Starring: Sushant Singh Rajput, Anand Tiwari, Swastika Mukherjee, Neeraj Kabi, Meiyang Chang
Directed by Dibakar Banerjee
In the very beginning are a shadowy antagonist, bloody opium wars, a lost drugs consignment and a 1942 Calcutta caught between Oriental gangsters and the colonial police. In the thick of WWII, the city is also facing the threat of a Japanese invasion. In the midst of it all, Ajit Banerjee (Tiwari) asks his sleuthing collegemate, Byomkesh Bakshy (Rajput), to trace his missing father Bhuvan, a chemist and self-proclaimed ‘freelance genius’.
So we travel with Byomkesh and meet people (read suspects): a shabby boarding house run by Anukul Guha (Kabi). Its quirky lodgers include a licensed opium merchant (Chang) and a pan masala addict, the mysterious star Anguri Devi (Swastika) and her lover Sikdar, who also owns the chemical factory where Bhuvan worked. Blackmailing, death by poison and a rotting corpse follow as a unibrowed, arrogant greenhorn (even in matters of women) slowly begins to turn into an idiosyncratic detective who believes: “Sach ke aas paas wala jhooth pakadna mushkil hota hai”. We, the viewers, couldn’t be complaining. So far the film is good fun.
But progressively, as more characters (a Japanese dentist and his secretary, a pair of nationalist siblings), political and historical particulars and details like the Basant Panchami plan and a Rangoon romance pile on, you begin to wonder like the Dhritarashtra in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: “Ye sab kya ho raha hai”. Confusion turns into the confounding. And utterly boring. As an audience you get so lost joining the historical and political dots that the sheer joy of solving a mystery along with the bloodhound, the thrill of a whodunit, whydunit, howdunit go amiss. Getting to the bottom of the crime then is less like the delight of solving a puzzle, more like taking a maths exam.
Dibakar’s reinvention of the Sharadindu Bandopadhyay detective is a ponderously crafted artifice rather than the handiwork of an off-the-cuff talent. Yes, you can’t not take note of the painstaking production design details. But that is also the millstone around the film’s neck. Those cigarette packs and matchboxes, the cutlery, trams and cars, the advertisements and the magazines, the dhotis and the brooches, all are so worked at that they seem to scream: ‘look at us, we are so 1940s!’. Instead of so melding with the narrative that you stop noticing the ‘authenticity’, they stick out and show themselves off, dwarf the characters and detract from the action.
Dibakar tries to pack in too much even in terms of cinematic references—from classic Hollywood to noir, to Ritchie and Tarantino and Chinese action flicks. The constant shift in tonality jars, especially in the over-the-top melodrama of a climax. Did Dibakar try to complicate the simple through the film and then simplify his own complicated vision towards the end? Either way, the first of Bollywood’s new detective franchisee is high on ambition but unsatisfying. Now for the sequel.