Calcutta Noir: a spoiler free review of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy

 

 Dibaker Banerjee is the most important name that most Bollywood lovers should know but don’t. He’s responsible for a lot of new cinema: smart, entertaining and commercially successful. ‘Oye Lucky Lucky Oye’, ‘Love Sex Aur Dhokha’, ‘Shanghai’, and of course ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’. Original, low budget, and superbly written. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, however, is based on an old and beloved character and financed by Yashraj films. Can it still be superbly written, though? 

This is the film about old Calcutta as much as it’s about Byomkesh. This is a love letter to Calcutta of 40’s and to the Noir cinema. Noir started in Hollywood, was named in France, but we all know it via Guru Dutt. Play of light and shadows, mysterious characters, and a story of crime and suspense slowly building to a climax. 

 

 Byomkesh is not a detective. He is a truth seeker. But in this film he’s just a guy with a sharp and curious mind. So the plot: Calcutta 1943, in the middle of the world war. In the lively setting of a men’s hostelry run by a Dr Ghosh, a man disappears. His son comes to Byomkesh who starts investigating by, of course, taking up residence in the same hostel.

There are multiple twists and turns, and several characters. Including a seductive actress Angoori Devi, a politician and his rebellious nephew, the paan loving roommate of the disappeared man, a Chinese merchant of legal opium, a Japanese dentist, a British policemen  and so on. Each character, even a receptionist who only appears in two scenes seems to be real. Each one could have a backstory worth telling. Each seems to be unique, rather than some cardboard cutout. 

That’s where the strength of this film is: beautiful characters and fantastic backdrop. It feels like being in a pre-independence metropolis. The look is not just apparently authentic, it’s also loving and beautiful. Even the way characters move and act feels old-time, probably reminding me pleasantly of Classics like CID. 

But CID had Dev Anand, right? Can Sushant pull of a suave detective? Well, we don’t really know, actually. because the Byomkesh we see here is not a suave detective. He’s a sharp but bumbling beginner. He is eager, excitable, human, and he makes mistakes. The character and the way Sushant Singh plays it are fabulous. Also fabulous, all the other actors, especially Neeraj Kabi as Dr Guha and Swastika Mukherjee as Angoori Devi. The only problem, as so often with the noir, is the suspense. Although pretty unpredictable, and enchanting in its own way, not nearly as satisfying as a great mystery story ought to be. Special mention: the music. Its not at all authentic to the Calcutta of 40’s, but seems authentic to the film, somehow. Using influences from jazz to metal, the music creates a great sense of what being in the story is like, while the visuals give a sense of the time and place. Very clever.

Do watch the film. The atmosphere, the music, some long, caressing shots, the performances, and above all the characters. I liked it. It was a daring call for both Sushant and Yashraj to make, and I hope they are rewarded. These are the experiments we need to succeed. To take our films out of Mumbai/Delhi centrism, to take out character actors out of caricature and to broaden the scope of our cinema to the genres of tomorrow. But first we pay tribute to a genre of yesterday. Remember the name: Dibakar Banerjee. You’ll keep hearing it all the time now.

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