Into what genre, if any, do we slot Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani? The completely unexpected beginning appears to hail from a spotless sci-fi universe. The end, on the other hand, yanks the story back to our world, to our country, for a rousing stretch of mytho-classical drama where Woman transforms into Shakti, the vanquisher of demons. Sandwiched between is a police procedural – at least on the surface. A heavily pregnant Vidya (Vidya Balan) comes to Kolkata from London seeking her missing husband Arnab (Indraneil Sengupta). She heads straight, from the airport, to the police station to file a missing person’s report, and finds the cops struggling with a computer that constantly displays a System Error message. This is no accident, we discover, when someone declares, later on, “System mein zarooor koi mistake hai.” Thus we land on a paranoia thriller, filled with cover-ups by a ruthless Establishment. The System, in other words, is truly in error.
Ghosh’s gamesmanship isn’t restricted to the type of film he makes us guess he’s making. He saves his biggest rug-pulling feat for the end, which makes us see everything that happened earlier in an astonished light. This, to me, was the weakest part of the film. I enjoyed it as it unfolded, but the more I thought about it, later, the more cheated I felt by a character whose tranquil past doesn’t hint at this transformation in the present. But that’s a nit, really, considering how expertly the director toys with us (or cheats us, depending on how you see this sort of thing), and how exquisitely everything adds up – the resolve, for instance, in Vidya when she admits, about finding her husband, “Itni aasani se nahi. Mujhe dhoondhna padega.” Or the real reason she turns away, with tear-flecked eyes, from her compatriot, the kindly police officer Rana (an excellent Parambrata Chatterjee, who has a heart-rending moment, towards the end, involving a receipt for a sari), when he says that she will make a wonderful mother.
Part of the paranoia, on our part, also arises from Ghosh’s cool thwarting of the expected. Why, we wonder, is Vidya so matter-of-fact, with little of the edginess that might accompany a third trimester in a hostile country, whose figures of authority blow smoke into her face unmindful of her condition? Why does she laugh so much, treating the quest for her husband like an adventure, erupting with glee when another clue is unearthed? Why doesn’t she share her anguish – and surely there is some anguish – with a mother or a friend? Why doesn’t she ever enter a hospital for a check-up? And then, we discover why. Kahaani isn’t what you’d call a major movie – it’s more a taut little genre exercise – but the highest compliment we can give Ghosh is that he takes a host of clichés (the eccentric assassin, the mole in the higher-ups of the System, the rookie cop learning the ropes, the premise of Frantic or the latter half of Roja; there’s even a scene where Vidya, like Roja, has to identify a corpse at the morgue) and makes a film that looks compellingly one-of-a-kind, at least in an Indian context.
Kahaani is beautifully shot and put together, and its deeply atmospheric scenes are driven by a superb score that employs compositions – Tere bina jiya jaaye na; the Bengali version of Jeevan ke har mod pe – of that most beloved of Kolkata’s composers (and equally adored by the director of Jhankaar Beats). Except for a couple of heavy-handed moments – like the one where Vidya voices, for our benefit, the reality that everyone in Kolkata has two names (“ek hi insaan ke do-do naam, alag-alag pehchaan”), or when a man who admonishes another to get a mobile phone is cast into trouble through his own mobile phone – and perhaps the Big Reveal at the end (which still works while watching the film), Ghosh does almost nothing wrong. (The time may be right to revisit Home Delivery, which was largely dismissed as a disappointing follow-up to the delightful Jhankaar Beats, but whose self-indulgence may have been tempered by time.)
Ghosh is helped by a uniformly wonderful cast, right down to the manager of the ratty hotel who, upon learning that Vidya is from London, addresses her as “Your Majesty,” and the brusque officer Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who learns not to smoke in front of this pregnant woman. The film, of course, belongs to Vidya Balan, who plays Vidya as the most normal of people, swallowing her anger and impatience because she knows there’s a job to be done, smiling at the innocent pleasures provided by interactions with children, fleeing in blind panic when her life is threatened, wondering if she should have worn a sari to meet her husband’s relatives. When the police ask her how tall her husband is, she raises a hand in the air to submit an approximation. At least at that moment, we see not an actress playing a part but a wife who recalls her husband not in terms of cold statistics but as someone who, till now, was always by her side. Vidya Balan received the National Award a few days ago. Now, finally, she comes up with the performance that deserved it.
Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.