Dibakar Banerjee is a fabulous director. One of the best in Bollywood. But his most hyped and awaited film to date, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, is not his best film. It may be his worst.
Having bought the rights to the collected works on Byomkesh Bakshi, Banerjee is, in the first of what promises to be a series, masticating, sinking his teeth into the legend of the detective. He’s so busy giving us the political backdrop, introducing us to several shiny characters, welding together so many mysteries and, above all, getting the period right, that he forgets the main job at hand: telling a detective mystery.
For the first time, with the backing of Yash Raj Films, Banerjee has the monies and resources to erect his vision on screen. He lovingly creates a Calcutta he’s known second-hand. The scale is impressive and the curios charming. But, while getting the look of the Calcutta of the 1940s right and chasing at least three murders and many intrigues, Banerjee gets lost. So smitten is he by the pop-art Calcutta of his imagination that his protagonist, his satyanweshi — the seeker of truth — gets lost in the perfect folds of his own dhoti.
We are impressed, just not elated.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, written by Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar, draws its story and characters from at least four of Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s 33 (32 plus one unfinished mystery) stories — Satyanweshi (seeker of truth), Arthamanartham (money is the root of destruction), Mogna Moinak (intoxicated mountain) and Chiriyakhana (zoo). The year is 1942. Second World War. Japanese fauj is marching threatening close to Calcutta. Sirens go off often. And opium trade, from China to India, is prospering. One name, Yang Guang, is heard a lot. A drug consignment gets lost. A dead gangster it seems is still living and killing.
Against this backdrop, Ajit Banerjee (Anand Tewari) shuffles into the boys’ common room of Vidya Sagar College to meet a man of mystery-solving reputation. Before we meet Byomkesh, we are told that he’s irritating enough to incite violence. And when we meet him, seconds later, we figure why. He’s playing carrom. Alone. On a board that has triangular pockets. (All true-blue, dhoti rustling Bengalis snort at carrom board whose pockets are round.) Byomkesh is rather obnoxious. His face is pursed, as if all his muscles are contorting to meet at his unibrow, giving the impression that as he shoots carrom men into pockets, he’s already in serious contemplation about great mysteries of missing and dead persons.
Ajit tells him about his missing father and says that he would like Byomkesh's help to locate him. But self-absorbed, arrogant and indelicate Byomkesh is dismissive. He's not interested. He seems to have already solved this minor event in his head.
We are then given a quick peep into Byomkesh’s personal life. Rejection by a girl is impetus for him to go looking for a distraction, i.e. Ajit’s missing father. Byomkesh goes to the boarding-cum-lodging place where Ajit’s father, a chemist and a self-professed “freelance genius”, was staying before he disappeared. There Byomkesh meets Dr Anukul Guha (Neeraj Kabi), the impressive man who runs the place, and its interesting inmates and, thus, begins the sleuthing.
A missing paan box throws the first suspect, and soon Byomkesh comes to the Ganga and an enticing woman in a sari and a lace camisole. Anguri Devi (Swastika Mukherjee), placed in a stunning but contrived frame, is a mystery more than an actress. She holds the promise of grabbing the film by its collar and dragging it to noir land, releasing it only when there are lipstick marks all over it.
But the film doesn’t stay with her. It goes with Byomkesh who is chasing this question and that clue. As the film courses through a story that involves a chemical factory, its politician owner, Satyawati (Divya Menon) and her nationalist brother who must eventually be saved from a murder charge, a secret Basant Panchmi plan, Chinese drug gangs, a Chinese dentist, a heroin consignment, a Rangoon tangent, picking up more mysteries than the film has the capacity to carry, what should have been a charged a mind game turns into a convoluted rigmarole.
It doesn’t help that the soundtrack throughout is zany and keeps putting us in mood for fun that’s not forthcoming. When the film finally picks up, it’s time to go. DBB gathers pace and builds up to some excitement at the end, but the climatic scene — unravelling of all mysteries by Byomkesh — drifts dangerously close to melodrama with cringe-worthy loud acting. Though Banerjee tries to infuse some fun by going Korean crazy, all I was left with was sadness — because the most interesting character had been bumped off and confusion courtesy a stray remark about Raag Malkauns.
I didn’t earlier and still don't get this love Bollywood has acquired for Sushant Singh Rajput. Though the camera is diligently focused on him all the time, and he’s adequate, the quirky, rude detective he begins as disappears after the introductory scene. That’s not all Rajput’s fault. He’s just the wrong choice for this role.
Rajput seems like a hardworking, diligent bloke, but he has no mystery. He has cutesy charm, projects earnestness and little else. He’s more eager than intelligent and that’s why melodrama suits him more.
Byomkesh is supposed to be super smart but Rajput comes across as a goody-two shoes dullard. In this understated, cerebral role his face and frame remain but personality disappears. But, again, that’s not all his fault. Banerjee is also to blame. Crucial scenes are carelessly written and directed, so much so that we solve some crucial clues several seconds before Byomkesh does. If we are one step ahead of him, how can he impress us? He should be impressed by us.
But the bigger crime is that Banerjee-Juvekar’s story is so long-winded and has to say and show so much that the film loses focus. Banerjee drags Byomkesh through the gorgeous sets of Calcutta, making us stare at a tram, Sealdah-Shambazar, tackle an objectionable Sardar taxi-walla stereotype that I rather liked, admire men in dhotis and handloom shawls and women with their sari pallus held by brooches, and admire a city that had what proud Bengalis still talk of, “soul”. But that’s exactly what’s missing from Banerjee’s film and his Calcutta.
Though there is a lot of what’s now part of pop-art — antiquated shop hoardings, old magazines, vintage cars and other charming memorabilia jostle with each other in every frame, infusing nostalgia — Calcutta doesn’t come alive. That's because it’s all too self-conscious and because though the film has some interesting peripheral characters — like the quaking maharaj-cum-minion Putiram — it doesn’t focus much on people.
For a long time we are alone with Rajput and he is not great company. When Ajit and Byomkesh begin to banter, they draw us in. But the scenes with the brilliant Anand Tiwari are too few and too brief, never quite allowing the Holmes-Watson chemistry to develop which could have been the film’s emotional core. Banerjee, I think, was too stiff-backed, too overwhelmed by the status of the writer and intimidated by his legendary creation that he forgot the most crucial thing in a detective mystery: to have fun.
But I’d give Dibakar Banerjee the benefit of the doubt and wager that he’s only just beginning. That it’ll get better. Because if Banerjee delight us with the story of a detective he obviously loves dearly, then we are condemned to live on reruns of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda films and the neurotic ticks of sundry Sherlock Holmes....