Aah, Tarantino. What would have happened to India’s new wave makers if Kill Bill had not been made..limbs not been chopped in slow-motion set to sometimes deviant sometimes deceptively soothing music? So many climax set pieces in recent films (Kaminey, Haider and yes Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!) would have been left cold and bereft of conclusive ideas without the classic revenge tale that Tarantino crafted in 2003 but our makers seem to want to revisit a decade or more later with slavish faithfulness. Chopped foot in a vessel, check. Sword fighter jumping down from a balcony towards his prey, check. A yard red with death and piled up bodies, check too.
Not to say that Dibakar Bannerjee’s latest film is not worthy of his brand. He is after all the man who went from the modest but delightfully quirky originals like Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and the gritty LSD to the lavishly mounted Shanghai. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! oozes the joy of the maker who probably felt like a child in the world’s biggest carnival where time-travel is just another game, mind capers can be played and puzzles put together on real streets with real characters and everything that can be imagined can come to life. Including sepia washed streets of pre-independence Calcutta with its peeling walls, atmospheric whorls of smoke, sudden trams, vintage cars, revolutionary fervour, noisy bazaars packed with stories and endless details worthy of an Oscar jury.
The production design is the leading protagonist of the film and sucks you into the squalor of cheap hostels, the menace of red ant infested machines in abandoned mills, the drama of a night sky festooned with falling bombs, the lush boudoir of a movie starlet, even the inner secrets of a paan box.
But. Let us just say that the film somehow fails its rich canvas. Because, the story though cheekily derivative of Byomkesh Bakshi, a fictional detective created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, right to the side-kick Ajit and Satyavati, a very interesting woman (Divya Menon) who might just become his wife, lacks its simplicity, its warmth and its innocence that was so wonderfully channelled by Rajit Kapoor in the DD series. Here we have a plot that links a murder to another murder to many more murders to a patriotic master plan to a cocaine trail to gang wars between drug lords. And let us just also say that the man at the helm of it all is underwhelming. Sushant Singh Rajput with his curiously shifting unibrow does not ooze the kind of charisma that is needed to hold such a big film together. He is treated flatteringly well by the camera (Nikos Andritsakis is a genius), is given performance set pieces to lord over but looks like a young boy pretending to be his favourite detective rather than the real deal. His eyes don’t hold your attention and neither does his voice. Neeraj Kabi on the other hand is an actor who delivers everything his layered Dr Anukul Guha asks him to. He is a giant who can stand alone in a frame and turn it into a theatre of quiet nuance and raging bravado.
Swastika Mukherjee is beguiling, dangerous, lost, tragic and hits just the right notes of melodrama and the ensemble cast is effective too. But by the time, the last scene with a sword pointing at an eyeball arrives, you want to leave the prelude to a possible sequel and head home and catch Rajit Kapoor on YouTube.