The trailer of Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy prepares you for what to expect from the movie. After the end credits roll, you realize your expectations were more than sufficiently met and you have possibly witnessed one of the best Bollywood films, directorially. The movie is set in Calcutta of the 1940s, a city mired in an intoxicating sense of patriotism. No literally. With the Chinese supplying copious amounts of Opium to Calcutta and the Japanese vying for supremacy, Calcutta was a master pawn in a larger piece of the power struggle.
Byomkesh Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput in a job well done), Bengali novelist Sharadindu Bandophadhyay’s arguably the most famous creation, is a young man spurned in love for the lack of a house, estates, steady job and bank balance. He is also insanely perceptive, observational, intelligent, brazen, witty and spontaneous. Everything a private eye needs to be. We realize all these character traits once Ajit Bandopadhyay (Anand Tiwari) comes to Byomkesh asking him to help him find his missing father (Bhuvan Bandopadhyay).
One knows from the very start that this is not a simple case of an old Bengali man going missing. Byomkesh’s initial questionings and snooping lead him to Bhuvan Babu’s last abode, a no-frills boarding lodge run by Dr. Anukool Guha (Neeraj Kabi in a performance that puts him in the top contender for every award this country religiously follows) and inhabited by a seemingly motley crew of average blokes (notable ones being a legal opium trader in China Town, a middle-aged accountant and the caretaker Puntiraam, a character you take home with you because of its sheer eccentricity). Dr. Guha, evident from his introductory scene, is a man as perceptive, witty and intelligent as Byomkesh.
What follows this crucial first meeting is a macabre series of twists and turns through old Calcutta by-lanes, a seductive actress (Swastika Mukherjee; pleasantly surprised to see madam pull off sultry pretty well), a maverick genius (Bhuvan Babu, the missing man), a big politician, his hot-headed nephew hell-bent on starting a new Jai Bengal party to take on the patriarch, the calm, composed niece trying hard to keep the family intact, a British general, a Japanese dentist cum mercenary and an erstwhile Chinese drug-lord out to seek revenge against his old adversary, the one who replaced him as Calcutta’s undisputed Opium king.
What works in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy’s favor is the innate brilliance that director Dibakar Banerjee possesses in bringing stories to life in the most glorious fashion imaginable. Not a man for the usual Bollywood trappings, but you can see his many inspirations in his depiction of the screenplay, the influences drawn largely from Hollywood indie films to Korean cults. A special mention must be made for Honey Trehan whose casting couldn’t be more flawless, something that elevates the otherwise “good script” to higher crests.
As expected, the art direction and cinematography are pitch-perfect and so are the music and background score, both beautifully indie and adequately adrenalin-rush inducing, all lending beautifully to the charm of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy. I was told by a good friend that apparently Dibakar shot the entire movie in Calcutta, without creating any artificial sets. If true, then it just goes on to show the proverbial old-world, decadent charm the purists talk of while talking about the City of Joy, the time warp the city is still stuck in, something that some of us Bengalis absolutely loathe. But that’s a separate topic for another day.
Each character does a more than fabulous job of bringing the screenplay alive. Of course, this review will be incomplete without the most glowing praise for Neeraj Kabi (remember the guy who first stumbled into the consciousness of the “intellectual Indian” through Ship of Theseus where he was given some of the most meaty dialogues?). Kabi’s Anukool Guha, is everything you wish for in an epic cinematic character, one that you take home with you long after the end credits have rolled. You spend the entire movie thinking where was this gem of an actor all this while and then you throw a silent praise to the lords for Anand Gandhi having cast him in Ship of Theseus and for Dibarkar Banerjee casting him in a role that you would’ve never envisioned him play in your wildest dreams. The climax of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is all Neeraj Kabi and his powerful histrionics, understated and mellow in parts and boisterous and larger-than-life in the others.
Once the end unfolds and you are sitting in the theatre hall collecting pieces of a mind blown away, you realize Byomkesh Bakshy couldn’t have asked for a more potent nemesis and Indian cinema a more sparkling auteur than Dibakar Banerjee. After the magic of Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Bombay Talkies and Shanghai, I can’t wait for part 2, Dibakar. Oh and I’m calling dibs on being your foremost fan!
Credits: Amrita Hom Ray, Conversationalist, music junkie, movie buff, English TV show addict, bitten by the wanderlust bug, grammar Nazi, dance maniac, clean freak, hopeless romantic, finds joys in the little things in life.