Director: Dibakar Banerjee
1943 war-torn Calcutta, a wicked and violent city, its quirky sights and sounds hiding a secret in every corner. These are bloody times. A murder or two is the order of the day. World War II is at its peak, Calcutta’s skyline is dotted with Japanese fighter planes, and the sound of the warning siren is as every day as the clanging of trams. It’s also the year Byomkesh Bakshy graduates from college and lands his first case, quite by chance.
For Byomkesh Bakshi connoisseurs — borne out of Saradindu Bandopadhay’s stories or Rajit Kapoor’s Doordarshan avatar of the bhadralok sleuth, or both — Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, with a definitive ‘Y’, may seem like an audacious departure. Our Mr Bakshy is a far cry from the self-assured, reticent, calm and slightly graying at the temples, detective. Just out of college, he seems a little footloose, highly impulsive and even more restless. Heck, he’s also a jilted lover. He’s young and learning, prone to mistakes. But he is sharp and crafty, taking baby steps towards becoming the Byomkesh we have seen on television and imagined in books.
In changing the behavior of his Byomkesh, Dibakar Banerjee makes his intentions clear right from the start. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! doesn’t mean to be another direct translation of a Saradindu story on screen. And because of that the film goes beyond a whodunit, it transcends its own genre. It’s not just the story that is unraveling, but the detective too. He’s not an objective crime solver, going about his duty. He has become a part of the crime that is continuously unfolding and he is in trouble too. So it’s more of an adventure than just clinically solving a case.
The director has completely reinvented the character of Ajit, the Dr Watson to Byomkesh’s Holmes. The story starts when Ajit’s father, a chemical scientist, disappears under mysterious circumstances and he approaches an arrogant Byomkesh to solve the case. The case leads Byomkesh to a boarding house owned and run by a Dr Anukul Guha, who administers free health care to the poor. Ajit’s father was staying there before he went missing. To get a better grip on the case, Byomkesh shifts base to the boarding house, to get himself acquainted better with the missing person’s housemates. And as he goes deeper into the puzzle, he slowly realises it’s far bigger than an everyday case. It’s a dirty nexus between the Japanese Army, a Chinese gang, the film industry and politicians, orchestrated by one mastermind criminal, and all the action unfolds in the backdrop of opium trade in Chinatown, Calcutta, 1943.
The film follows the core structure of whodunit — the chase, the red herrings, the slow cooked suspense leading up to a grand reveal. There’s a generous spray of blood too, that underlines just how violent those times were. But deviating once again from formula, Dibakar’s exposition scene is only a gateway to the climax. While the surprise element is welcome, there seems to be a stretch there and a theatrical one too. And it doesn’t entirely free your mind of questions either. After a stunning build-up, this is a mild let down.
But Dibakar keeps you guessing till the very end in this unabashedly noir Bengal pulp drama. And his leading man Sushant shows just why he was fit for the job. He gets the body language right and brings the right amount of boyish edge this amateur detective needs. He’s no superhero, he throws up at the sight of a rotten body, he withdraws into a shell when he realises he has been made a fool of. The actor adequately brings out every shade of his character. He never sweeps you off your feet, he doesn’t even mean to, it takes you a while to like him but he earns your trust and you are by his side throughout.
The supporting cast is rock solid, be it Anand Tiwari as the nerdy Ajit or Neeraj Kabi as the razor sharp physician, or Divya Menon as Satyavati, Meiyang Chang as housemate Kanai and the steely seductress actress Swastika Mukherjee as Anguri Devi. Each character is a stack of layers and these actors do a fine job hiding and revealing them as the story requires.
The production design and stunning camera work breathes life into Dibakar’s story. There’s a sequence in the beginning where the city in all its detail unravels outside the window of a moving tram as it cuts through traffic, while Sushant, sitting by the window, remains out of focus. Very subtly the canvas is set for the story to unfold. And adding to its pulpy edge is the film’s background score. Thrash metal in 1940s, middle class Bengal. With a score like that, who needs lip sync songs?
There are two kinds of audiences for this film — those who know Byomkesh and those who don’t. Dibakar has a revelation for both. That’s one case neatly solved.