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Review: Detective Byomkesh Bakshy needs a clue

April 21, 2015
Dibanker Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! captures a rather clueless P.I. at the start of his career.— Photo courtesy: Hindustan Times
Dibanker Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! captures a rather clueless P.I. at the start of his career.— Photo courtesy: Hindustan Times

1942. A tumultuous year by any definition.

In India, Gandhi-ji would call for a nationwide protest known as the Quit India Movement (Bharat Choro Aandolan) whereas in Europe an even darker phase in human history unfolded in Nazi Germany. Closer to home, Imperial Japan quickly followed the German blitzkrieg and occupied almost all of East and Southeast Asia.

Sitting in the comfort of a cinema one manages to forget how trying and desperate those times were. And if there is one thing Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! gets right it is this unnerving sense of impending doom. Now, granted, it is supposed to be a thriller. In fact, the tagline boldly proclaims: “Expect the Unexpected!”

True to the advertising, there is enough in this film to make it zara hatkay, such as the location, in deepest Calcutta (oh, pardon me, Kolkata now!), its cast of characters, which includes a Burmese seductress no less, and the fact that Bakshy takes on Chinese gangs, Japanese imperialists, and British bureaucrats all in roughly two hours.

Yet, something about Byomkesh in particular, and the film in general, rang a tad bit untrue. Sherlock Holmes this isn’t, neither is it Hercule Poirot, rather Byomkesh is his own swadeshi creation, or as Sharadindu Banerjee would like us to believe, a satyaweshi, a seeker of truth. As for the film, the whodunit factor keeps us engrossed for the most part, an aspect essential to most crime thrillers.

Sushant Singh Rajput as Detective Byomkesh Bakshy—Photo courtesy: dndindia
Sushant Singh Rajput as Detective Byomkesh Bakshy—Photo courtesy: dndindia

Dibanker Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! captures a rather clueless P.I. at the start of his career, and true to the original novels, Byomkesh (Sushant Singh Rajput) is an accidental genius. A role Rajput has pat down to perfection with his distracted glances, dhotis, and that rather retro haircut!

A down on his luck young man, Rajput’s Byomkesh starts with no job, no salary, and lackluster skills in love. This fairly standard trope was utilized in another period epic recently, Hawaizadaa, with disastrous consequences, but here it seems to work. Byomkesh’s lacking social skills and single-minded obsession with the truth coupled with Rajput’s subtle performance make it a somewhat easy watch.

Similarly, Calcutta’s cosmopolitan vibe jumps at you from the first frame.

The trams (streetcars), the Burmese actress-cum-seductress Angoori Devi (Swastika Mukherjee), the cobble stone streets, the Neoclassical architecture, all make for a visually stimulating experience. Although not a historically accurate depiction, the painstaking detail with which art director approaches this film is indeed noteworthy.

Take, for instance, the meeting between Dr. Watanabe (Takanori Kikuchi) and Bakshy in the Japanese garden. With images of pristine gardens, cherry blossoms, and Shinto shrines, Calcutta’s Japanese Temple is exactly that, a Japanese temple in Calcutta. One glance at the whitewashed walls is enough to hit the message home! Hey, who said imperialism was easy, right?!

Swastika Mukherjee in  Detective Byomkesh Bakshy.— Photo courtesy: Ibnlive
Swastika Mukherjee in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy.— Photo courtesy: Ibnlive

If the art direction is on point, the cinematography .is a step ahead.

Rarely does a film, especially in Bollywood (though this is changing), manage to make the cinematography work in tandem with its aesthetic sensibility. Nikos Andritsakis, who recently handled the camerawork for Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly, works with both the plot and the feel of Banerjee’s vintage Calcutta and the characters set within.

To top it all off, there’s hardly a song to take away from the narrative (background music notwithstanding). With nay a song in earshot, this film could be the start of a new plot-focused, acting-based trend.

Alas, even with so much working in its favour somewhere Banerjee, and his co-writer Urmi Juvekar, lose the point.

Sushant Singh Rajput gets in his detective shoes.— Photo courtesy:media.indiatimes
Sushant Singh Rajput gets in his detective shoes.— Photo courtesy:media.indiatimes

In a plot that involves discovering Ajit’s (Anand Tiwari) father, Bhuvan Bandhopadhyay, the story twists and turns to a Chinese gangster, Yang Guang aka Anukul Guha (Neeraj Kabi); an undercover cop, Kanai Dao; a corrupt local politician, Gajanan Sikdar, and finally, at Satyawati (Divya Menon), Byomkesh’s future dharam-patni. All this makes for compelling reading but when translated to screen it needs some form of signposting.

If the whodunit caper is the centerpiece around which the film is structured, then, the suspense the first few minutes of the film evoked was no where to be found later in the film. The attempts at comedy, such as the whole “Japanese Chinese same-same” comment and the dayhati-speaking pehalvans, was trite, and frankly speaking, in bad taste.

If Calcutta’s impending invasion by the Japanese is supposed to come as a surprise, it too falls flat.

Had Yash Raj studios decided to make a stand-alone film with a cliff-hanging climax instead of a multi-million Rupee franchise, as they seem to have approached Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, perhaps, the film would have packed a solid punch to rival Mr. Holmes and Monsieur Poirot. After all, isn’t that the point?

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is much here to like and appreciate, sadly, all it elicits from me is: Meh.

Rating: 2.5/5

Randip Bakshi is a graduate student, avid film buff, and occasional blogger. He can be found musing on popular culture @filmijourneys.