Spoiler alert: Some incidents documented and discussed here may interfere with your experience of the film if you are watching it for the first time.
To be honest, I did not expect much from Kahaani. I only went to see how Calcutta was portrayed. I am glad I did. Kahaani is one of the noteworthy films to come out of the Hindi film stable. Within the framework of the form, the director has experimented a lot and almost all of them have worked.
The film begins with a shot of a white mouse in a lab giving you the hint that it’s going to be a film about trapped people or people who will be trapped. It was a little jarring in tone when compared to the rest of the movie. My immediate reaction was that it was going to be about the Tokyo subway gas attack. We know that a significant man (Abir Chatterjee) is killed along with countless other citizens. Questions like “Who is he? And why is he so important?” buzz in mind but before they crystallize we are whisked off to see the hero in the meantime.
The hero is of course a woman. Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi is tailor-made for Vidya Balan. Fearless, undaunting and rather late in her pregnancy, Mrs. Bagchi arrives from cool London to the heat, dust and confusion that is Calcutta. And she has a story to tell. Her husband Arnab Bagchi (Indraneil Sengupta) has gone missing for the past month. Her investigations start from the Kalighat Police station. The name is not lost on the audience. As hints go, this one is a hammer. Kali is the darker more dramatic form of Durga and fittingly, the time is the Autumnal Durga Puja. Durga as we all know destroys evil. So the stage is set for the action to unfold.
Vidya Bagchi struggles against many odds – the complete lack of any proof that her husband exists, the inefficiencies of the guest house named after a famous Da Vinci painting, the Bengali tongue that obliterates any difference between then sound |b| and the sound |v| and, finally, the corrupt intelligence system. And she wins.
Early on in the movie, Vidya (tempting but not succumbing to the alliterative version of the name) finds her Watson in Satyoki/Rana, the young idealistic police officer who goes out of his way to help her. She remarks that Satyoki is Arjuna’s sarathy/ charioteer. Rana even comes as a package with his modern-day chariot, the police jeep. Which begs the question – who is Arjun? Obviously Vidya. Arjun, who hesitated before the Great War. So, did this hesitation on Vidya’s part fill up the gap of two years between the first referred incident of the Metro gas attack and Vidya’s appearance in Calcutta? We are left to draw our own conclusion.
Director Sujoy Ghosh has played with some tropes through the film subverting them beautifully. In no particular order, here they are.
Hindi film trope: The intentions of the mother are always pure.
Kahaani comment: Mothers and would-be mothers are human beings with selfish intentions that may be self serving more than serving others.
Hindi film trope: Hired assassins are gym-trained bulky muscular men oozing virility and charm, if not both.
Kahaani comment: The subversion of this trope is a particular favourite of mine. When you see a home-grown hired assassin who travels by hand-drawn rickshaws, probably a first in modern Hindi cinema, you are partly appalled, partly fascinated. Bob Biswas (Shaswatha Chatterjee) makes you believe that he is a harmless man while he shoots you with impunity. Biswas is stunning as a bumbling unsuccessful middle-class insurance agent who moonlights as a hired killer. As alternative careers go, this one is pretty radical.
Hindi film trope: The guardian guards the hero.
Kahaani comment: The guardian guards the cause, not the hero. Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee) is the guardian and aforementioned charioteer who takes the hero wherever she wants to go. Sometimes even when it causes a moral conflict with himself. However, in the interest of the cause that the hero also services, the guardian may step back from overtly helping the hero.
Hindi film trope: One needs to see in order to perceive.
Kahaani comment: One needs to be deceived in order to truly perceive. This pretty much sums up the movie. Almost every significant character engages in some level of deception. The police inspector (Kharaj Mukherjee) who files a missing person’s report and gives Vidya Bagchi hope. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) henchman (the searing Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who doesn’t think much about lives lost en route in his investigation. The retired IB chief (Darshan Jariwala) who wants to help on one condition. The current IB chief (Dhritiman Chaterji) who asks his henchman to ignore the pregnant woman and find the missing rogue agent. The protagonist herself. Even the audience, who will be deceived in order to truly perceive. On this account, the film is very Shakespearean.
Maybe the greatest strength of the film lies in the fact that it does not succumb to sentimentality. There is drama, emotion, some copious tears, a few touching scenes, but no sentimentality. That works very well for me.
I cannot close without commenting on the acting. Balan brings so much natural flair to her role. She is strong, vulnerable, innocent and exhibits a drive that is very modern. Indraneil Sengupta does not make any impact. Abir Chatterjee has a comparatively smaller role and makes a stronger impact. Almost the entire cast of Bangla television has been co-opted for several minor roles. So I played actor spotting in almost every scene. The two child artists are to watch out for: Ridhi Sen as Poltu and Ritabrata Mukherjee as Bishnu. Ritabrata reminded me of a very young Kunal Khemu; the same mischievous eyes and smile. Parambrata stole a few scenes from Balan herself; no mean feat this. In one scene, Rana’s attraction to Vidya Bagchi is so palpable that all eyes were on him even though Balan was given more screen space and was better lit. Dhritiman Chaterji did not have as nuanced a role as he is capable of. But since he is such a delight to watch, all was forgiven. Agnes D’Mello portrayed by Colleen Blanche follows the legacy of Jennifer Kendall in 36, Chowringhee Lane as the aged Anglo Indian woman who is intrinsic to the narrative.
Finally, there are the Calcutta vignettes that capture a city so vibrant, so grimy, so dusty, so unbearably beautiful whether it be the regular landmarks (Victoria Memorial, Howrah Bridge, Kumartuli) or the interior lanes and dilapidated mansions. The film is a visual ode to Calcutta.
I still have some questions regarding some plot twists. However, that is on hindsight. The dialogues were peppered appropriately with Bengali and Tamil appeared as one cameo sentence. The Bengali sensibility permeated the film but the pace was pure Bombay.
Some ideas were a bit off key. For instance, Vidya Bagchi claimed to not know about the two names that Bengalis have. It’s surprising considering that she claims to be married to a Bengali man. Rana having to explain this trivia which even those who have had peripheral contact with the Bengali world would know sounds a bit odd. Was this discussion for the benefit of the audience? If so, then it would have strengthened her character if these very lines were to come from her not Rana.
Another idea that was not paid enough attention was Mrs. Bagchi’s marriage markers. Even those married and settled in London sport at least one of the many markers of a cross-cultural marriage either from the Tamil side or the Bengali side. Vidya had none. I did not see her wearing shanka-pola (red and white bangales), or noa (iron bangle), or sindur (vermillion) on her forehead, or metti (toe ring), or thaali (sacred chain). Agreed, we know later why she doesn’t wear them. But within the probablilities of the plot it could have been explained. Moreover, how is it that in an inquisitive society like ours this goes unnoticed and uncommented? For the sake of authenticity of her character, she should either have sported one of these markers or an explanation given as to why she has opted out of them.
I have to add that Amitabh Bachchan’s take on the popular Rabindrasangeet song Ekla Cholo Re that ran along with the rolling credits was a huge disappointment. The stilted accent at certain points made me cringe and I am not a purist. It was a relief when the song slipped into Hindi.
To wrap up, yes Kahaani is a rather flawed film but it makes up for that by being original and fast paced.