Cast: Sushant Singh Rajput, Anand Tiwari, Neeraj Kabi, Swastika Mukherjee, Divya Menon, Meiyang Chang
Director : Dibakar Banerjee
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, ending with a Y and an exclamation mark, is a pure Dibakar Banerjee creation. Which is to say that it is pointless trying to compare it with other renditions of the famous fictional sleuth, so beloved of Bengalis and other fans of period crime fiction: Banerjee imbues his tale of the eponymous private eye with a noir-ish, jazzy flash which is all his.
Byomkesh, who prefers being called a Satyanweshi (truth-seeker), is on the trail of a man who may or may not have been many things. Was he chemist or alchemist, patriot or ‘gaddar’, good or bad? The man’s son (Anand Tiwari) leads Byomkesh (Sushant Singh Rajput) towards a maze which is strewn with opium sellers, heroin peddlers, femme fatales, Oriental gangsters, British cops and sundry red herrings.
The time is 1942. The place is Calcutta. And Banerjee scores a zinger when it comes to both. The re-creation is done with loving, lush camerawork which gives us both light and seductive shadows. The trams with those adverts, the ramshackle buildings, the streets pockmarked with the ‘puchka-walas’ are all spot-on. The film opens at the half-way point of World War 2: refugees are flowing in from the Shanghai-Burma route, opium dens are flourishing in Chinatown, drug lords are in the ascendant and the city is trembling on the verge of a Japanese attack. This becomes the backdrop for Byomkesh’s wanderings, as he goes about unraveling the mystery of the missing man, and the corpses pile up.
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Noir demands a certain opacity, a certain whorliness in the tale telling, where not everything is obvious, and not everything is instantly clear. It is a deliberate device which demands a slow build-up, characters mysteriously appearing and disappearing, and confusions getting confounded. The film holds till the time these elements are in play.
When it switches to explicatory mode, it flattens. The tension, which is on a slow-burn, leaches out, and the film ends as less than it could have been. And that’s a disappointment. But by then, you have seen a film, a real, bonafide film, not bits and pieces of nonsense masquerading as one.
‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ is a film that filled me to the brim. It is the kind of film that I will recall and savour, flaws and all. The pacing is languorous, and in the second-half, the stutters become obvious. The Mata Hari like Mukherjee is perfectly accoutered, ivory-handled pistol and all. She is the eye-catching glamour quotient of the film; the ‘good girl’, played by Menon, has a couple of moments too. But this is a film that is put into motion and charged by its men, and its biggest weakness is its leading man: Sushant Singh Rajput plays at being Byomkesh, getting in some well-judged gum-shoeing glee in places, but never quite fills in the outlines.
But this is also one of those films that makes up for the principal actor’s deficiencies by the performances of those who surround him. Anand Tiwari’s second-fiddle act is first-rate, and Neeraj Kabi, as the deceptively and determinedly good-natured doctor who runs the shabby-genteel ‘men-only’ lodgings where much of the action takes place, is so good you forgive his last-minute exaggerations.
You can say the same thing about the film.