Reaching the hall slightly late, I missed the opening but what followed for the next 100 minutes, or slightly more, left me gasping for more. Yes, Kahaani is a film very well made, a point made much better by fellow Howzzitter Arnab Bhattacharya (Read: Kahaani: A Gritty Tale Well Told by Vidya, Sujoy). Yes, it proves there is still scope for giving shape to a character beyond wild gesticulations and hamming (take a bow, ‘Bidda’ Balan, ‘Shattoki’ Parambrata and company), and yes it also points out just why thriller-esque films should have songs only for music CDs.
But what resuscitated my now-off now-on love affair with Kolkata, the city where I was born and which has since then been a place to visit relatives, was Sujoy Ghosh’s depiction of the city, cinematographer Setu’s exemplary camera work to bring that to reality, and editor Namrata Rao’s uber-cool cuts to join those pieces together. Between them, the trio worked a tightrope with élan to present the colours and contrasts of a city that could do with more footage on 70-mm screens.
Why? Simply because it has a whole lot more to offer for a thinking brain and a probing eye behind the camera.
Let’s be honest, mainstream Bollywood has rarely ventured beyond Mumbai. Yes, many films are being shot in Delhi these days, though most mainstream ones are human excreta, presenting the jaded shots of India Gate, Qutub Minar, Connaught Place, the Ridge and the likes. So it takes the slightly hatke filmmakers to explore the West Delhi or the slightly seamy side of the capital in films such as Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye; Delhi Belly, Band Baaja Baarat, or parts of Rockstar for that matter.
Among mainstream films of late, I can think of only Delhi-6 doing justice to a very, very photogenic slice of (Old)Delhi.
But Kolkata? No sir, not a chance, sir. It’s a jot too complex, I suppose, with years and layers of Left Front governance making it remote for Bollywood-walas, most of whom are slightly obtuse so far as lateral thinking goes.
Sure, there was Mani Ratnam’s Yuva. But in its attempt to be all things to all people it was so character-centric that it never did justice to the city, barring the shots of the Howrah Bridge and the new one (Vidyasagar Setu) a but farther down the stream. In the end, it wound up being a sort of abstract films with a few MTV-type music videos picturised rather well.
So, on comes Kahaani, capturing people slightly ill at ease with a pregnant, posh-looking woman speaking another tongue, never too awkward to explain the reason for their pronunciation that Bollywood has typecast as the caricature Bengali since the black-and-white days of Kishore Kumar films, ever ready to clarify the need for two names (daak naam and ‘bhalonaam‘; remember Irrfan Khan in The Namesake?), never shying away from playing the second fiddle in a ’cause’ worth loving, fighting for, and for most part anachronistically polite to a fault (think of Bob Biswas, a hired assassin confirming their identity with a smile before shooting them point blank).
What Sujoy Ghosh does best in bursting out into the city, but with a restraint. For outsiders, Kolkata is about Victoria Memorial, the lush greens of Maidan, rickshaws pulled by men, street football, chatting for hours on end (or adda in officepara, to use the Kolkata colloquialism), men afraid of their wives (for some vague reason that has remained a favourite Bollywood caricature, and here I am in no way defending myself!) and strikes, hartaals, bandhs, jhandabaaji… you name it, they will show it.
Kahaani either doesn’t, or even when it shows, panders very little to such clichés.
It focuses, instead, on the lanes and bylanes of a city burning, itching, aching to find its feet among the metropolises, warts and all. It zooms past, in fast forward, the labyrinthine babugiri the city is famed for, and equally dexterously clips together the good, the bad and the ugly with wide angle aerial shots and close-cropped shots at night. The half-naked fakirs and gods at Kumortuli and the early-morning tring-trings of bicycles and yellow taxis, the snail-paced trams and the hyper-packed roads, and a tribute to that master craftsman who perhaps caught Kolkata at its naïve and slimy best, Satyajit Ray: when Bidda Bagchi finds no hot water in the bathroom and asks the manager where the “running hot water”, as promised on the board behind him, can be had, the manager calls every Kolkatan’s Man Friday, a Chhotu, and says he would “run up” with the hot water each time she seeks it.
Remember the hotel scene, with a prickly elderly gentleman asking for the same and getting the same, somewhat scalding, reply in Ray’s Joy Baba Felunath)!
And then there was the climax: Vijaya Dashami (or Bijoya Dashomi, to honour Bidda Bagchi). Wow, Mr Ghosh, you had the whole hall eating out of your hand there. While easy it is to showcase Durga Puja with all its noise and colour, Ghosh takes an aspect of the five-day Puja not that well recognised among non-Bengalis — the red and the contrasting white, the abundance of Puja crowd and the bareness of the lane where Bidda confronts her nightmare in shining armour, the gunshots and the ululating women in red-bordered sarees, and the underbelly living next to bhadralok localities.
I wanted a touch more but the Kahaani was over. And what a tale it was!