Print Edition - 2015-04-11  |  On Saturday

Man out of time

  • Dibakar Banerjee’s attempt to usher an iconic fictional detective into a new era proves middling: while more than impressive to look at, the film lacks a necessary force of personality
- Preena Shrestha
Man out of time

Apr 10, 2015-

Having never gotten into Bengali author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi series that came out a good 80 years ago or so, or seen much of the popular TV show it spawned that ran in the 90s—just one of many media iterations of the fictional detective’s adventures over the years—I didn’t really have anything to compare the Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! to. Which turned out to be a good thing too, considering the new film is definitely, as director Dibakar Banerjee himself sought to clarify early on, not one for the purists. Indeed, this ultra-stylish reimagining is a far, far cry from the grainy, understated tone of the Doordarshan series you can find on YouTube, and for the noobs among us, it’s pretty damn impressive to look at, a real showcase of Banerjee’s sensibilities and vision as a filmmaker, especially in being able to resurrect a long-gone era in such believable detail. But while polished mightily for the big screen, the film still lacks a certain something, a necessary centre of gravity; Bakshy! is a visual feast for sure, but it fails to engage on a deeper level.

The story is set in Calcutta in the early 40s, when the city was still under British rule and in a rather turbulent state, having been sucked into the big ongoing global war and under constant threat of attack by the Japanese—loud sirens and blackouts part of the scenery. Among the city’s teeming populace is a young, just-graduated Byomkesh Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput), who is just about to flex his sleuthing muscles, starting with a case offered to him by a college mate, Ajit (Anand Tiwari). You see, it’s been two months since Ajit’s father, Bhuvan Banerjee, has disappeared, and Ajit is naturally beginning to wonder whether the man—a chemist who was always rather enigmatic—was involved in something unsavoury. Looking through Mr Banerjee’s belongings, and checking with some of his acquaintances at the lodging house he lived at—owned by the kindly Dr Guha (Neeraj Kabi)—Byomkesh deduces before long that he has been murdered. The only question is who did it and why, and the search for the answers will lead him into an ever-convoluted and very expansive web of lies involving drug gangs, the military, government officials and many others. To burrow deep into this shadowy world, and to unveil the connections therein, and the motive behind Bannerjee’s death, will then call for a great deal of smarts and some sharp intuition on our hero’s part—not to mention, a good ol’ heaping of luck.

This is the sort of project that would seem right up Dibakar Banerjee’s alley; the director has played with such variety of styles and subjects over the course of his career and to such successful ends—films like Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! or the more recent Bombay Talkies collaboration are cases in point—that there can be little question about his versatility or grasp of the craft at this point. Banerjee possesses a very distinctive, very elegant style, something he’s managed to admirably preserve despite the pressures of being part of mainstream cinema, and which proves well-suited to the noir-inspired, period context that he’s working with in Bakshy!

Bringing it all to glorious life is the cinematography by Nikos Andritsakis and production design by Vandana Kataria, moving hand in hand to build some absolutely stunning frames laden with so much intricate detailing that your eyes will struggle to take it all in. The city they create is a beautiful, complex, unknowable thing, a tapestry of streets bulging with every manner of humanity, plastered to the brim with signboards and posters, old bridges and buildings both graceful and dilapidated, quaint little cafés swimming in the haze of cigarette smoke, and so on—presented in a gorgeous jeweled palette. There’s no question that Calcutta is just as much a character in the film as the rest of them, a point most evidenced in the wonderful opening-credits sequence where our protagonist, blurred, is travelling on a tram as we watch the city, fully in focus, passing by through the window behind him. And while the use of contemporary music can feel a little jarring at first, the soundtrack—featuring a liberal mix of indie artists across various genres—eventually grows on you, offering a slick contrast to the visuals.

It all sounds pretty terrific upto this point, and it is, but there’s also a flip side. The most noticeable of Bakshy!’s issues is pacing; while a degree of cloudiness is typical of noir, the film’s too-measured, slow-burning rhythm can test one’s patience on many counts, especially when subjected to the unfurling of several sub-plots that don’t really amount to much against the bigger picture, and are too neatly snipped off at the end. There is also a great deal of blatant exposition at work; clues and deductions are often described to death, and though some amount of explanation is warranted in such films, it could’ve been more subtly done than it is here.

We also have the more critical problem of characterisation. Though Banerjee and his associates have peopled the movie with a slew of quirky characters, none are actually able to resonate emotionally—each given very little opportunity to develop beyond the basics, including, unfortunately, the lead himself. The Bakshy here has no clear defining traits; he’s a sharp young fellow, that’s for sure, and in possession of the sort of intensity of concentration that allows him to pick up details other people might have missed—but not by much. Of course, you could argue that that’s understandable because this film is basically an origin story, depicting the early years when our hero had yet to hone his skills. And I’m not saying that all fictional detectives need to be cut from the same eccentric, verging-on-OCD cloth that figures like Holmes, Poirot or Monk are either, but a film like this calls for a heavy dose of personality, and the newly unibrowed Rajput—while certainly competent—just doesn’t offer that. As for the rest of the cast, everyone pulls their weight—Tiwari has his moments, as does Kabi—but all pretty much recede from memory the minute credits roll.

Now, it should be clarified that Bakshy! is more superior a film compared to your usual Bollywood product across most indicators. The nitpicking derives largely from Banerjee’s reputation and the expectations it gives rise to—it’s because we know he’s capable of far better storytelling than this. Also, an inherent problem with adapting such a series is the fact that the original material is generally available in installments, making it complicated to take just one of these to expand into an effective feature-length production, something the director appears to struggle with. But there might be a chance for a do-over in the future, if that was indeed a nudge at a potential sequel that we saw in the end. Perhaps results will be more decisive the next time around.

Published: 11-04-2015 08:49

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