I’ll confess that I wasn’t a great fan of Sujoy Ghosh’s first film, Jhankaar Beats – somehow I couldn’t connect with his protagonists (three men trying to win a music competition), and though I appreciated the reverence shown towards music great RD Burman, I felt it there was an incredible earnestness about it all that served to bog the film down for me. Ghosh is in good company: it’s an emotion I totally found marred my enjoyment of Claude Zidi’s film Astérix & Obélix contre César. (and that was totally absent from Alain Chabat’s highly irreverent and wickedly fun sequel Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre) I’d like to think, though, that Ghosh would be happy to find himself in good company with the otherwise excellent Monsieur Zidi.
I reviewed Ghosh’s last film, Aladin, for Bollyspice, and rather liked it. I had the distinct impression that Ghosh was moving into more irreverent territory, putting his own twist on the Aladin story, and if the film did not succeed, it was, I think, because Ghosh was attempting to take a whole bunch of influences and turn them into something of his own, and he didn’t quite manage it. I remember thinking, though, that I thought I would look back at Aladin as an important film in Ghosh’s filmography, and after having seen Kahaani, I don’t think I’m wrong.
The difference this time ‘round? In Kahaani, Ghosh manages to take all the things that inform him as a creative person, as a writer, as a director, as a storyteller – manages to mold them into something that truly is (despite some small reservations that I have) his most original and refreshing film to date.
Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) arrives in Kolkata. Heavily pregnant, she is there to try to figure out what has happened to her husband, who has gone missing. She attracts the sympathies of Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee), a local policeman, who helps her try to find out what has happened to her husband, just as everyone else, including IB officer Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is trying to convince her that there is no record of him ever having been to Kolkota.
Kahaani is, as its title suggests, a film about stories, and there are a number of people in this film telling a number of stories, and no one is what they seem (a point that is subtly underlined when Rana tells Vidya that people in Kolkota have two names, an official name and a pet name. “Two different identities,” she astutely observes. The trick, though, is to differentiate between fact and fiction, making it difficult to talk about the film without actually giving the whole mystery away. I will say that Kahaani is not a perfect film – I actually figured out some of the main plot threads long before the climactic twist, and the more I think about the film, the more I realize there’s a little bit of viewer manipulation going on, that is putting some people off the film.
The thing with thrillers and mysteries is, you have to give your reader/viewer all the information he/she needs to solve the puzzle. If you don’t supply enough information, and pull details out of thin air that no one knows about, then you’re not creating a satisfying story -- in fact, you're cheating. On the other hand, if you supply too many details, you run the risk that your viewer/reader will solve the puzzle far sooner than you’d intended – and this is, I think, the main problem with Kahaani. Ghosh and his fellow writers (he shares a story credit with Advaita Kala and screenplay credit with Suresh Nair and Nikhil Vyas) give us a few too many clues, too soon, and once the central mystery surrounding Vidya and the disappearance of her husband is out of the bag, it’s too late, and the climax becomes a bit of an anti-climax.
I was able to push myself not to think too much and to just go with the flow of the story. On the whole, I found Kahaani a very satisfying film, though I have to admit, I think that for me that had more to do with some deliciously good performances, the use of the Durga Puja as a leitmotif to anchor the story, and, especially the use of Kolkota. Kolkota is shot in such a way as to show it as oppressive and overwhelming – something that reminded me of Ribhu Dasgupta’s film Michael. There, Kolkota serves as an backdrop to make us feel the continuing loss of sight of the main character, Michael (Naseerudin Shah), as he gradually slips into a world of confusion. In Kahaani, too, Kolkota assaults our sense, adding to our sympathy and connection with Vidya as she arrives in the city and tries to make sense of everything.
The release of Kahaani could not have been timed more perfectly, coinciding as it does with Adam’s Rib, this month of celebrating women in Indian cinema. In an interview with BBC’s Love Bollywood programme, Ghosh said that one of the things he wanted to explore in his film is how motherhood changes a woman – how it changes her perspective on life, on her responsibilities, and I think the film does an excellent job of portraying a woman who is utterly determined to fight for those she loves.
I mentioned the use of the Durga Puja – not only does this add to our sensory pleasure in watching the film, seeing the preparations for the festival, but it adds an incredible depth to the character of Vidya.
For Durga, of course, is the warrior goddess, a figure seen as calm and self-possessed even as she engages in battle. Stories of Durga’s battles against demons are meant to be symbolic of our own inner struggles against those parts of our personality which can be seen at worst as destructive and at best harmful – through Durga, we undergo a kind of catharsis or a purification.
And this is precisely what is so compelling about Vidya Bagchi – she is the warrior mother, determined to battle the forces of evil that threaten her and her family. This is why, quite simply, I think she’s an incredibly compelling character, and Vidya Balan delivers a performance that I think is even better and more empowering than that of Silk in The Dirty Picture. Vidya Bagchi is intelligent, determined, powerful, and even ruthless in her pursuit of the truth.
Even when that truth is not quite what it seems.