Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!
Excellent, but not everyone’s plate of alu bhaja!
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Sushant Singh Rajput
What to Expect
“I think the problem with the major audience watching this film is that they’ve formed a certain fixed bracket of expectations from the director and the film.”, a close friend stated as we walked out of the cinemas post movie.
Speaking in support of Dibakar Banerjee’s (Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye!) latest rendezvous with filmmaking in his reinterpretation of Sharandindu Bandyopadhyay’s crime fiction series through what’s now been titled Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, I couldn’t have found more in the right through her statement than I eventually did.
But that’s always been the very uncanny quality of Banerjee. Absorbing in every genre he’s been a part of, he makes his own rules, whilst also cleverly having given a shoutout to the films he’s loved. Right from his comedies that made sure his voice ruled to his brush with the found-footage filmmaking technique and his evocative quietness within his handling of – well – not your usual political drama thriller in the Indian Hindi film scenario.
Which obviously makes him both the most perfect and the most unlikely choice for Byomkesh Bakshy, primarily as a source than anything else. And having already been popularized on screen by such powerhouse performers as Uttam Kumar (Satyajit Ray’s Nayak; lit.: Hero) in Ray’s own – rather weak (let’s put aside the National Awards cards, shall we?) – Chiriyakhana (lit.: The Zoo) to Rajit Kapur in the legendary 1993 Hindi language television series that ruled the small screens during its enduring existence, one can’t be blamed for the increasing amount of expectations on this one.
Not entirely, of course; for there are, then, other reasons, which I’ll cover in just a bit.
Marketed to look heavily like a spy thriller film with action, seduction and all that razzmatazz, India’s fully self-sufficient studio Yash Raj Films – I feel – has probably taken a rather dangerous route of calling the audience in. And with fiction purists up in arms on how the movie looks and feels already, there was always going to be a high chance this was going to be a misunderstood film on release, with reactions polarizing enough to divide audiences in a debate.
And I, for one, sat; perusing through the overwhelmed, impressed, and ultimately underwhelmed reactions, almost eternally having a good feeling about this.
But hey, my reactions to movies haven’t always been universally acceptable reactions.
What’s it About?
It’s 1942 in British-ruled Calcutta. A certain Bhuvan Banerjee has seemingly vanished off the face of this Earth, and his estranged son (Anand Tiwari; Go Goa Gone) rushes to the one person who can help – an extremely brash student, sans much in terms of ambition. Going by the name of Byomkesh Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput; Shuddh Desi Romance; lit.: True Romance from the Indian Subcontinent), the initial idea of taking the case up is a petty vested interest. What Bakshy doesn’t take into account is the sudden vortex of conspiracies, shady under-deals and murders he’ll be sucked into.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Now, prior to a headlong insight into the film, let’s have some points cleared out straight off. Should you be a purist and have stuck to Bandyopadhyay’s work over the past years of your life, you may definitely find a ton of clashes between your interpretation of the characters in the fiction source, and the interpretation the makers were heading for. Of course, leaving the purism angle aside, if you’ve been doubly excited by the grunge-filled trailers, expecting a pinch of Guy Ritchie’s remix of Sherlock Holmes, you’ll be extremely disappointed, and will have come out bored.
Now while the movie isn’t for purists, there’s one thing I’m extremely happy about: the makers didn’t fall for the hyperkinetic revamping of its source to “fit in with the modern audience” – a la Downey Jr. playing Holmes in Ritchie’s rework. The film plays its cards on its own rather unhurried pace, which should work well for the viewers who’ve gone in with balanced expectations of the film. Keeping that in context, the movie is as much a Dibakar Banerjee product as it is a Yash Raj Film. While the splendid art direction, being fabulously in sync with the production design of the film, is excellently raw (hello there, Banerjee!), there’s a certain evident slickness to it (hello, Yash Raj Films). The merging of the commercial and the non-mainstream create a fluid parallel with this film, thus making this the second of Yash Raj’s confident foray into hitherto unseen collaborations this year (the first being Dum Laga Ke Haisha) post what could probably have been Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year in late ’09.
Maintaining a certain astuteness in geographical and historical detail, the rather delicious photography by Nikos Andritsakis (Ugly) – in collaboration with Banerjee – allows the viewer to take in some rather deliciously dynamic frames. There’s a winning set of extremely long takes; a prime exemplification being on of Singh’s Bakshy sitting with a callousness that cannot be betrayed. But behind him, the moving tram pulls the viewer into an indescribable sense of being right where he is. Also, watch out for the dramatic use of lighting in frames, giving the movie a rather insanely addictive noir layer.
But the real champion here is Dibakar Banerjee. Joining forces once again with longtime collaborator Urmi Juvekar post Shanghai, Banerjee focusses more on what the audience sees than on showing off how clever he is. Taking a backseat from the twists-at-every-turn-trope, what he instead does is create a deliciously old school mystery drama with progressive clues along the way that intersect a whole lot of dots together without convoluting the plot. Wrapping you up in the atmosphere like no other, the makers are successfully able to do right by the characters they’ve resurrected on screen. Attention to detail has been paid, not just to the characters’ surroundings, but to the characters themselves. Singh’s Bakshy is a brash human being – a person who talks what he feels should be talked about, without the need to sympathize or empathize. There’s a scene early on which marks why he decides to take on finding Ajit Banerjee’s father. As the case turns progressively darker, however, we see Bakshy’s gradual transformation into this person who just wants closure from the mystery he took on to solving. And when I use the word “gradual”, I mean it, because it’s never about revenge, or getting back at the antagonist. He’s broken on realization of his failure to bring justice alright, but he steps back only once he’s done with – and can come out of – his rather dark lull of having lost out to a rather cunning game played on him.
The costume designing doesn’t go overboard – except for, of course, with Anguri Devi – anywhere. There’s a certain realism in the artifice of how things look on screen. And on the top of it all, the visual effects, be it practical or computer generated, look seamless. Makeup, whether basic or prosthetic, is practically flawless. Viewers apprehensive about Rajput’s unibrow can rest assured not be worried. You’ll practically forget its existence once you’re sucked into Bakshy’s character dynamics and his callous way of treating everything – including, but not limited to, what he wears.
Mostly. Unless he wants to impress the select people he desperately needs some information out of.
Also, how can we forget the eclectic score by Sneha Khanwallkar (Gangs of Wasseypur) and some rather impressive electronic and alternative acts? Mixing the electronic with the retro, original songs like Calcutta Kiss take the cake in appearing in some rather unexpected moments – and working like a boss – in most of them. The famous-from-the-trailer Imagine-Dragons-esque Chase in Chinatown has an extremely strong bassline that rocks its presence in the film. The most chuckle-worthy inclusion would probably be Byomkesh in Love, interspersed rather beautifully with the shot-in-high-framerate action set-piece (playing out in slow motion) toward the climax, ending in a dramatic fall that just perfectly gels with the emotional feel of the song.
Now one would wonder: with so many things going right for the movie, are there but any wrongs? Unfortunately, there are a few hitches. For the section of the audience that’s well aware of character motives in the source, threads of predictability will start to get progressively clearer. There are some dialogues that are slightly expository in nature (the color-of-truth claim being an example). Furthermore, the closer of the film, in a surprising contrast to the tonality of the rest of the film, turns to dramatization. The very interesting problem with the movie then toward the audience that’s been slightly more well-read on detective fiction will find a lot of parallels with Conan Doyle’s characters in Holmes, Watson and Moriarty. But that’s not exactly an issue per se. Detective fiction always has the sleuth, the sidekick and the sinister antagonist then, doesn’t it? Veronica Mars pulled it off for three years and a film, tropes and all, and the makers have racked up a rather strong fan-base, and some more.
But then there are so many things that are extremely well-done – including the rather interesting historical and geographical connections to the time period the film is set in – that should I state them, it will be an extremely long article that I might have a problem with myself.
Nah, I kid. This is my desperate need to control my word count. ’S all.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Sushant Singh Rajput is the star of the show. He steals each and every frame of the film, and some more. Playing out the character like he is one, Rajput’s collaborative interpretation of Bakshy takes the cake, making it an extremely enjoyable watch. Right from his passive aggressive humor to his nervousness in interaction, you find this rather humane side of his a rather refreshing reinterpretation. Anand Tiwari gives Ajit a lot of heart, with some rather quiet humor hanging around the edges. Swastika Mukherjee pulls off seductive commendably. Her performance will induce polarized reactions, and it’s quite apparent Banerjee wanted Rani Mukerji to do the role, because there are nuances you’d only get if you knew the backstory to what the writers had in mind when they were going about the screenplay. Nearer Kabi puts for an extremely powerhouse performance as Dr. Anukul Guha, one of the many extreme high-points of the film. Diva Menon pulls off a rather impressively underplayed Satyawati. She doesn’t however, get much scope, for the film has – and for good reason – focussed itself on Bakshy, Ajit and Guha. Meiyang Chang does smooth well. Takanori Kikuchi feels a bit stereotyped – a tad bit – and yet he still pulls the role off with dignity. Mark Bennington is mostly pleasant, but he does look like he feels a bit discomforted in a few places. Others are good.
“I want them to make another one.”, the friend I had gone with stated on our way out. I agreed, adding, “I want them to make money so that they make another one.”
Looking at the mixed critical and audience response, however, my apprehensions on the box office prospects can only be understandable, can’t it?
But let’s get back to the more important bits before I digress.
The first time I watched the film’s trailer, I was rather impressed with the stylish packaging, the rhythm and the edit decisions made on the production of the cinematic promo – a set of things not a lot of makers pay attention to in the Indian Hindi film industry. And yet, the second half of the promo ramps up on the pace, making a misleading commentary on what one should expect of the film: a thriller.
The film, however, is quite the opposite of a thriller. Playing its cards with delicious deliberation, the film takes you on a journey of origins; of betrayal, of lessons learnt and of characters coming out of their shell. Banerjee creates an eclectic world, fills it with tantalizing flavor and glazes it with an extremely attractive outer shell. Some tiny tonal flaws and expository issues aside, this is an excellently written, filmed and directed film that’s (and here’s desperately hoping) probably the start of a franchise that Yash Raj Films should most definitely be proud of.
In conclusion, I will not be recommending this film to anyone. Because this film isn’t everyone’s cuppa. What I will do instead is to implore you to go and try the film sans any influence.
Who knows, you will also turn out not to be “everyone”. For movies like these always allow me to stumble upon the rediscovery of that very fact, every single time.
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