Byomkesh Bakshi — or, if we go with the spelling picked out by director Dibakar Banerjee, Bakshy — never liked to be called a detective. It is the same in this film too, the man abhorring the stigma and sensationalism a label like “gumshoe” (or, in Bangla, “goenda”) comes with, and instead focussing firmly on seeking the truth, on opening his eyes as wide as he can and drinking it all in.
Thanks to Banerjee, there is a lot for his man — and, indeed, for us — to drink in: this sumptuous period adaptation fondly recreates 1940s Calcutta right down to the tram signs and the posters for Jane Russell movies, and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a gorgeous, gorgeous film. Yet for all its stylishness and period grandeur it is not as intelligent a film as it yearns to be, the plot isn’t cunning enough and the conveniently-unravelled puzzle never quite sucks the viewer in.
It is, in short, a mystery movie that doesn’t mystify.
There is nothing at all wrong with a slowly seared whodunnit, one that simmers long and hard before coming to the boil, one that makes you think. Like, for example, the superb 2011 adaptation of John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But the narrative must intrigue and entice and seduce, taking turns obscuring the viewer’s vision and lifting the blindfold while doing the same (in differing degree) to its protagonists. Even laboriously slow mysteries should make us hunger for the next page, the mere promise of the next clue. Byomkesh stumbles considerably because of its simplistic plotting, with an original story which ups the stakes considerably for Saradindu Bandhyopadhyay’s terrific character without giving him enough to deduce. Ambition is both driver and culprit. There is certainly bigger game afoot here than in the classic television show or one of the new Bangla movies, but saving the world pales in comparison to pocketing a statuette when the latter is told intricately enough. All the intricacy in this new film lies in the exquisite art design, the sexy anachronistic soundtrack, and the period detailing; the plot is basic, largely guessable and tragically, never something to marvel at. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Why?
What one can marvel at, quite constantly, is the cinematography by Nikos Andritsakis, Dibakar’s longtime collaborator here armed with a splendid canvas and much stylistic room. The man is an absolute master of chiaroscuro, using shadows to reveal the mood and to conceal the obvious, and there are several sequences to rave about: my favourite is one stunner of a shot framed through the rolled-down window of one of Calcutta’s ubiquitous Ambassador cars, one that follows a character hurrying through a busy sidewalk and bumping into a stranger, who then, in turn, unerringly bumps into the man chasing the first character up the street. It is Hergé come alive.
Sushant Singh Rajput is exceptionally good as Byomkesh, a believably brilliant young man who is also — as a consequence of him being so wet behind the ears — believably befuddled. Rajput bestows the actor with a suicidal cockiness as well as a preternatural intelligence, his eyes often gleaming like smug saucers. As Jeeves would say, here is a man who likes his fish. Banerjee’s film focusses on building Byomkesh from the ground up, from his initial oversights to his intrinsic motivations, and Rajput runs with that monumental brief and creates an iconic character, one we believe in and root for, one we will champion and one who we — despite the mediocrity of this first mystery — hope to meet again. This Byomkesh himself is a highly nuanced character study, the kind we’ve seen Dibakar excel at before, and Rajput is smashing.
Most of the cast, in fact, is perfectly picked, though I hesitate to say much about their characters in fear of giving anything away. Anand Tiwari is quite super as Byomkesh’s pugnacious and easily-irked comrade Ajit, Divya Menon’s Satyawati is suitably captivating, Meiyang Chang and Mark Bennington enliven things up while staying consistent to the characters, even as Neeraj Kabi and Swastika Mukherjee, though given an awful lot of scenery to chew, do impressively well, especially Kabi who can — it appears — do anything at all.
Banerjee is a modern master, a man who has taken on drastically different films with each outing, and finally bungled up on this fifth film after a hot streak of four crackerjacks. Part of the reason, as stated above, is the sheer ambition. His clear attempt is to build a world — one where Chinatown has so much soul it looks like Seoul — and to set Byomkesh and his conflicts up before taking us on further adventures. This would work brilliantly as the pilot episode of a television series, but not as a standalone film. There have been many, many Byomkesh adaptations over the years and curiously, it is the auteurs, the most distinctive filmmakers, who have stumbled the most: Satyajit Ray’s funkily shot Chiriakhana might be the legend’s most embarrassing work, Rituparno Ghosh’s last film Satyanweshi was a catastrophically weak Byomkesh, and this is certainly Dibakar’s least impressive script.
Perhaps Saradindu Bandhyopadhay gets in the way. The original stories are so beautifully plotted, so inherently appealing on the most basic level, that even watching those old television episodes on YouTube grabs us immediately by the collar. The multiple Byomkesh adaptations Bengal keeps churning out might not make for great cinema, but, based as they mostly are rather slavishly on Saradindu’s work, enthrall new audiences regardless. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is the best looking and least captivating of the current lot. And, as said earlier, he didn’t like to be called detective. Defective Byomkesh Bakshy, then.
Rating: 2.5 stars
First published Rediff, April 3, 2015