Let’s first get the pink elephant out of the room – Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is not for purists. If you’re a raging fan of Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s classic character, you will find a billion things that don’t match your expectations. This Dibakar Banerjee film is a new take on the character. If you can’t accept that, exit this review and go back to your VHS tapes. For the rest, let’s get to the good stuff.
The opening scene of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is iconic. It’s a wintry 1940’s Calcutta night, a boat moors along the coast and we see a pack of Orientals up to no good. A hooded figure emerges from the darkness, its shadow cast on the wall in a sinister outsize. The figure warns the Orientals that it wants Calcutta back, guffaws terrifyingly and slits everyone’s throats open. It’s spine tingling. Hair raising. Mouth frothing. It plunges you into the euphoric trance of a film buff getting the most potent possible cinematic fix. At this point you know you’re about to see something special.
Cut a few days later straight to the case – the Chemical engineer father of Ajit (Anand Tiwari) has gone missing, so he enlists the help of a certain Mr Bakshy. Often times a movie about a larger than life hero showcases the protagonist’s entry in a bombastic manner. Banerjee’s Bakshy, however, makes an unexpectedly subtle entry playing carom and getting knocked in the face. It’s one of the several instances where Banerjee’s direction subverts your expectations. There isn’t much time to waste - Bakshy gets cracking on the case rather quickly. Clues begin flooding in and he begins zooming around town sniffing at the breadcrumbs. Sure enough, a body turns up, so does a seemingly antagonistic femme fatale (Swastika Mukherjee), and Bakshy and Ajit find themselves afoot a deliciously seedy conspiracy.
The film’s storytelling style is pure unbridled sex with the camera. Every passing clue is a thrilling experience, dragging us deeper into the murky mystery with Sneha Khanwalkar’s insane industrial death metal music. Your jaw will remain on the floor for most of the runtime because at any given instance there’s always something leaping out to dazzle your eyes. Every frame of every scene has an insane amount of intricate detailing that really brings the pre independent Calcutta to life. At certain times the film even haughtily shows off the gorgeous production design, like during the opening credits when the camera slowly shows us poster clad Calcutta streets through a tram window. The intoxicating visuals are complemented by the breakneck pace of the case, that makes the two and a half hour runtime seem like a cool breeze.
The question on everyone’s mind is if the film borrows any elements or style from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes or its BBC counterpart. Fortunately it doesn’t. This is neither an action movie nor a tale of an unstoppable super genius. This detective is refreshingly human and grounded, despite being a Bollywood hero. His ‘heroism’ exists on a level that’s exactly between Rajit Kapoor and Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s surely a tough balance to pull off, considering Bakshy is up against Samurai tuition teachers, Japanese drug lords from Shanghai and a mysterious figure that is more dangerous than either of them. So Bakshy is beaten, both physically and intellectually. This is his first big case and the rust and mild vulnerability is on full display.
Slipping seamlessly between shyness to good-natured cockiness to enthusiastic charm, Sushant Singh Rajput is a fun Byomkesh Bakshy. A lot of times he underplays the character, letting his costumes and unibrow do the work. Banerjee has no doubt refined Sushant’s quiet, soft-spoken presence into a likable and offbeat acting style. He has his showreel moment in a scene in which he gets high and unlocks a puzzle to the mystery.
Beyond the hundreds of plusses in the film, there is a shadow of a minus. The third act of the film will forever be the subject of bickering and argument between people who’ve seen the film. It’s not that the finale is disappointing – it’s actually much more than that. It’s really hard to describe what goes wrong without going into spoiler territory, but there is a certain dependence on red herrings that Banerjee suddenly indulges in, and it feels cheap and also frustrating. Something huge happens half way through, and in the third act the film leads you to believe it’s more than what it is, when it actually isn’t. And despite that the film runs an hour and a half post interval, making that huge event a dubious attempt at whodunit storytelling. What makes it stranger is that the final few minutes go into over the top masala Bollywood territory, totally out of place when the tone of rest of the film is so beautifully controlled on a tight leash. No matter how you look at it, the sense of disappointment is very hard to shake off once you leave the theater .
Another aspect that falls flat is the femme fatale of Swastika Mukherjee who makes the worst Bollywood debut since Nargis Fakhri in Rockstar. Most of her seduction is unintentionally hilarious at best, and her big dramatic moment only hurts the film at its weakest point. Fortunately she’s balanced out by the rest of the excellent cast, including Neeraj Kabi, Divya Menon and particularly Tiwari as the sidekick who literally kicks down doors with his side.
What works best in the film is that you absolutely do not have to be familiar with the old cases of Byomkesh Bakshy to enjoy this film. It’s perfectly calibrated for both old hats and newcomers to the character. It’s made to render a bit of pop culture to today’s audiences – after all we’ve never really had an adventurer in desi cinema. The film, ultimately, is a wicked cocktail of clues, images, sounds, emotions and sensations, and from start to end you’ll be firmly affixed to the edge of your seat. Hopefully this is the start of a franchise, and the dawn of a bold new era for Yash Raj.
(First published in Firstpost)