We live in interesting times. In the last two months, two period films released—Bombay Velvet, and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! The former is set in Bombay of the 1960s while the latter is set in Calcutta of the 1940s. Somehow, the subject matter of both the films reminded me of two of my favorite books—Midnight's Children (Salman Rushdie), and The Sea of Poppies (Amitav Ghosh). I did watch both the films, and really liked both of them. I will write on Bombay Velvet later, but in this one, I try to write something on Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a gorgeous film. Directed by Dibakar Banerjee and based on the stories by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay, the film traces the origins of its eponymous hero Byomkesh Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput). Set in Calcutta during the Second World War, Ajit (Anand Tiwari) comes to Byomkesh to help him find his missing father. What seems a simple tale of person gone missing turns into an international conspiracy involving many countries, drugs, and multiple dead bodies.
One of the themes that pervades through the film is some sort of a sexual tension among the characters. There are strong sexual undercurrents that could be felt but are not explicit. The most perceptible one is between Byomkesh and Anguri Devi. She, in fact, seduces him by giving him a look of her svelte body, and her slender thigh and legs. Whenever Byomkesh asked her a question, she used her sexuality as a weapon to dodge him into submission, like the instance where she drags him to a room when he came to visit Sikdaar, and kisses him. Also, the instance where she asks her minion to bring Byomkesh to the bathroom, where again, she tries to allure him. These sexual undertones are prevalent in other characters, too, but are extremely understated. For instance, when Byomkesh opens Bhuvan Banerjee's paan box, he finds a pornographic booklet depicting various stages of coitus. Bhuvan Banerjee has a wife who is perhaps similar in age to his son Ajit. This and the booklet indicate an erotic nature of Bhuvan Banerjee. There is another such instance. There is a woman who is seen only as a blurred figure and stays in the room right opposite to Byomkesh's room. There are at least two instances where Byomkesh closes the door when he sees her underscoring a sort of a sexual tension between him and the lady. I also felt the instance where Dr. Guha revealed that he was a freedom fighter, and asked Byomkesh to join the movement, had strong homoerotic tones. The way that Dr. Guha puts his hand on Byomkesh's head, and tries to set his hair, and the way Byomkesh is repulsed by it highlighted this homoeroticism; also, not to forget the fact Dr. Guha puts a board outside his house that says, "Kewal purushon ke liye", that it is only for men. At a later instance, Ajit even remarks that Dr. Guha seems to love Byomkesh. I will be very curious to see Dr.Guha's or Yang Guang's sexual antics in the coming sequel (if at all).
The other thing that is worth mentioning is the fallibility of Byomkesh. He is not some superhero or a wizard, he is a very ordinary man with no real special skill to really boast about. He is almost a loser. He gets beaten up by a man who is half his height. He does not work and has no friends, and plays carrom all by himself. He is no genius, rather he has to make his way in a world filled with geniuses. He does not even get his love as his girlfriend leaves him for a Chemistry gold medalist. He bangs his head into bird cages. He misses obvious clues that are right in front of him. He is fooled and seduced easily. At many places, he calls himself a fool and a moron. At one point, a newspaper report calls him Sherlock Holmes, and the scene where he introduces himself to Dr. Guha, he does by saying, "Bakshy, Byomkesh Bakshy," a reference to James Bond. But what is important is he is completely different from these two. He is not like the two of them, and his ordinariness sets him apart. In fact, he hates being called a detective (though I don't get why the film titled it as a detective), because he is a satyanweshi, someone who is seeking the truth as this delicious profile on him says. When he is being asked by Dr. Guha to go to the police, he says, "It is a case of murder, what has the police got to do with it?" He has no hesitation taking help from his ex-girlfriend's husband because he wants to know the truth. He pukes at the sight of the dead bodies; he is no strong-hearted Superman, but a somewhat clumsy ordinary human seeking truth, and perhaps, that explains his criminals are also ordinary, too. At one point during the end, he remarks, "Mere hisaab se vo ek bahut sadhaaran insaan hai, jo dhokebaaz hai aur kaayar bhi." He is no nationalist either. He cares nothing if Gandhi is in jail or out, he won't give money for his release. He has no hesitation working with the imperialist British police because he is only a satyanweshi. One of my absolutely favorite moments was the scene when Satyawati comes with her jewellery, and pleads Byomkesh to save her brother. He asks why only him, and she replies, "Kyunki aap dekh sakte hai." Byomkesh who all this while had a cloth over his eyes, then, takes it off, as if giving action to her words. That moment is his extraordinary ordinariness (to borrow a phrase from this piece); he can easily take the cloth from over his eyes to see the things which other people don't. He can see and that is his strength. He is not blinded by emotions and relationships. Note the instance when being asked by the police officer on who asked him to investigate Bhuvan's murder, he says, "Laash ke bete ne," only mentioning the name of the dead body later, because in his mind, all he sees is a dead body.
Cannot see because of the cloth
Takes the cloth off to see things
Dibakar Banerjee creates a gorgeous Calcutta. Each shot is painstakingly detailed. The historical authenticity of the film can be questioned, but without a doubt he creates a fabulous world. At one instance, there is a splendid shot of Satyawati, when she visits Byomkesh in a burqa. There is a lone betel leaf and its image that is floating in the water tank, and it gives the impression of a shape of a heart. It is a beautiful, beautiful scene. The film is filled with such spectacular shots. Be it the sight of Calcutta shots from the windows of tram, the seedy underbelly of China town, or the sequences in Shanghai (which incidentally was also the name of Dibakar's last film), the visual effects of the film are par excellence.
At one instance, we see posters of two films—Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, and Howard Hughes' The Outlaw. Dibakar's fascination for foreign directors is well known. Shadow of a Doubt is based on a perfect murder, and The Outlaw is based on story of a sex symbol; reading the plot of the two films gives clear indications of references in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! too. There is another splendid shot during the chase scene when Sukumar's assistant is chasing Byomkesh and Ajit. Through the windows of an ambassador car, we see that a man first bumps into Ajit and Byomkesh, and then the same man bumps into Sukumar's assistant, later. It is a terrific shot, and is executed brilliantly. I am sure there is a Hollywood reference to this sequence, but given my lack of knowledge on that subject, I cannot validate.
The Outlaw and Shadow of a Doubt
At one point, Byomkesh says, "Sach ke aas paas vala jhooth pakadna mushkil hota hai." A good lie is never far from the truth. Perhaps that explains the somewhat disappointing climax of the movie. In the first scene itself, Yang Guang comes and kills the Chinese drug dealers, and speaks something as well. From that voice, we know who Yang Guang is most likely to be, and it is only validated at the end. There was actually no suspense created; at the very least, Yang Guang should not have spoken anything and kept us guessing till the end. Though I kept thinking that I am wrong, at one point I assumed that Kanai (Meiyang Chang), and at another point, thought that Ajit was the killer, but it was Dr. Guha all along and it was only confirmed in the end. This was perhaps what the film tried to say when Dr. Guha came out as a freedom fighter. It might have been assumed that Dr. Guha's lie was closest to truth, and that was difficult to catch, but the fact they showed who Yang Guang was in the beginning, it became too easy to catch this lie. If the murder mystery was not intended, then, it is a different matter, but the feeling of disappointment in climax is for sure there. Even a dumb like me who is never able to guess the murderer in any film saw this, though the film did manage to confuse me that I might be wrong.
Anguri Devi symbolized the capture and occupation of her city Rangoon. Her subjugation and need for love from Yang Guang was a representation of her city Rangoon, which was under Japanese control. The fact that she dies was again referring to the capture of Rangoon by the Japanese forces. I need to rewatch if the other characters were a representation of their cities. For instance, was Satyawati a representation of the city of Calcutta? She is beautiful, cultured, headstrong, but not completely independent, like the city of Calcutta itself. And, the British Police Inspector Wilke always had a dog with him, was that some indication how Britishers treated India? Perhaps, that explains the scene where there is written History of Love on the board, and beneath that is written Sexual and Divine, and Feudalism and Oppression. The sexual and divine nature of Anguri Devi contrasts with feudalism and oppression of Rangoon.
In the beginning, Byomkesh finds a book in Bhuvan Banerjee's suitcase, The Golden Book of Chemical Explorations. Interestingly, a book with the same exact cover is available on Amazon with the title The Golden Book of Chemical Experiments. I really like it that film changed the name to explorations, where it indeed takes us through an exploration of Strychnine rat poisons, invisible heroin, and addictive paan masalas.
Later, Sukumar's assistant reads Inside Detective magazine. In what could be another use of a cinematic device, the same book of Chemical Explorations is seen hanging on a wire behind him, in addition to Life magazine. This Life magazine is again found at the sight of the murder where Sukumar's assistant, and Dr. Watanabe's assistant are found dead. It is irony that Life magazine is found where two people are found dead. Was the earlier scene where both the books were behind Sukumar's assitant some kind of indication of the impending death? We can only guess.
Both the books are the back
There are some intriguing things which I have not been able to come up with a convincing explanation for:-
- The fancy dress party where a man comes and says the policeman that he is wearing a nice dress, and he remarks that is his uniform. Was that a joke that the police is doing nothing and is only wearing dresses, while another man is saving Calcutta?
- The joke on the damsel in distress, at two places Ajit calls Satyawati, "Bechari, Besahara." What was that about?
- The meaning of one eye between them. Why did Yang Guan gouge his own eye? An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind?
- Was there any special significance of Hajmoll apart from the fact that it also had an addictive effect like heroin? There is a focus given to this product in the film.
- Any meaning of the flowers that Satyawati was holding, and later the gardener was seen among them, and Dr. Watanabe was seen smelling.
- Was Byomkesh's unibrow a reference to his one-dimensional world? He is somewhat stubborn, was this a way of representing this view?
- Byomkesh takes a bath two times. Was there any special reason behind it?
One of my favorite characters was the servant Putiram (Pradipto Kumar Chakraborty). The way his hands shook when putting anything on the table, the way he emoted his eyes, the way he jumped over dead bodies on being asked to prepare tea and clean blood, he was simply fabulous. Another thing that stands out is the absolutely terrific music by Sneha Khanwalkar. She is a star. O Womaniya! If only they had used it more evenly in the film. And, the ending credits are simply gorgeous, one of the best ever made.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a beautiful film. Although the pacing is slow, I don't have issue with films that are like that as long as its proceeds somewhere. It is not a perfect film, but any film of Dibakar is much better than some of the other run-of-the-mill stuff that we see everyday. Perhaps, perfection might be achieved in the sequel, and I will keep waiting for it.
Dialogue of the Day:
"Hum jaise middle class log apne desh ke liye kabhi kuch karte hai ?" — Byomkesh
"Filmein dekhte hain. Chalo!" — Ajit
Yes, yes, let us all go :)
P.S.— Deliberately did not write femme fatale anywhere above, because there is just no review without it. Also, recommend to check out www.detectivebyomkeshbakshy.com. It is marvelous. Somehow, I am not able to write it the way I wanted, so, if simply cut the crap what I wrote and read the two best reviews here and here.