Kahaani

It’s a dirty trick, really: setting a movie in Kolkata during Durga Puja, knowing that this very fact would make it nearly impossible for me to find fault with it. I lived in Kolkata for around 6 years as a grad student, and I haven’t lived in any city before or since that I have loved quite as much.

The Kolkata of Kahaani is not the city you see in most other movies. When a heavily pregnant Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi arrives at Dum Dum airport, she asks the cab driver to take her to Kalighat police station to file a missing persons report on her husband. You don’t see establishing shots of Howrah bridge and Victoria memorial like you would in a lesser movie, because:

  1. Sujoy Ghosh wants to get on with the story right away, and (more importantly)
  2. If you had to get to Kalighat from the airport, you would most likely not take a route that involves Howrah bridge.

You often hear about a location being another character in a movie. Filmmakers often use this phrase in pre-release publicity, and it was bandied about in this case as well. And you know what, I have never quite understood what it meant. But what I do understand is when the location of a story is so integral to its milieu that the broad outlines disappear and all that remains are the little details that provide the place’s real signature. Kahaani is set in the Kolkata I know and love, not in tourist postcard version.

But I digress. Let us get back to poor Bidda Bagchi (the V-to-B substitution is well known to non-Bengalis by now, but this name provides evidence of another quirk of Bengali pronunciation — when you have a bunch of consonants bunched together, you just say the first one twice and move on, sort of like a Taylor series approximation — and I digress again, sorry)…

She files a missing persons report, goes to the guest house where her husband said he was staying, goes to his workplace… here is a woman who realizes that she needs to find her husband herself, rather than rely upon law enforcement officials whose computers display “System Error” more often than search results. She is helped by a sympathetic cop named Rana, hindered by a foul-mouthed, less-than-sympathetic Intelligence Bureau officer named Khan, stared at by passers-by, threatened, nearly killed, and yanked around by the clues piling up around two men — one (her husband) whose existence the error-prone systems refuse to acknowledge, and another whose existence the IB wishes to cover up.

Through it all, she remains stoic, even good-humoured. She follows the clues to wherever they lead her, picking locks and hacking computers along the way (you do realize I’m a cop, don’t you, asks an exasperated Rana at one point) until she finds what she wants. The story has a big twist at this point, which I will not spoil for you except to say that I am not completely convinced that the story adds up perfectly in hindsight.

But that is, to be fair, a small quibble. The real pleasure of the film is not the story but the manner of its telling. The pace is unrelenting, but still finds space for little pleasures — the odd sarcastic response, a little teasing on a tram ride, a completely understandable crush. The characters are uniformly interesting (the standout being Bob Biswas, whose day job as a life insurance agent is probably the film’s funniest running gag) and the performances match up.

But the best aspects, I think, are the camerawork and the editing. If you have been on the streets of Kolkata during Durga Puja, the one thing you will remember most vividly is how crowded it gets. It’s as if nobody is staying home watching TV. With so many people around, you will most likely feel like you are constantly being stared at. Somewhat expected when you are waddling around at a brisk pace looking like you might go into labor any second now, but invaluable when you’re the protagonist in the midst of a thriller and the director wishes to ratchet up the paranoia. And while all this happens against the backdrop of a sleepy metropolis waking up to its own beauty, you even get your obligatory shots of Victoria Memorial and Howrah Bridge. Happy?

A couple of bookkeeping entries to end this post:

  1. I have not said anything about Vidya Balan. I don’t need to. Let’s just say that I cannot imagine anyone else doing this part — Tamilian with an affinity for Bengalis, woman with lousy luck/taste in men, character requiring a strong performer to do it justice — and move on.
  2. Much of this review has involved digressing in the middle of a sentence to fill in a detail that captivated me. Life in Kolkata is a bit like that.
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11 thoughts on “Kahaani

  1. Really liked the film and the only problem I had is similar to what I have with your bookkeeping entry no. 2 :D (See what I did there?!). :)

    On a serious note, this has become a universal winner unlike most films in recent times. Most people I know had a problem with the manipulation wrt flashback scenes. Did you? I really did not.

    • I don’t think the flashbacks were bad at all. In fact, I felt they were shot economically and used to just the right extent. I am not sure the plot itself holds up perfectly, but manipulation through flashbacks isn’t a no-no in my book if it is done skillfully.

  2. Agree, I shot up with joy when they went to Thakurpukur, just a few bus-stops away from where I grew up…

    …and hearing “poroborti station…”

    The movie reminded me of Calcutta!

  3. Anil Viswanathan says:

    Nice review pa. Reassures me that I should go and watch this movie. Have had a few bong intellectuals rubbish the camera work & the cinematography – they call it ordinary. Also that the story being strictly ok, and the attempt to explain all of it in the epilogue as also silly.

    • I am not entirely convinced that the story would hold up under close scrutiny after you exit the movie hall. As for the cinematography and editing, the style is one I am generally not hugely fond of, but works perfectly for this material.

      But you know what, I wonder if a lot of this is post-rationalizing. The film simply worked for me when I was watching it. That’s all there is to it.

  4. S says:

    I’ve never been to Kolkata but did like the light shined on it by Hey Ram and Yuva (not to mention Aadhavan — ok that just had gratuitous shots of The Howrah but hey, put a perplexed Vadivel on the Howrah bridge — better still, dangle him from it — and what’s not to love?). And I do like the light shined on (a cryptic) Kahani’s key characters by your post here. “The characters are uniformly interesting” — and now I’m interested! Will watch it when the movie is out on DVD.

    p.s. Also like your comment to AB above (sorry, AV. This whole V-to-B substitution thing is getting to me :-) ).

    • On the Kolkata depiction front, Hey Ram did okay, Yuva not so much. Aadhavan — I was too distracted by Vadivelu to actually care about the Kolkata aspect, and that’s saying something, believe me.

      • S says:

        Oh I believe you! It’s one movie (hubby and) I like to watch over and over again, for Vadivel and for Vadivelu only! (Rare case of person t/powering over logeshuns.)

  5. S says:

    Ramsu, I finally watched Kahaani last Sunday… I liked it very much (and for many of the same reasons you liked it for, though I’ve never come within 800 kms of Kolkata).

    I liked how the ratcheting up of the paranoia (as you put it) happens “against the backdrop of a sleepy metropolis waking up to its own beauty.” (It was thrilling to experience how, after the ho-hum start at Dum Dum, it all goes “Dum Dum Dum DUM DUM DUM…”). I liked that despite the unrelenting pace, the film found space for stolen moments. I liked that the characters were uniformly interesting. I also liked the cliched “Arasan andru kolvan, deivam nindru kollum” conceit (though how it was literalized via voiceover at the end was a bit much — much like the ‘Kaala Bandar’-mirror thingy in Delhi 6 — but I was willing to forgive).

    Vidya was wonderfully believable, throughout, so the end did arrive as a surprise. The villain with his Jeff Goldblum good looks and, um, “softness” didn’t work for me at all (I was under the impression all along that he was the killer, a la Saif in Qurbaan, so the final twist was refreshing). Guess looks (Kolkata’s, Vidya’s, villain’s) can be deceiving was the overall message the movie was going for? If so, it was massaged rather well into the medium of cinema, I must say.

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