long time.
Aesthetics have always been more important to me than plot. I didn’t really enjoy Drishyam, nor did I once get bored during Ship of Theseus. The way a camera is handled holds too much water for me against the way things turn out in the end. If you’re my kind of movie-goer, you can forget the last wisp of coherence or story and lusciously dine on the theatrical beauty of this film alone. An initial multi-focal shot of Byomkesh sitting in a tram gracing the foreground, with beautifully arranged glimpses of an ancient Calcutta flitting through the window behind him, instantly declares this movie will have no dearth of visual nuance and imagination. Similar is a wide-angled shot later into the film, as our femme fatale ‘Angoori Devi’ leads the detective into a hall where a certain political figure has the last lunch of his life. The climax is hauntingly exotic for Indian cinema. This is Dibakar at his wickedest and cinematically naughtiest, showing us an entire Tarantinoesque swordfight through gorgeous shadows cast by a flickering lamplight on the wall. After decades of bouncing off technological advancement and churning out movies with cutting, uninteresting cameras, Bollywood is finally redeemed by Banerjee who re-enters the show to tell everyone just who the boss is. A static shot is seldom used so beautifully in contemporary Indian cinema as in the introductory Calcutta sequence in Bakshy! Watch out for orgasmic noir undertones that scream Banerjee’s unique style. An uncomfortable bathtub conversation with Angoori Devi, who blatantly mocks Byomkesh’s naïve bluntness stacks up as the only ‘beautifully sensuous’ scene in the entire movie. Love it or hate it, you simply can’t ignore it.
Anand Tiwari is a fine actor. I’m not sure if he can pull off Ajit Banerjee as well as his Bengali counterpart, but looking at the way things are going for Dibakar’s movie, I’d happily welcome a revamped sidekick-cum-companion for Byomkesh. Their relationship is taking on too many JohnLock overtones, but I feel that is permissible amidst the plethora of originality Baskhy! boasts of. He is sassy, satiric and unflinchingly loyal.
Neeraj Kabi. Praise the Lord. What can I possibly say? That man is up there with the likes of Irrfan, Nawazuddin, Naseeruddin Shah and a few of the nation’s finest actors of present time. He blends into Anukool Guha with such practised ease that you begin to doubt if this lumbering, detachedly friendly doctor is indeed the determined, passionately rebellious and cerebrally knife-sharp Jain monk from Ship of Theseus. Turns out, he’s also something much, much more incredible than that. Enough spoilers.
Swastika Mukherjee is described as ‘instictively talented’ by Dibakar Banerjee. Do her hunches pay off? Not quite. Her face, already smothered under mountains of desperate makeup (which, by the way, is the sad predicament of all the actors in the movie) expresses so little that she often comes off as simply wanting to finish off her job and saunter home. Her supposedly seductive ‘Tum nahi hote toh yeh kuch nahi hota’ comes off as laughably juvenile. What is sadder is the amount of carefully fleshed-out background Dibakar actually provided for her character, the singing diva Angoori Devi. Everything from her poverty-ridden and patriarchy-downtrodden past to her love affair with drug tycoon Yang Guang was lucidly thought out. A more meticulous actress would have surely elevated this role to the stature it was made for, instead of watering it down to a pro-fashion eye candy.
Everyone else fills the gaps like a seamless jigsaw. I regret not knowing their names individually, but they’re all perfectly apt supporting actors, taking up just the right amount of space for our dhoti-clad hero to wield his deductive prowess without once overshadowing anyone. A special mention for the guy who plays Ashwini Babu. Unsung gems, all of them.
The very aesthetics that border this movie like halos against a god also turn out to be the reason for its biggest drawback. Throughout the two-and-half hours, through every scene, every shot, every frame, Banerjee seems so fixated with the burden of sculpting a masterpiece that he forgoes all consistency and sometimes, even coherence in his plot. Gone is supple passage from the first fifteen minutes of the storyline, quickly crossfading into a detective’s dangerous journey that’s as clunky as an uphill tram ride. What the film sorely lacks is a memorable, suspenseful origin plot to found an unconventional franchise. A huge, meaty portion is spent in interacting with character upon character that ill-fatedly proves to be of little consequence in the end. This is another directorial misventure- showering so much emphasis on everyone that everyone is a valid suspect. Of what? I’m not entirely sure. Is this a whodunit? It seems to play like one, but the real culprit ironically isn’t given the required amount of build-up for the revelation to serve as a startling payoff. A huge disappointment is not having Byomkesh indignantly correct everyone that calls him a detective and instead prefer the term ‘Satyanweshi’ (truth-seeker). This is one place I’d dearly hoped Reel Byomkesh to align with Book Byomkesh.
Reel Byomkesh, even though starkly defined, evaluated and contrasted with his environment remains a largely two-dimensional protagonist. A strong female lead isn’t absolutely needed, but would definitely expose a side of him we are not yet privy to. Satyawati just doesn’t have the required screentime, and that’s okay considering that romance is never meant to be a focal point in the film. If it extends into a franchise, though, she undoubtedly needs to be built upon and strengthened into a valid foil.
Indie, classical, balladlike, jazz- the soundtrack is as mishmashy as the plot; however, it thankfully pays off. The musical unpredictability serves as a perpetual refresh button, inducing more and more excitement into an otherwise lengthy runtime. Watch out especially for two sequences of freeze-frames where Bakshy discovers two startling threads connecting the case. Breathtaking work of camera and sound. Funnily, those two sequences stayed in my mind long after I’d forgotten the story and didn’t remember or care what they were about.
A valid reason for the irksome wait, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, while touching all the expectations from a Dibakar Directorial Delight, is hardly without its inconsistencies and plot failures. Where it does stand tall is a meaty camera, a memorable production design, impeccable performances by the smallest extras and a formidable protagonist in Sushant Singh Rajput. What it still buffers with is a terrific story to deserve this terrific character.
It succeeded in one place, though. As soon as I walked out of Phoenix City I turned right into a side street and bought five paans from a seedy shack built under a staircase. All those paan-munching sounds were too much for a bunch of irreparable gluttons. That night, Calcutta kissed us all.