“Amar ka naam ka koi aadmi nahin...?” - Vinay, Jewel Thief (1967)
A pregnant woman arrives in Kolkata trying to locate her missing husband; a deadly gas attack in the Kolkata subway* kills dozens of people. Two tragedies on two different scales - the personal and the political - are drawn together in the deliciously noir Kahaani. Tightly plotted and packed full of excellent character actors, Kahaani joins a recent flood of films like Shor in the City and Ishqiya at the sweet spot between masala and art house - realistic but not dour; entertaining but not pandering; and in a different universe than the “on par with Hollywood” strivers.
Kahaani is at it’s heart a good old fashioned detective story - a dame in trouble wanders into a police station chasing after a MacGuffin - and it completely works on that level. The misdirection that is one of the pleasures of any detective film was handled quite well. As we follow Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) quest to track down her missing husband, the very clues she gives that suggest he was up to something shady are really pointing back at her - that she takes a room at the computer-free hotel her husband was staying at; that there are no entry/exit records for her husband; that she only has one photograph of her husband.
We get so wrapped up in figuring out exactly what shady business Vidya’s husband is up to that we forget to look at Vidya herself, which is exactly as she planned it. And Vidya and Sujoy Ghosh have a blast sending us on a wild goose chase down different avenues of speculation. Is the good officer Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee) really as good as he seems? What was that suspicious look he just gave Vidya? Why does he want to call the sketchy IB Officer “Khan” (Nawazuddin Siddiqui )? Is “Khan” really working for who he says he’s working for? And who is Milan Damji?
From his previous work, it’s very clear that writer-director Sujoy Ghosh has a wonderful literary streak** and Kahaani is no exception. Underlying the main plot is the theme of a hidden identities, a theme Sujoy helpfully has Rana spell out at the beginning of the film when he explains the difference between his pet name (Rana) and his official name (Satyaki.) Every character in Kahaani has at least two identities - a woman with a baby is a terrorist; National Data Center HR director Agnes D’Melo wears a wig in public; insurance salesman Bob Biswas (Saswata Chatterjee) is secretly hitman; a sculptor is also police informer; Rana has a softer “off-duty” side; Biswas, the boy at the guest house, works and goes to school. Even the National Data Center in it’s sleek modern building has a hidden identity - an old office filled with paper. Kahaani unmasks traitors and the vanity of office ladies with equal weight.
The biggest reveal is, of course, [And please do stop reading here if you haven’t seen the film and ignored my earlier warning. This is your last chance. - FG] that Vidya herself has another identity. She is not a helpless pregnant woman but an assassin sent to kill Milap Damji. Be wary the woman scorned, for she may be Durga. And as Vidya melts into a sea of women wearing red and white sarees to celebrate Durga Puja, we are left wondering about the power hidden within every seemingly ordinary woman.
Still, even the cleverest of scripts needs talented actors and Kahaani has that and some. Sujoy Ghosh owes his casting director a celebratory dinner for the wonderful cast assembled. Vidya Balan is phenomenal as Vidya Bagchi andshe anchors the film with a strong and steady performance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her sweep the awards again this year. Parambrata Chatterjee is a delight as Officer Rana, convincingly playing the lovelorn white knight. His chocolate boy good looks came in handy, too, because it was pretty obvious why the lovely young secretary at the NDC and the lady at the blood bank and every other female he came in contact with was willing to do him a favor. The mundane looking Saswata Chatterjee was a lot of fun as the world’s most unlikeliest hitman. And where has Nawazuddin Siddiqui**** been hiding in Bollywood all of these years while plum roles go to soggy star sons like Imran Khan? Though I don’t have the names available for the rest of the cast, they were uniformly excellent - the child actors and the woman playing Agnes D’Melo were particularly noteworthy.
Now, on to the direction. In the introduction I mentioned that Kahaani was in a different universe from “on par with Hollywood” and I want to elaborate a bit on that. Though Kahaani is certainly not a mainstream masala film, I would argue that it (and other recent films like Ishqiya and Shor in the City are taking their cues from Indian film and not from the West. Last year, buzz was going around about a category of film that had been dubbed the Hindie, a barf-worthy portmanteau of “Hindi” and “indie” (as in “indie film.”) The label implies some sort of borrowing from the West, as if Indian filmmakers suddenly realized that indie film studios like Miramax had it right all along and they should be making three-act, no intermission, no song films just like Hollywood blowhard Robert McKee would want.
Kahaani has more in common with a film like Dabangg than it does with the latest middlebrow release from Miramax. Kahaani uses a more subtle version of the masala mixture of action, comedy, and romance but all the elements are there. The comedy policeman has been a staple of Hindi films since there have been Hindi films and Kahaani is no exception. Vidya and Rana have a sweet little romance subplot.*** And even the hero’s maa makes an appearance via her phone calls to Rana.
Though there are no picturizations (and no Malaika Arora Khan item), music is interwoven into the film - from a brief snatch of love song as Rana daydreams about Vidya to a devotional song sung by Amitabh Bachchan to a festival song. Kahaani is also structured in two halves, rather than three acts, and includes an effective use of the pre-interval cliffhanger. Kahaani is a totally Indian film (identity confusion in film runs back to Anamika and Jewel Thief and even further back) - no “Hindie” in sight from where I’m sitting.
Before I wrap this up, I want to address two small niggling things. Nothing is flawless (not even my favorite Tashan) and neither is Kahaani - though it comes pretty darn close. The first issue I have is with the music, which seemed far weaker than songs by Vishaal-Shekhar should be. The only song that really resonated was the one sung by Amitabh Bachchan and that was almost entirely due to the sense of nostalgia and emotion that Amitabh Bachchan’s voice brings with it. (That song was very effective in the film.) Added to that was the melody from the song in the drumming scene strongly reminded me of an old Yes or Rush song, not exactly fitting with the scene. I kept getting the nagging feeling that V-S had pulled out their B-material for the film and it’s really too bad.
The second thing is a little bigger - I didn’t like the tag ending. Something about the candlelight vigil rang kind of hollow for me. I know candlelight vigils are a staple of films like this but it seemed odd for film that had been so intimate to suddenly open back up to the general public. And it raised more questions than it answered. Did the government tell the media about the death of the terrorist? What have all these other victims been doing all this time? With No One Killed Jessica, the public were always part of the story, so the vigil (cheezy as it was) made sense. Here? It just felt out of place. It would have been more effective to end with scenes of the Durga Puja but perhaps the candlelight vigil was required by producers to make the preceding violence more palatable.
But those are really very minor complaints when the rest of the film is so wonderful.
What it comes down to is this: Kahaani is a treat for film lovers. It’s a wonderful film and I hope that it’s success means we’ll be seeing more films in this style - especially from Vidya Balan and Sujoy Ghosh.
* Inspired by the sarin attack in Tokyo?
** See also: Aladin and my epic look back at it.
*** Though I felt kind of bad for the guy because he is never going to come across another woman like Vidya.
**** As I was about to post this, I realized I already had a tag for Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who apparently also made an impression on me in New York