Some thirty minutes into Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshi!, based on the character created by Saradindu Bandopadhyay, I realised I still hadn’t gotten a lock on whatever was going on, and my mind began to drift to Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhokha. In that film, he made us believe we were watching a re-enactment of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. He even named the lovers Rahul and Shruti, so their initials would match those of Raj and Simran. And then he threw an axe-wielding (okay, hockey stick-wielding) psychopath into the mix. Forget happily ever after – they ended up in the hereafter. It was like biting into a bar of chocolate and discovering dead lizard. I wondered if Detective Byomkesh Bakshi! began as a similar act of subversion, if Banerjee made his backers (Yash Raj Studios) believe they were in for a re-enactment of, say, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. But? Another bar of chocolate. Another dead lizard.
Not since Sanjay Leela Bhansali made Saawariya, the film that was supposed to justify Sony Pictures’ investment in the Indian market, has a major filmmaker made something so… idiosyncratic for a major studio. Bhansali teased us with the prospect of a love story with star kids – we expected a heart-warming romance and got something with the temperature of Pluto. Banerjee, similarly, teases us with pulpy highlights. 500 kilos of opium. A book with porny illustrations. Gruesome murders. Strychnine poisoning. A corpse swarming with ants. Chinese gangsters. Sedition. Blackmail. We expect a thriller – a noir thriller, given the early sight of a looming Expressionistic shadow. What we get, instead, is… well, it’s hard to say what it is. Probably the only thing we can say for sure is that it is an origins story.
It’s easy to see why, the matching initials apart, Dibakar Banerjee was drawn to Detective Bakshy (played by Sushant Singh Rajput). This director has always been sympathetic towards the upwardly mobile, the underdog – and that’s what Byomkesh is. For a while, he’s hopelessly out of his depth, but he soldiers on and gets where he wants to be, and like the classic Banerjee protagonist, he will achieve his aims through equal parts playacting and hoodwinking. In an early scene, he glimpses an actress named Angoori Devi (Swastika Mukherjee) discard her sari and plunge into the water in her swimsuit – he averts his eyes. Angoori Devi tells her assistant, “Dekhne do. Shaayad inhone pehle dekha nahin hai.” (Let him watch. He’s probably not seen anything like this.) She’s right. He’s inexperienced. After the swim, after getting dressed, she embarrasses him further by flashing a leg.
He has no social graces either – in that department too, he’s a virgin. In the scene in which he meets his to-be sidekick (Ajit, played by Anand Tiwari), the latter is worried about his missing father. Byomkesh proposes a few theories in a clinical, multiple-choice format – (D) your father has run away with another woman. Ajit, unsurprisingly, slaps Byomkesh. Rajput, sporting a unibrow, plays Byomkesh like a benign robot that’s learning the ways of humankind. I laughed seeing him on a chair, his spine erect, one leg crossed over the other. I kept waiting to see if he’d slouch. His philosophy is equally rigid: Is duniya mein ‘aise hi’ kuch nahin hota. Everything is logical, everything comes with a reason.
The setting is Calcutta, caught between the British on one side, the Japanese on the other. It’s 1943. This gives Banerjee and his team to indulge in some characteristically brilliant detailing – even if everything is reminiscent of Hollywood. Angoori Devi is styled like a Clara Bow type. The posters on the streets scream out Shadow of a Doubt and The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943 releases both. But the biggest blockbuster in India at the time was Ashok Kumar’s Kismat, our first one-crore grosser. That doesn’t seem to be playing anywhere. Or maybe that’s not cool enough to be part of the immaculate production design. After all, Banerjee does take a lot of his cues from Hollywood and other foreign cinema.
On a moment-by-moment basis, Banerjee’s cinema is sensual, fulfilling and, more than anything else, precise. He’s Indian cinema’s answer to a Swiss watchmaker – everything’s just so. And in wanting everything to be just so, he sometimes drains all the juice from his material. The anachronistic score (Sneha Khanwalkar and others) is a relief, because it shakes things up. Suddenly, there’s life. And then the score dies down. We’re back to long stretches of silence – it begins to feel like an eternity inside the theatre. There’s no doubt about Banerjee’s talent. If you’re the kind, you could dine on the images alone. Byomkesh sitting opposite Dr. Guha (Neeraj Kabi), a lantern between them casting the most gorgeous shadows. Angoori Devi marinating in a bathtub and the upside-down heart of her face as she leans back and Byomkesh places a cigarette between her heavily lipsticked lips. The extraordinary wide shot as Byomkesh and Angoori Devi enter a dining hall, where a man at the head of the table is having some soup. The shot takes in so much, it conjures up, in an instant, an entire way of life.
But shots alone cannot sustain a movie. There needs to be some energy as well. After the tenth or so deliberately composed image – you can practically hear Banerjee behind the scenes, scratching his chin thoughtfully – I began to wish the camera would sneak into one of those cinema halls screening Shadow of a Doubt instead. At least Hitchcock did not think he was above mere “entertainment.” Detective Byomkesh Bakshi! suffers from the high-mindedness that suffocated Shanghai as well. We aren’t just making a movie. We’re sculpting a masterpiece. The result? A sluggish pace. This wouldn’t be a problem if the characters were well-drawn, interesting, or if the plot was gripping. But no and no. And in the midst of all this supreme good taste, the pulpy elements (“villain laughs maniacally;” “femme fatale stares seductively”) come off looking ridiculous. Towards the end, we get, out of nowhere, a Tarantinoesque bloodbath that looks like something the studio ordered after seeing the rushes and panicking. You can hear Aditya Chopra screaming: Enough with the lizards already. Gimme some fucking chocolate.
- Is duniya mein ‘aise hi’ kuch nahin hota. = Nothing happens ‘just like that’.
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.