“Kahaani 2.”… Despite a few slips, a first-rate piece of genre cinema

Posted on December 4, 2016

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Spoilers ahead…

Who is Durga Rani Singh? The name forms the subtitle of Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2, and it belongs to the character played by Vidya Balan – but who is she? Is she a construct from the last scenes of the earlier film, where the Balan character literally turned into an avenging Durga? Is she the same character? After all, that film was a web of lies, and we were no closer to knowing its heroine at the end than we were at the beginning.

Or are we seeing shades of that character we couldn’t see in that film? Like the fact that she may have been abused as a child. Like the fact that she is so jittery, everything makes her jump. (Kahaani 2 is filled with disorienting close-ups. The camera is itself jittery.) Like the fact that she seems to hate men (and seems to think that at least one man, named Inder, hated her.) Like the fact that she’s so withdrawn, so scared of relationships, of letting someone into her life. Or is all this an act too, a web of lies that this film is spinning? Early on, the Balan character writes in her diary that it’s been eight years and dheere dheere sab theek ho raha hai? Eight years since… the events depicted later in this film, as a flashback, or the events of the earlier film? Just how reliable is this narrator?

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In other words, Kahaani 2 is very much a successor to the earlier film. This one, too, is about (a) a character named Vidya but called Bidya by the Bengalis around her, and (b) a mother (though not in the biological definition of having carried a child), and (c) there is a sympathetic cop (Arjun Rampal, who’s surprisingly good) in the picture, one who may be soft on her, and (d) we have a Bob Biswas-like assassin, one whose day job is at odds with this “hobby” (this time, it’s a deliciously evil female cop), and (e) the detective story makes way for a larger “social” narrative (terrorism in the earlier film, child sexual abuse here), and (f) there are two parallel instances of sleuthing, one by the Balan character and one by the police, and (g) things don’t exactly stand up if you think about them too much. Towards the end, we get a scene that is such flagrant misdirection – someone pretending to have lost it and “acting” so that we’d be misled – that I didn’t know whether to chuckle at Ghosh’s shamelessness or fling a shoe at the screen.

But I like this series, and I hope there are many more episodes from the life of Vidya/Bidya, even if they are little more than permutations and combinations of a set of building blocks. Like the ones listed above. Like the shock twist involving the Balan character. In the earlier film, it came at the end. Here, it comes at the beginning. Her daughter goes missing and she’s in a panic and she runs out of her home and you think she’s following an instinct or maybe a lead and… BAM! She gets hit by a car and spends the first half of the film in a coma. (It’s not a spoiler. It’s in the trailer.) Few films work so hard to keep rewarding us in return for our (admittedly huge) suspension of disbelief. There’s a lot of sly humour. Like this line by the Arjun Rampal character’s wife (Rashmi, played by Manini Chadha), when he shows no signs of returning home: “Koi doosri biwi mil gayi hai kya?” The way this line turns true made me laugh out loud, as did the portions about the police coming closer to nabbing Durga’s husband. Kaahani 2, like its predecessor, is more than just a thriller. It’s a drama. It’s a game with the audience.

For instance. Are the older film songs just random selections, just something blaring out of radios? Or are they allusive? Is Aaya sanam aaya deewana tera, from Bade Dilwala, just one of Ghosh’s favourite songs of the RD Burman-Kishore Kumar combo, one son of Kolkata hat-tipping a couple of others? Or a nod to that film’s storyline about assuming another identity? What about Yeh raatein nayi puraani, from Julie? Because it’s from a film about an unmarried woman who contemplates motherhood? Or because the next line contains this film’s title? “Aate… aate jaate… kehti hain… koi kahaani…”? Is that why we later hear the Ijaazat number Chhoti si kahaani se? Or does that come in because that film, too, deals with a man torn between his wife and a woman of mystery? At least the homage to Rajnigandha is no mystery. Its heroine is Vidya Sinha (one of the Balan character’s names here), and like her, this film’s heroine has a man in her past, a man in her present.

But Ghosh isn’t just a postmodern prankster, toying with shlock-pulp devices like the all-revealing diary. He’s a damn fine filmmaker. He immerses you in an extraordinarily textured world, the sleepy town of Chandannagar whose police station, so far, has not found the need for a register to record evidence because nothing ever happens. With the exception of the character played by Jugal Hansraj – though even he gets a thing; he’s into origami, folding paper into itself the way this narrative folds in on itself – everyone’s so vivid that they need just a scene or two to make an impression. The elderly neighbour who dozes off while helping a cop. The cop whose gut instincts don’t always pan out and who wants a promotion. The senior cop (the delightful Kharaj Mukherjee) who pockets that promotion. The female patient in a hospital bed, the one with the vacant stare. The doctor worried about mounting medical bills. The imperious grandmother who lives in a terrifying ivory tower. The passport forger who also makes copies of the Mona Lisa. Pick any character and you could slip into a parallel world, a parallel story. You may not buy a minute of Kahaani 2, but you cannot escape living in it – this is first-rate cinema.

And Balan, after a long time, finds her groove again. It’s probably the part. Compare her with Aishwarya Rai in Jazbaa – another film with a mother out to track down her kidnapped daughter – and you see the difference between Miss India and Mother India. Kahaani 2 opens with Vidya/Bidya/Durga/Whoever doing chores. She dusts. She hangs clothes on a line. She comforts her daughter after a nightmare and oversleeps and rushes to work in a cotton sari she hasn’t found the time to iron or starch. And at work, she’s thinking of home. At times, the thriller she gets embroiled in seems almost beside the point. I don’t think I’ve seen another genre film that revels so in its heroine’s ordinariness – except, of course, when she’s being extraordinary.

KEY:

  • kahaani = story
  • dheere dheere sab theek ho raha hai = slowly it’s becoming okay
  • Kahaani = see here
  • Koi doosri biwi mil gayi hai kya?” = Have you found another wife?
  • Jazbaa = see here

Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi