9 March 2012

Film review: Kahaani

Kahaani is an absolutely remarkable film for three reasons. First, it is the tautest, most involving thriller to have come out of Hindi cinema in years. Second, it is a stunningly shot city film, made inestimably more memorable by the simple move of stepping out of supremely overused Mumbai streets and increasingly familiar Delhi locations into a startlingly cinematic Kolkata. And third, it contains another bravura performance from the marvellous Vidya Balan, stepping back into the arc lights, even as the thunderous applause for The Dirty Picture continues to ring in her ears (and ours).

As Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi, a woman who arrives in Kolkata distressed and seven months pregnant, to search for a husband who has gone missing, Balan demonstrates yet again how immense the possibilities are for a talented actress who can get beyond the Bollywood preoccupation with looking glamorous on screen. Just as she filled out Silk’s ample curves with ease, giving us a glimpse of a sexuality that is joyous, libidinal and free, Balan in Kahaani embraces with grace and fullness the traditionally kept-out-of-sight body of the heavily pregnant woman.

The pregnant female body has always been in plain view, but I cannot think of another instance when it has been so unapologetically present, at least on the Hindi film screen, as it is in Kahaani. As a recent piece in Open magazine points out, Sujoy Ghosh has been preoccupied with the transformative power of motherhood for quite some time. His first film, the light and breezy Jhankaar Beats (2003), was a more or less all-boys film but featured a pregnant Juhi Chawla as the calming, strong presence in a rather confused male universe.

In Kahaani, Ghosh’s fourth film, the pregnant woman is positioned at the very core of his narrative, drawing in full measure on all the possible contradictory associations which that figure radiates in our minds: an incontrovertible sexuality, but tied to an almost sacred image of fertility; immense strength but also vulnerability – a figure who is disarming because everyone feels obliged to keep her out of harm’s way. As one character puts it in the film, “Ek pregnant aurat se kisi ko dar nahi lagta, especially jiska husband chala gaya ho”.

Ghosh marshalls this combination of an unthreatening presence and innate confidence adeptly, making his female protagonist walk fearlessly through the streets of a strange city, driven by a desire so elemental as to make her seem invincible – to find the father of her unborn child.

The city itself is expertly shot by Satyajit Pandey, using the outsider’s eye of Balan’s character to capture Kolkata in all its multi-layered glory: from tawdry “zero star” guesthouses where the reception man can only guffaw at the idea of a computerised guest record to the immaculate old-fashioned charm of Park Street’s loveliest ‘continental’ restaurants. But what is truly remarkable is the effect that Ghosh and Pandey – and their clearly consummate editor Namrata Rao (Band Baaja Baraat, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Ishqiya) – have managed to achieve: to take the throbbing pulse of Kolkata’s everyday life and make of it a ticking time bomb. Whether we are wandering through the crumbling, run-down lanes of North Kolkata, past the near-touristy sight of Kumartuli’s sculptors creating their clay images of the goddess Durga, or entering the mad Puja festivities full of beating dhaks and ululating women, the city feels unerringly real and yet filled with menace.

The unpredictable feel of the film is aided greatly by Ghosh’s refusal to peddle stereotypes. The sharp young cop is genuinely a nice guy (played by the very talented Bengali actor Parambrata Chatterjee). The plot is “about terrorism” but features no Muslims and more or less indicts the Indian state. The chilling hitman has a day job as an overweight government insurance employee (played with consummate precision by another wonderful Bengali actor, Saswata Mukherjee). We even have a woman who is a virtuoso computer expert, but the treatment of the character is so nuanced that it feels aeons away from the wannabe hacker-heroines of films like Abbas-Mustan’s Players (As in Sonam, of “Maine ethical hacking mein Master’s kiya hai” fame).

The film’s pace and characterisations are so flawless that it is hard even for a Bangla-speaker to grudge Ghosh the almost exclusive use of Hindi in what is essentially a film about a polyglot city. For the first fifteen minutes or so, my ear ached to hear much of the dialogue in Bangla instead of Hindi. But the Bengali actors, speaking Hindi in their own unique way, but without drawing unnecessary attention to their Bengali accents, ensure that the film never feels unnatural. The narrative also displays an occasional but sharply observed interest in Bengali peculiarities such as the necessity of daaknaam (nicknames), even employing it in the service of the plot. Barring Amitabh Bachchan’s tragically wrong pronuncation in the Ekla Cholo song at the end, I had no complaints as someone raised in Kolkata.

Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani proves that it is possible to make a Hindi film that is racy as well as thought-provoking, that steps bravely off the well-trodden path with both the heroine and the city at its centre, and that keeps you glued to your seat with no sex or romance as traditionally understood — and only the slightest smidgeon of blood. Bravo.

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