Dibakar Banerjee is arguably my most favorite current Indian filmmaker. With a sleight of 4 feature films, Dibakar has trumped many of his peers with unswerving consistency. Its hard for me to recall an average film by him, let alone a bad film. And let me say at the very onset that yet again, Banerjee does not disappoint with Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, starring a magnetic Sushant Singh Rajput in the titular role.
Byomkesh Bakshi is fictional Bengali detective character, created by Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay in 1940s. This is the 10th film to be made on the character, and there are 2 more of them coming out this very year. Save for this one, all other films are in Bengali, including one directed by the great Satyajit Ray. Moreover, Byomkesh has been a favorite character for television as well. Rightfully so, Dibakar took it upon himself to introduce him to Hindi cinema, and largely to an audience which is appallingly unaware of our own literature. It is also Dibakar’s return to his own roots, albeit in his very own charismatic style.
Now that the facts are set aside, let us talk about DBB, the film. In 1943 Calcutta, Byomkesh, on his first case, is asked to discover the secret behind the disappearance of Bhuvan Banerjee, by his son Ajit (a sublime Anand Tiwari). Bakshy meets Dr Guha (a brilliantly cast Neeraj Kabi, Ship Of Theseus fame), and gets involved in a web of lies, deciet, politics, and most importantly drug mafia. To the viewer’s surprise, Bakshy solves the case within the first 45 minutes of the film only to discover that he has solved it wrong and instead became a small tool of a grander plan, effectively serving the purpose of his antagonist. Chines forces ruled Calcutta’s drug cartel, Britishers were trying to break through to them, World War II goes on around the world, and forces of other countries beckon at the doorstep of Calcutta to overtake it; there is just too much happening in Dibakar’s screenplay as Byomkesh must save the day, and his city as well from the impending doom. Sounds good enough? Well, this is not even half of the meat as Dibakar laces it with multiple tracks and a suspense which unfolds in dozens of layers, each with a little gulp in your throat. All this not just to shock or amaze you, but carefully tint your experience with detailing of art and craft.
One must give it to Dibakar and his co-writer Urmi Javekar for not having a single low moment in a runtime of 150 minutes. Sometimes, he lets you guess the twist, other times he stuns you and most times, he puts the truth out there and obfuscates you with the multi-fold follow up. The big reveal comes right before the intermission, and the second half is all about discovering the bigger villain and the tenacious nature of the screenplay is exposed right then. Underlit frames by Nikos Andritsakis and menacing Sound Design by Allwyn Rego and Sanjay Maurya only add to the murkiness of the proceedings. While the cinematography is much in the Shanghai zone, the sound design has been a significant feature in all Dibakar’s films. Sneha Khanwalkar’s music is kickass and and an audacious soundtrack for a period film while Editing (Namrata Rao, Manas Mittal) is taut.
However, DBB comes with a strong caution towards Byomkesh purists. DBB is a contemporary re-imagination of the character and the treatment of the film may not ring true with a lot of people who have grown up with Byomkesh literature on screen and television. And this where other arrows in Dibakar’s quiver play a part. Vandana Kataria’s Production Design is embellished with authentic mastery. To recreate both the interiors and exteriors of 1943 Calcutta, while shooting in present day Calcutta as well as on sets, is a feat in itself. Dibakar and Urmi have kept the language and dialogue true to today’s times as well, even though the characters poignantly look real. However, it is Honey Trehan’s casting that scores the ace in technical departments. Sushant Singh Rajput is a brave choice to play a legendary character and he is bloody spellbinding. He imbibes everything Byomkesh was about in himself, and instead of getting into the shoes completely, brings some of himself to Byomkesh too. He is convincingly smart and daring, fleetingly nervous and endearingly vulnerable as well. One must admit that all his hard work has paid off as he re-enacts Byomkesh in his own style and tells us why he is meant for big things. Neeraj Kabi gets a buffet of great scenes and is truly striking in each one of them, as is Anand Tiwari. Bengali starlet Swastika Mukherjee fails to make an impact as Angoori Devi while Divya Menon as Satyawati is a good discovery. Supporting cast such as Meiyang Chang (Byomkesh’s aide Kanai Dao), Mark Bennington (British Commissioner Wilkie), Tirtha Mallick (Atanu Sen), Shivam (Sukumar) and Kaushik Ghosh (politician Gajanan Sikdar) do add to the ensemble as well.
I must assert DBB is not a regular masala fare that people are going to theaters expecting it to be. It is not a Guy Ritchie or Sherlock Holmes film. It is fairly dark, with a lot of subplots and links to history imparting a rare sublime burgeoning tension upon you. And this itself might make it work less with the masses. But then, weren’t we the ones who wanted the change in Indian cinema? Here, we have it. Now we must embrace it with open arms. And its bloody well executed in that zone. If I have to nitpick, Dibakar did not really need an explanatory and expository climax but then that would leave more than half the audience befuddled without it. I could also complain about certain character motives but then how often do we see such intelligent films in Indian cinema.
On the whole, it remains to be determined if Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is the most faithful adaptation of the literary works but Dibakar Banerjee has definitely given us something to root for. As a friend says, it may not be his best film, but is definitely is his best directed film. And that itself must compel you to buy a ticket this weekend. Think no more, just go!
Rating – 4/5