12 June 2016

The Salt of Time

My Mirror column:

If you can ignore the gimmicky title, Te3n's Calcutta offers both an atmospheric whodunit and an affecting take on ageing. 

There is plenty to be said about the plot of Te3n, but Ribhu Dasgupta's seond directorial venture is tense and surprising enough for me to want to keep its secrets. Suffice it to say that it tackles a subject that is beloved of thrillers and whodunits, perhaps because it is every parent's worst nightmare—the kidnapping and death of a child. An authorised remake of the 2013 Korean film Montage, the film is about the kidnapping of a little boy in the present which ends up re-opening an unsolved case from the past, and gives a guilt-ridden policeman a chance to redeem himself for previous failures. But while the Korean original directed the bulk of the audience's sympathies to the dead child's mother, the Hindi version gives emotional centre-stage to her grandfather. 

That grandfather—a once-tall man now hunched over with the twin burdens of age and sorrow—is played by Amitabh Bachchan. Much of the emotive power of the film lies in watching this man, who once strode across our screens like a colossus, transform himself into something old and frail and vulnerable. From the very first scene, in which we see him uncomfortably positioned on a wooden bench in the police station, the fatigue of long years of waiting is visible not just in his sunken cheeks, but in his gaunt frame. Bachchan's delivery, especially in the film's early and final scenes, contains too much of his star self, but his body language manages to convince us that he is that all-too-frequently seen by-product of India's non-working systems: a broken old man. 

There is, of course, an occasional glimmer of the old tenaciousness, even arrogance—and Dasgupta milks this when he can, such as the withering glance Bachchan gives a low-life who settles into the bench next to him, forcing him to make room—or the caustic comeuppance he delivers to Nawazuddin Siddiqui's policeman-turned-priest Martin for having turned his back on a case he failed to solve: "Tumhari tarah situation se bhaagna wala nahi hoon main." None of this evidence of spirit, however, prevents us from experiencing an almost bodily fear for the old man's safety as he traverses the city on his rickety old blue scooter, following up obscure new clues that no-one in the police force will give the time of day. (That projection of vulnerability shares something with Vidya Balan's pregnant heroine in Kahaani, a previous Calcutta-set thriller directed in 2012 by Sujoy Ghosh, who is producer here.) 

It seems to me no coincidence that Dasgupta chooses to set his film in Calcutta, nor that the character he places at the centre of this crumbling, once-grand city is a crumbling, once-grand man. But much like the Calcutta of which he is an embodiment, Bachchan's ageing John Biswas is down but not out. He still does his baajaar like a good Bengali man, and even steps in to cook and clean in lieu of his wheelchair-bound wife. He may walk slowly and climb gingerly, but he is both intrepid and dogged in his conquest of the obstacle race the city presents as its ordinary face. In Calcutta, Te3n suggests, even violent crime and the sharp-edged investigation of it must tangle with petty bureaucratic tyrannies. The slow deliberation that is required as a response is what Dasgupta uses to set the pace of his film. 

And though the star roles are handed to three Bombay-based talents—Bachchan and Siddiqui are joined by Balan's over-confident police officer Sarita—the filmmakers do pay atmospheric tribute to Calcutta. The daylight scenes are full of bright whites and blues, while greens and yellows dominate the dimly-lit night sequences. There is some gratuitious use of Calcutta cliches—Durga Puja and Howrah Bridge, hand-pulled rickshaws in the background and too-empty ferries in the foreground, and Clinton Cerejo's faux-Baul song annoyed me particularly. The homes we see, all located on a continuum between the romantic and the shabby, appear a little too artful. But that slight quality of excess seems right when it comes to the tubelit government office and the dilapidated rail yard, the deafening rhythms of the printing press and the plodding low rumble of the trams. The large white expanse of St. Paul's Cathedral contrasts interestingly with the more threadbare feel of the Hooghly Imambara (and though this predominance of religious spaces seems of a piece with the story's focus on death and redemption and justice, the film's primary characters being Christian seemed odd: I wondered if it was strategic, giving an audience that doesn't know better a supposed reason for these Calcuttans being Hindi-speaking.) 

What the film affords the viewer is an experience that often feels particular to Calcutta: that of peering through wooden slatted windows or creaky doors left slightly ajar, to look at those hidden places the city hugs to itself, like secrets guarded more zealously as one grows older. The city's new colours do make an occasional appearance— such as an exciting chase scene aboard the brightly patterned Duronto trains. But when events as recent as 2007 are shown to contain cassette players, one wonders if the filmmakers are insisting on ageing the city before its time.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 11 June 2016.

No comments: