Sujoy Ghosh knows flavour. Few directors are as adept at creating atmosphere so swiftly and effectively, and Ghosh soaks his cinema in a seemingly authentic world. Authentic smelling, even, given the way his new film shows us Vidya Balan shielding her nose before entering a humid crowd, and the stains of sweat around her armpits as she scampers breathlessly through a rundown government office, fanning herself before her world falls completely to pieces.
Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh is many things at once — a mystery, a drama about identity, a slowburn thriller, a public service admonishment — but it is primarily, well, Bengali. The first Kahaani, set in Calcutta, featured its fair share of Bangla, but this one is in a different league. Some characters speak entirely in Bangla without subtitles (Ghosh judiciously uses words that sound the same, only minus o-sounds, in Hindi), while others say wondrous things like “Gyarah baje nagaad” where Eleven O’Clock is said in Hindi but rounded off with that lethargic Bangla word for ‘thereabouts’, which could make it mean absolutely anything. Poetic, really.
If Hindi cinema is an arrowroot biscuit and Bengaliness the cha it is dipped into, Ghosh’s biscuit teeters perilously on the edge of collapse. Yet, with the expertise of a lifelong double-dunker, the filmmaker pulls it out intact.
It is the dexterity with which Ghosh uses his tools — Bangla, Balan and Bengal — that draws us in as the film starts, before the plot unspools and we’re plunged into a dark thriller. There is a kidnapping, there is a flashback, there is a conveniently detailed diary entry, and there is a brooding cop who looks like he hasn’t slept in months even after we actually see him sleep. It is all gripping stuff — engaging, at any rate — though Ghosh clearly has more fun colouring outside the margins, outside the plot itself. My favourite moment in the film is a mad-eyed beggar laughingly threatening a cop with jail.
With a fine ensemble and solid textural detailing, the film holds our interest as it motors ahead but, like a flimsily glued house of cards, the plot falls apart the moment we think about it. Ghosh’s grip gets far looser post-intermission, when the film falls into predictability — even inevitability — and the villains are exposed as pantomime caricatures whose motivations are contrived and overdone. One character, for instance, exists only to pay tribute to Kill Bill’s Elle Driver.
It doesn’t help that the details appear more loaded with meaning than they are. There is a scene in which Vidya Balan’s character, who we have so far only seen conversing in Hindi, speaks first in fluent Nepali and then restlessly taps her fingernail in what sounds like morse code. We are aware that this character, Durga Rani Singh, has a history and there are many hints to that — is she supercop, assassin on the run, escaped mental patient who is now creepily fixated on one particular child in a schoolful of them? — but none of it emerges, or appears to matter.
Later, during a dramatic showdown when a wife discovers a massive revelation about her husband, he behaves as if he’s broken a wineglass and she should be less upset. “Come on, yaar,” he tells her, cutely chiding her for crying.
Balan, with tremendous commitment to the part, gives us a stirring performance free of vanity or obviousness. She is obviously a gifted performer, but her biggest strength as an actress may well be her knack for winning the audience over; when she gasps, we gasp. The supporting actors are impressive — particularly Kharaj Mukherjee as an all-knowing ignoramus cop memorably called Haldar, Manini Chadha as an attractive policeman’s horny wife, and an actor known for innocence playing far from type — but the big twist in Kahaani 2 is a striking performance from Arjun Rampal.
Dry, weary and laconic, Rampal plays the investigating policeman and manages to look both hangdog and dignified at once, walking through the film with the gait of a once-fit stud who doesn’t now bother about promotions or pasture. It’s a clean and internalised performance, and Rampal — who was also the best thing in Rock On 2 a couple of weeks ago — deserves a hand.
Set in Calcutta, Chandan Nagar and Kalimpong, Kahaani 2 has the bones of a fine thriller, and I enjoyed Tapan Basu’s murky cinematography, shadowy and quick, leaving a lot of the actual action to our imagination. The idea of a woman refusing to let the truth die is compelling, and Balan is perfectly cast in the lead. Yet the film ultimately rings hollow. Ghosh throws in too much red herring bhaaja and, teasing twists that could have given us some final drama, shies away from a satisfying finish.
There is a fine beat early in the film where Rampal asks a cop for a file to record evidence in, and is told by a very amused subordinate that nothing ever happens in Chandan Nagar. That is perhaps what we should remember while eagerly waiting for cleverness and sleight of hand from Ghosh’s lovely, well-acted but vacant film. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chandan Nagar.
Rating: 3 stars
First published Rediff, December 2, 2016