Observing the Movies: Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

I consider myself a person with some ability to think. As is natural, this ability finds itself applied to all things that have for me even the remotest fascination. Movies do, which is why I have thought about them, discussed (and dissected) about them, and occasionally written about them hither and thither. I’ve wanted to do so in some long form for the longest time, and am finally doing so.

‘Gravity’ was probably the first movie that I realised I couldn’t write sufficiently about in just a Facebook post. But writing about the movie seemed tougher the longer time I spent on it, especially since the writing kept getting pushed. Ultimately, it was after watching Dibakar Bannerjee’s ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ that I realised that this was it, I had to get started.

The piece is fragmented into sections – as best as native WordPress and my limited knowledge of it allows me – so feel free to skip to the headings that seem interesting. I’ve tried to ensure you won’t miss much if you do.

 

Why I Write About Movies

For as long as I can remember, I have loved watching movies. Somewhere along the ride, I began to try to understand them, and then break them down. Most I liked I liked because of their story; a few because they were just entertaining, even if they were telling the same story as I had been told a hundred times; and the rarest were those whose appreciation hinged entirely upon a specific aspect of the film: visuals, mostly, but occasionally the performances of a couple of actors.

Gradually, I moved to sharing these thoughts with those around: friends in person, friends on Facebook, and a selection of enthusiasts I was lucky enough to encounter. At about the same time, I started reading about cinema. However, I more often than not found that just about everyone was too knowledgeable and wordy for me, whether a critic, a scholar, or just another enthusiast.

The favourite “cinema” – for they never used the words “movies” or “films” – of these people was almost always foreign to their country and almost always made of high-brow drama. Comedies, especially slapstick, were to be squarely mocked. Romantic comedies weren’t even worthy of a mention. They could name a score of directors you’d never heard of with their best films in under a minute. Before you could finish saying Manmohan Desai, they’d start at Michelangelo Antonioni and end at Wim Wenders.

To me, this gave what was akin to a very severe kind of inferiority complex. I am not criticising this behaviour because one of the attributes of knowledge, when the fickle acquire it, is that it leads to boasting. Perhaps even I’m guilty of it, I don’t know. Anyway, such learned conversations on film led me to think that I did not know sufficiently well how to analyse and understand them. Consequently, in a half defense mechanism and half compulsiveness to use my brain, I started looking at movies my way.

This series is just that. What earlier used to be conversations, are now blogs. Do note that these aren’t reviews. I quite hate that term, and the whole exercise in general, because on what basis do we accept a generic, overarching opinion of a work of (what’s supposed to be) art? Every reading is subjective, what’s visible to me will be obscure to another and vice versa. And that’s the whole beauty of it. Art isn’t the alphabet that everyone accepts it equally, it is meant to be personal. What I see, understand, and make of it is something that only I will. We take away the ability to do our thinking when we accept the opinion of others – sadly, this is something applicable as much to movie reviews as to most other things in life.

With that, I present to you are merely my observations on Dibakar Bannerjee’s ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’…

 

Earliest Impressions

When I saw the teaser for , this was what I posted on Facebook:

My Post

Dibakar Bannerjee is one of my favourite contemporary directors of Hindi cinema. Unlike other heralded auteurs, I’ve not heard him claim his greatness, his “art”, or any other such. He goes about making bloody brilliant films, across a wide, wide variety of genres, and does so without the least bit of hue and cry. He hasn’t, other than perhaps with ‘Love, Sex, aur Dhoka’ given priority to anything other than the story he’s telling.

However, though he has dabbled in dealing with crime, a detective caper was relatively new territory. And that too with an iconic character. This was going to be fun.

Speaking of the iconic character, I felt this was a better selection than we’ve seen recently in India. It is the common refrain that our movies are running out of creativity, and I somewhat agree with it. We’re remaking movies from the ’70s and the ’80s, from other Indian languages, and from all possible foreign ones. Or, much, much worse, making half-baked biographies of people who’re still alive.

In such a landscape, trust a thinking man like Dibakar Bannerjee to pick a character who was written two centuries ago, made into a TV series around two decades ago, and who most young people have not known because said series was broadcast on Doordarshan. And practically no one looks at Doordarshan’s excellent archives.

And the casting made great sense to me, partly because I’ve been a fan of Sushant Singh Rajput’s understated yet immersive acting since his ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’. With the right head guiding him – and Dibakar’s portfolio shows him to be one – I was certain that he would do well.

My only scepticism, and which remained till I actually saw the film, was that this was a Yash Raj production. The trailer looked too slick, too fancy, and too on the lines of Hollywood-like internationalism that seems to be all the rage these days. YRF and Dibakar Bannerjee are as alike as chalk and cheese, so would the studio heavy-hand its director and lead the movie from something grim like ‘Shanghai’ to more gloss?

 

The Plot

I wouldn’t reveal much here, because as I said earlier, you need to experience the story in totality and in the first person to grab it entirely. There will be things that I’ve completely glossed over that you’ll pick up with dexterity.

I’ll state just the bits that given an overarching theme: it is pre-independence India, Calcutta, to be more specific, and a young amateur detective called Byomkesh Bakshy is investigating the disappearance of a young man’s father. Of course, this is the one loose end. The other is tied in severe knots, and it is up to our hero to unravel them and save the day. And, ultimately, (SPOILER ALERT!!!) the city itself.

Needless to say there are many faces, motives, twists, and turns – and the above is a gross oversimplification. Watch the damn movie for yourself!

 

Points of Interest

I was going to call this section “Performances”, but this seems more apt because this film is excellent on many, many levels. I think I’ll begin with the thing many get right: acting.

 

Acting

The film has a significant palate of characters. It is impressive how Dibakar Bannerjee has managed to keep so many characters in one script, keep them all relevant, and keep them fresh for the viewer throughout what seems to be a long movie. As such, you couldn’t really be okay with even a few actors just passing by and leaving the film on the shoulders of the main cast. Thankfully, nothing of the sort happens.

Regardless of screen time, every actor does justice to their parts. The main cast – and it is a loose term here – is earnest, and actually look like the people whose stories they are telling us. I could single them for praise but the truth is that all of them have done a brilliant job. Sushan Singh Rajput, who I have admired from his debut in ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’, is excellent here. Anand Tiwari, who you’ll recognise from any ad of this decade, is competent as the client turned sidekick. Swastika Mukherjee, a Bangla actress of some controversy and moderate success, is a femme fatale. Model Divya Menon is precisely who you guess she is going to turn out to be after you see her first appearance.

Neeraj Kabi as the antagonist is perhaps the pick of the lot, after the brilliantly rooted Rajput. It has become the de facto standard for the villain to be crazy, bordering on the psychopathic, and his turn fits the bill and how. I can say more, but I won’t here.

 

Cinematography

The seen world is as important to me as the written, in a movie. Here too, the film delivers.

The film has two colour palettes that it follows religiously. In one, everything is dark and rustic, and with a heavy contrast almost throughout the movie. There’s a certain hallucinogenic quality to the camera work, especially in one particular sequence, but more often than not, you are shown a Calcutta that you can believe is a city that has some gross evil under way.

The other is the world that Calcutta resides in in the day. In it, things aren’t decaying, but instead reflect the everyday realities of the Second City of the British Raj. One shot in particular, the foundation for the opening credits of the film, is a work of brilliance. It shows our protagonist in a moving tram, camera focused on his face, as the vehicle moves in a horizontal direction perpendicular to the camera. Therefore, the background changes while the foreground remains the same. Simultaneously, plot points are revealed by the newspapers that co-passengers read. It is unlike anything you’ve seen in a Hindi film, and it reminded me of Robert Altman. He would’ve been proud.

Which brings me to art.

 

Art and Others

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this film, in this respect, is the realism with which pre-independence Calcutta is shown. Bannerjee obviously loves the city because he has shot the film in landmarks and avenues that a local would know. From the iconic College Street and Chinatown, to the underbelly of Tangra and what appears to be Diamond Harbour Road: this is the Calcutta that you see when you see beyond Park Street, the Victoria Memorial, or the Howrah Bridge.

The costumes, make-up, and accessories have all benefited from great attention to detail. In particular, I must commend the virtual transformation in appearance that Sushant has undergone for this film: the unibrow, the darkened skin, and the hairdo.

I would’ve added a section separately for music, but this film has it only as a background score. It appears to have been composed entirely by indie artists, and as such, has a freshness, and rawness, that you’d not expect from Bollywood, least of all from Yash Raj Films.

And now, to the last bit…

 

Writing, Editing, and Directing

Whether it is dialogues or the screenplay, Dibakar Bannerjee is in a class of his own among his peers. I doubt there’s another director around today who’s got such a tight grip on urban India – regardless, as it appears, of time – and its stories and lingos.

The dialogue is terse, intelligent, and has just the right amount of antiquity to it. Moreover, characters who don’t have Hindi as their mother tongue in the film speak it with the required discomfort and unease.

The story, and I can’t stress on this enough, is arguably the first proper origin story we’ve seen for what looks like is going to be a franchise. Sorry, ‘Koi Mil Gaya’ doesn’t count because it was written/plagiarised as a standalone movie that was developed as a franchise because it did well. This, on the other hand, is written as an introduction. There will be sequels, and for once I can say that there should be sequels.

I will also say that the story’s format (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!) will be confusing to some. I can understand that the twists and the number of characters on this canvas require you to keep focus – not that there’s another way to watch a film – but that just added to my enjoyment. The manner of bringing a twist, straightening it out, and then doing the whole thing again was also delightful, leading to a humdinger of a whodunit kinda scene at the end. Trust me, the climax is super!

The influence of Sherlock Holmes is clear for all to see. After all, Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay, the 20th century originator of the characters was himself influenced by Conan Doyle and his creation. And the seminal film of our times on crime, ‘The Dark Knight’, has also inspired the makers here, in particular in the climax. It features, like the Batman movie, one of the finest interrogation/game of cat and mouse, seen in their peers. I guess what applies to Holmes in literature applies to Nolan in cinema – they have both touched every writer of their genre since their release. Touches of Vishal Bhardwaj – again, mostly in the climax – are there throughout too.

The vision that Dibakar had has been suitably reflected in the work of the editors. I won’t say much about this as I don’t think I’m sufficiently knowledgeable – or even opinionated – about editing, I’ll only say that a thriller is required to be sharp, and this film is more than adequately so. However, there was one glaring mistake I found – one of only two real disappointments, honestly – in its editing. It was (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!) a flashback of sorts that Byomkesh sees toward the climax, which features a scene with Satyawati that hasn’t actually happened in the movie. Immediately after though, toward the conclusion of the movie, you actually see the moment happen in “real” life. Bad mix of continuity, really.

About the direction, well, I think it ought to be obvious already. I’ve always had a very high opinion of Dibakar Bannerjee, and this movie has only raised it. In the genres that he has touched, he has excelled so much that I think he is without a peer today. When it comes to shaking morals, questionable motives, dubious choices, and general havoc that the world inside wrecks on the world outside, he is the man to go to today. In making serious movies, he is joined in his excellence by only Vishal Bhardwaj, though I think both their works carry a distinct difference in them.

I won’t be writing about that here, but I will note the signature moves of the director that make an appearance here.

 

Director’s Signature

I think every good director leaves his imprints in each of his movies. They are hidden in plain sight, and as a gentleman who took one of the only seminars on film I’ve attended noted then, it enhances the experience of the viewer when he sees them. Dibakar Bannerjee has a few traits, and they’re all on display here.

The first, of course, is the father-son relationship. I think every film of his, from ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’ to ‘Shanghai’, has shown one of the primary characters suffering a breakdown of his/her relationship with their father. Here, it functions as the film’s MacGuffin.

The second is the very thin line that separates his regular characters from a world of crime, and how they’re all always just a little push away from it in Indian urbania. It may have been The Joker who taunts Batman with the iconic “When the chips are down, these…These civilized people…they’ll eat each other.“, but Dibakar Bannerjee’s characters get pushed to doing so in every movie. This movie has everyone doing just so!

Then, it is his love for grey people. There’s no hero in his world, just like there’s no real villain. There are only survivors: people who are given a trauma or a challenge, and they do what must be done, good or bad, regardless of the cost, to be living at the end of it.

Lastly, it is his use of, for lack of a better word, character actors. There’s rarely any star presence in his movies, just look at his protagonists: Pravin Dabas (‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’), Abhay Deol (‘Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye’), Emran Hashmi (‘Shanghai’), and Sushant Singh Rajput here. The rest of the faces too are more those who can act, than those who can sell.

At the risk of repeating myself, Dibakar Bannerjee and his commitment to indie-cred, rooted in reality, original, well-made work is amongst the best things we have going for Hindi cinema right now. The only thing we need is more of it. The man is too slow in releasing films.

 

*Update: This article previously stated that ‘Shuddh Desi Romance’ was Sushant Singh Rajput’s debut film. Thanks to Ankita Mukhopadhyay (@muk_ankita) for spotting the error. The actor had made his debut in ‘Kai Po Che’ which had also released in the same year.

 


 

Liked this? Agreed with anything? Think this is all rubbish? Or have any feedback at all? Is there a movie that you’d like me to write about? Please share it all in the comments below!

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