Monday, March 12, 2012

Kahaani: Kolkata Noir

It’s almost pointless to try and discuss this film without spoilers so if you haven’t seen Kahaani yet, please do NOT read my review. My spoiler-free review goes like this: If you like intelligent mystery-suspense films, go see it. Vidya Balan does a superb job. If you are looking for romance, family drama, dishoom, and/or pretty people swanning about in nice clothes, you will be bored. Samjhe? Good. Now onto the review!

“My husband is missing.” - Vidya Bagchi, Kahaani (2012)

“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


Jess said...

"No one would doubt a pregnant woman." Now every woman I see knocked up will get my look of suspicion and doubt ;)

Fabulous movie, and I think my favorite thing about it were all the secondary characters. They were all memorable. I loved that hitman the most.

I also felt this film had elements that were similar to other films (Usual Suspects perhaps) but when watching it, it didn't remind me of any other film at all.

I agree about the tag ending, it wasn't necessary at all.

VanniDaPooh said...

In an era where everybody, ABSOLUTELY EVERYBODY, is fawning over Vidya Balan, my husband is the only odd man out! He has looked at that poor woman with suspicion ever since he wasted 50 dirhams to watch Bhool Bhulaiyya! I think he really deserves an award for guessing what Kahaani would shape into way before the 'guesses' 'previews' and 'reviews' bobbed up on the net. Is he someone with a dual identity like the rest of the characters? Mr. Ghosh himself, me wonders?(considering that every aspect of the film was shrouded in secrecy)

carla said...

Nawazuddin Siddiqui had a major role in *Peepli Live* as well.

Like everyone else, I adored this movie (and I forced myself to write a spoiler-free review, so I am enjoying discussing the spoilers on other people's reviews). I think the comparison to *The Usual Suspects* is not only apt, but invited - the denouement is, I think, an explicit homage to that movie. In both cases, the story-spinner fades into a crowd while the person who was duped relives, in rapid flashback, all the details that contributed to the spinning of the tale. "I was in a barbershop quartet in Skokie..."

That said, though, Kahaani's homage is not mere copycatting. And the coolest thing about Kahaani is that despite adopting the mold of a western-style thriller, it remains very much an Indian movie, what with the Durga allegory and the riveting sense of place. Superb thriller all around.

-- Filmi Geek (carla)

Sal said...

I don't think Miramax is a thing anymore, FG. :p

songbird said...

just saw the movie today..and i found it amazing...a far cry from the typical bolly movies..i am ready to overlook the few potential plot holes because i liked it so much..more movies like this should be encouraged rather than the stupid movies salman khan and akshay kumar make mostly these days...
-fellow movie nerd.

Filmi Girl said...

@songbird While I appreciate your enthusiasm for Kahaani, there is room for both types of films in cinemas. The world would be less fun without a Bodyguard or Housefull to make us smile from time to time :)

Rahul said...

For a thriller/Mystery to be satisfying it has to a) confuse us thoroughly and then b) tie the plot up in a way so that when the viewer thinks it through everything falls into place and all the confusions are reasonably explained and the viewer can marvel at the director’s ingenuity and slap his maatha and say….wow!!! so that’s it!! How come I couldn’t think it through!!!!

Unfortunately, Kahaani is an excellent film that managed to confuse me but when they tied the whole thing up it left me feeling cheated because I could clearly see that the story was bullshit and the director had fooled me with a fantasy. The director created so many confusions that he couldn’t explain them through a credible story that had internal logic.

Couple of things that just refused to go were:

a) I am hiding a terrorist. I know where he is and I know he has never been to London, yet when a lady comes up claiming him to be her husband, I- the head of Indian intelligence don’t smell a rat…not only that I send the same guy (a supposedly well- trained agent who after commiting a major crime stays on in KOlkata instead of dissapearing into the great wide world or friendly foreign capitals….) to retrieve some important files from her….Even worse, the terrorist himself knows that the woman is lying and the picture photoshopped (since it’s his picture and he has never married this owman nor been to London with her) still says I will return your husband to you

b) Apart from this Big stupid thing….so many others including the ones you pointed out- I mean what sort if background check did khan do on vidya bagchi? why did bob kill agnes- I mena the IB has pinpointed Damji as the culprit and would presumably have checked out his records at the datacentre, then what the hell could anyone including agnes have gotten from his employee records? How come Bob pushed her the first time even before he got the MMS? Why the hell did Vidya have to kill sridhar? Why was bhaskaran so keen for khan as well as the retired guy to follow up on the case???…….UGGH!!!!

I call Bullshit!!!! Fool me fairly and leave me with a ending that has me smacking my head in disbelief saying WOW!!! don’t leave me saying bullshit! The director or writer plain cheated me with an unbelievable story…..

I mean, don’t get me wrong- Its a wonderful movie and created some real tension….BUT BUT BUT….IT COULD HAVE BEEN GREAT!!!! and for a supporter of Hindi movies therein lies the tragedy and frustration with this movie.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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