Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Movie Review: Detective Byomkesh Bakshy

I'm not much of a regionalist, but Detective Byomkesh Bakshy depressed the Bengali in me. It reminded me that the best live-action version of the quintessential Bengali detective till date was in Hindi. Rajat Kapoor played the dhuti clad Byomkesh with suavity and charm so many years ago, and he remains THE onscreen Byomkesh for a lot of people even today. I count myself among those people. No, Sushant Singh Rajput has not usurped that position, but after Dibakar Banerjee's Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, it makes me more than a little sad that the TWO best live-action versions of the quintessential Bengali detective has been in Hindi.

Now I will admit, the character is not one I am overly emotional about - not the way I am with the other Bengali sleuth. I have never much cared for the 'sanctity' of Byomkesh, instead demanding filmmakers offer me a well-acted, tightly scripted, engaging story that isn't an insult to my intelligence, or to my senses. I have been disappointed every time. Whether it's the shoddy Anjan Dutta version featuring a Byomkesh who mispronounces his 'ra' every time, or the molasses-slow Rituparno movie, or the current TV show whose only purpose seems to be to make every other version look halfway competent in comparison - Byomkesh in Bengali has fallen flat every time. Satyajit Ray's "Chiriakhana" is probably the best one in this sorry lot, and THAT had Uttam Kumar pretending to be Japanese.


Which brings us back to Detective Byomkesh Bakshy. Post Satyajit Ray, Dibakar Banerjee is probably the most talented director to get his hands on the license, and instead of adapting one of the existing stories, he has crafted his own. It has elements from three Byomkesh stories - Satyanweshi, Pother Kanta and Arthamanartham, but is wholly original in plot, with much higher stakes and intrigue that involves heavy noir elements - including a femme fatale and an unhinged, psychotic villain. Banerjee's Kolkata is straight out of Bengali nostalgia - vibrant, colourful, vivid, but with dark alleyways and looming shadows just around the corner. There's no sign of the famine of 1943, but the time and place are rooted in imagination, more than reality, so unless you are incredibly anal about history, that doesn't intrude.

Byomkesh himself is a little bit like the Kolkata of the time - brash and angry. Playing carrom in college, he tells Ajit, who has come to ask for help in finding his missing father "He's probably run off with a woman". Ajit slaps his lights out and signals that this won't be the Byomkesh - Ajit relationship we are used to. After he recovers, Byomkesh changes his mind and almost thrusts himself into the investigation - one that follows a serpentine path to murder, conspiracy, and war.

Speaking of Ajit, Anand Tiwari is a joy. He has a far more central role to play here than he does in most Byomkesh stories - it's from him that the mystery begins, after all, and he handles Ajit's strength and vulnerability with elan. He is an incredible foil to the more energetic and excitable Byomkesh, and you can believe the friendship that grows between these two men, both directionless, in their own way. If a sequel to this movie gets made, I can't wait to watch the chemistry between the two develop. Which is crucial, because there's so little chemistry between Byomkesh and Satyabati. Rookie Divya Menon plays Satyavati with a quiet confidence and is suitably deglammed, but enough time isn't given to let the relationship between Byomkesh and Satyabati build and the romance feels forced.

As for Byomkesh himself, Sushant Singh Rajput is fine, and a little more than fine in parts. However, whether it's due to his fault or the fault of the script, the Byomkesh character remains a little underwhelming. Vulnerability is all well and good, but Byomkesh is supposed to be smarter than the average bear, so to speak, and shouldn't be missing stuff the audience can see from a mile off. On occasion, he seems to lose the confidence he displays otherwise, making one wonder exactly how smart and in control he really is. But those occasions are few, and can be chalked up to his youth, something the more mature Byomkesh would grow out of.

Truth is, Rajput seems a tad weak only because the film is peppered with such phenomenal performances, and none more than the big bad. While the story goes straight up into Sin City territory in the last 15 minutes or so (and it's not like the noir graphic novel influences aren't obvious - hell, the poster is a comic book panel), what saves it is the brilliance of the actor playing the villain, which I am not spoiling here. Suffice to say what could have been ridiculously over the top is menacing, chilling and scary due to the sheer power of the performance.

So is Byomkesh Bakshy a good time? On a scale of one to ten, I'd give it a "Hell Yeah". If you like your noir gory and over the top, this is a great way to spend a couple of hours. If, however, you are walking in with preconceived notions of a lot of armchair detecting (Which Byomkesh rarely did BTW), and is the kind of person who complains about directors "changing the story" (except when Satyajit Ray does it for Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen), stay far away. If the alt rock soundtrack in the trailer didnt tip you off (yes it's in the movie, and yes, it fits the ambiance to a tee), here's your warning. This isn't the Bakshy you are used to, and that's a great thing. Because THAT Bakshy works best between the covers of a book, and this movie is smart enough not to even try to go up against it.

PS: There's a reason why I didn't mention Swastika Mukherjee, or her character. It's because I have discovered that the secret to a happy healthy existence is a complete lack of Swastika Mukherjee in one's life. I have scrubbed her existence in the movie from my memory, and would advise you to do the same. The film is better for it.


Anonymous said...

Now you are too unkind to Swastika :P

Anirban Banerjee said...

If I wrote about her performance, I would be far more unkind. :)