Codename V

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Movie Review: Kahaani

Kahaani Poster

Bengalis got all excited by Kolkata and Durga Puja!

It is only now that Kahaani seems a case of perfect timing. But when it would have been conceptualized, the timing might have seemed most inopportune.

Vidya Balan was then seen as a Bengali­-looking actress who wasn’t heroine material. No One Killed Jessica hadn’t happened and Dirty Picture was far far away. She was oscillating between arty roles like Paa and out-and-out commercial like Kismet Konnection and Heyy Babyy. In between there were even more confused roles like in Guru where there was no character and all arc. Sujoy Ghosh was the master-director of films like Alladin. If you haven’t seen this film, please do. It is one of the few I have seen where the actual film is more interesting than the songs. The film was boring, the songs were hideous. So expectations would have been at an all-time low with a director who, while being considered one of the promising new hopes in Bengali Cinema, could actually turn Arabian Nights upside down into a lullaby.

Sujoy and Vidya

One swallow does not make a summer

But what a turnaround it has been. Since then Vidya Balan has made rapid strides in films as different as chalk and cheese, from Jessica to Dirty Picture. 2011 has been her year and she is being rightly considered the hero of her films. So it suddenly makes good sense to have signed on the current flavor of the season. We have heard such laudatory remarks for others also – from Nargis to Sridevi to Madhuri Dixit to Manisha Koirala to etcetera. Each was at one time hailed not just as a top heroine but a ‘hero’ in conventional Bollywood sense. History tells us that none survived on that perched for more than a couple of years. The height turns out to be the peak. And it is a continuous downfall after that. Be it Mother India to Chandni to Hum Aapke Hain Kaun to 1942..A Love Story. Mark my words, Vidya Balan will only go downhill from here. Kahaani just might be her most famous swan song as a ‘hero’. In the movie’s poster, she almost seems like a pregnant Durga on the run. Is Kahaani Vidya’s best work yet? No, it was Ishqiya.

Kahaani's promotion

Vidya spends two months shooting a movie and then four months promoting it.

But let’s get down to the task at hand. The review of Kahaani. This review has been deliberately delayed. So that the initial euphoria and skepticism settles down and sanity prevails. So that what comes out is a balanced judgment. I have thought about the film long and hard. Day and Night. Unfortunately, my original views have only got stronger.

First, I’ll say the good things and be done with. It is a wonderfully crafted movie. It excels in all technical departments. End.

Now the bitter part. This film is made for two kinds of people – Bengalis and those who like to see some kind of a mystery. For a film like Kahaani hasn’t been made in years.

When was the last time you saw Bengal on Hindi film screen? Please don’t mention Parineeta (pathetic movie, bad acting, poor casting, unauthentic sets, ridiculous adaptation, was presented as Devdas-first half). Inside their hearts, Bengalis wept when they saw Kahaani. It was like NRIs watching DDLJ.

The camerawork is lovely and captures Calcutta in all its Durga-Puja glory. All the clichés were thrown in Kahaani – Calcutta (check), Metro (check), Kalighat (half-check), Howrah Bridge (check), Durga Puja (double check), yellow cabs (check). Plus, a few tackily endearing ones like Bidya and nick-names. Movies on Calcutta have mostly been based in zamindar period. The one contemporary account was City of Joy which was unjustly derided as Slum Tourism. But is Kahaani the definitive movie that captures the spirit of Calcutta? No. Definitely no. Just the other day I saw The Namesake a second time and, I must say, its montage of Calcutta is the definitive one. You should see that movie for only its Calcutta scenes and how wonderfully they act as a counterfoil to the America ones. And as the missus wonderfully pointed out, Kahaani’s attempt to capture the spirit of Calcutta is similar to the effort in Shor In The City. In SITC, the city is also a character and shapes the proceedings. In Kahaani, it is a feeble supporting act. This comparison cannot be explained nor can it be understood unless you see all three movies and unless you have seen Calcutta and Bombay at close quarters without being part of them. Watch SITC for the shot of the woman in Ganpati procession dancing with a note between her lips.

Shor In The City

All have two faces - the Good and the Bad

And when was the last time you saw a mystery movie. Johnny Gaddar had anticipation but not mystery. And no talk of Aamir please. That was a bad exploitative movie – ekdum Slum Tourism. It raised no questions and gave no answers. Bollywood has never explored mystery as a genre. There have been thrillers but no mystery. But Bengal has a history of mystery in both literature and cinema. India’s greatest detectives, Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi were Bengalis. Tintin is actually a Banerjee. Heck, Satyajit Ray’s son is still making a living out of Feluda mysteries. So it is a refreshing change to see a mystery Hindi movie. And double refreshing that it has no songs. If you need any reason to watch Kahaani (and there still are people who haven’t), then this is it.

The two things, however, that hold the film together are the editing and the background score. The editor is the director. The background score is the story. Without the editor, there would have been no mystery. Without the background score, there would have been no thrill. Whoever is making their next movie, please sign on these two. They can make a mediocre film like Kahaani seem so good.

(The editor is Namrata Rao who has previously worked on Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (his best) and Love, Sex, Dhokha (his worst). The background score is credited to Clinton Cerejo who is famous primarily as a singer but has worked as a music producer on Oye Lucky! and Vishal Bharadwaj’s films like Omkara, Kaminey and Blue Umbrella.)

Why is Kahaani mediocre? Because the most important criteria for me is the story. And it is a tame thriller. If you remove the editing and background score effect. It is a mystery which can be very easily guessed. Very very easily. To put it in perspective, it is nowhere near the Feluda and Byomkesh mysteries. Agatha Christie’s detectives would be laughing t it over dinner. Holmes would keep this DVD in his collection marked as ‘it’s so bad that it’s good’.

A mystery story is like the pyramid of Tutankhamen. When you start off, you are bombarded with information; you can start from practically any side. Then as you dig deeper you discover a whole lot of treasures, and curses, and booby-traps. But if you are able to successfully see through all of this, you reach the sanctum sanctorum. The Hamunaptra. That comes in the end. The mega-punch.

But wasn’t Kahaani’s ending unexpected? Yes it was. But why isn’t it a good mystery? Because the key here is that the ending should be unexpected but not unpredictable. There are enough clues strewn along the way but you ignore them. It’s only at the end that you realize that you should have paid attention to them. The ending is always predictable. The author makes no attempt to hide any clue or mislead you. You know as much as the detective does. But still he is able to figure out the mystery while you can’t. And that brings a smile to your face, you recollect the whole story from start to end and then doff your hat at both the author and his detective. That’s what makes Holmes the best.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Had I been a film critic, I would have given Kahaani four stars. And then taken back two stars because of the ending. Because the ending doesn’t reveal the mystery. It reveals that we, the audience, had been fooled all along and misled all along. This is fine had the story been told from the Calcutta point of view and Vidya Bagchi was a character that enters into it. But throughout the film, we are made to see the story from Vidya’s point of view. We go along with her. And so what Vidya says and hears is what we say and hear. We are not the policemen. We are Vidya.

Many people have drawn comparison here with Khoj which had a similar storyline of a man searching for his missing wife, and all the while everyone he knows claim another woman to be his real wife. There it’s the hero Rishi Kapoor who enters the stage. That’s why, in Khoj, the ending comes with a bang. As a mystery, I consider Khoj better. It’s so good that I have a suspicion that it is copied. This might seem fussing over a minor issue, but as a cinematic tool it is extremely powerful. Because it decides who you are journeying with.

Kahaani is a fairly simple story. A woman arrives in Calcutta in search of her missing husband. She seems to have all proof of his existence and stay but no one else believes her. What complicates the matter is that there are no records of her husband anywhere. So far so good. The mystery ending is a series of binary questions: Does her husband actually exist or not? If yes, then why are others lying? If no, then is Vidya lying? If Vidya is lying, then is it on purpose? If yes, then what’s her hidden agenda? If no, then she must be mad or schizophrenic.

Kahaani clip

Click on image to read another like-minded review

 With this premise established in the first 30 minutes, there are complications thrown in to keep the viewer distracted or interested. You first wonder why someone gets killed when a clue is about to be discovered. Or why did the director delete Arnab Bagchi’s employee records in soft copy only to have them discovered as hard copy. Or why a contract killer keeps following Vidya but doesn’t kill her and get it over with? We realize it towards the end that this was because Vidya arrived on the first day of Durga Puja celebrations. The ending was so intricately linked to the visarjan and the red sari that he had to drag the film till the 10th day. The film would have been shorter and smarter had Vidya landed on the fifth day. But our bad luck. So we have a romantic angle. A couple of killings. Durga Puja scenes. A couple of comedy scenes. Calcutta scenes. London scenes. This goes on and on tirelessly. And I thought these guys worshipped Hitchcock.

Bob Biswas

Bob Lives!

Now comes my topmost grudge with the movie. The ‘London Scenes’. How can a director mislead his audience so shamelessly? They seem so innocuous and capture so little screen time that it is easy to ignore their effect. But for me the whole movie stands on these scenes. Chances are you have forgotten. Vidya is explaining to another woman how she only convinced her husband to come to India for work. We are shown in flashback Vidya and her husband in their London home discussing the matter. We clearly see who her husband is and remember his face. Over. Later, after the ending is revealed, we are shown a lot of flashbacks to explain the story. One of them is again the scene in London with the same conversation that Vidya had recalled, now with the real husband. This is the point we realize that Vidya had fooled the audience also all along. Which is brilliant. Many movies do that. But the director is not allowed to do that. And therein lays the difference. I shall explain this in different ways.

  1. Flashback scenes are always true. This is a cinematic rule that cannot be flouted. Because flashback scenes are possible only in cinema and no other medium. And so you cannot misuse them to mislead the audience. You can have people telling stories and lying through their teeth. But with no visuals. Because a flashback is a memory. When Vidya is recalling the conversation, the flashback visuals mean that she is recollecting the memories from her mind. And that can never be false. Try imagining your childhood friend or a cherished memory. Can you replace anybody’s face? No you can’t. The faces might seem blurred but not false.
  2. Flashbacks have been used in a lot of films. The most famous example is The Usual Suspects. If you have seen the movie, then Kahaani seems a lot familiar to it. Even in it, the flashback scene is used to show how fearsome the villain is. But the face is never shown in the flashback. Because flashbacks can’t lie. It’s only at the end of the movie we realize why we weren’t shown the face in the flashback. And then bang our heads thinking why we didn’t realize it before.
  3. Like I said above, flashbacks are a luxury only cinema can afford. What if Kahaani was in a written form. Say, a novel. Then there would have been no flashback scene shown. Only the kahaani told.
  4. But why then the flashback visuals? This was to throw the viewer totally off-track. Uptil then, we suspected that Vidya was lying and actually there is no such person as Arnab Bagchi. When we see these visuals, our mind automatically assumes it to be true since it was a flashback and we never go back to the line that Vidya might be lying.
  5. What if we were shown the flashback visuals but not the husband’s face? This would have left an iota of doubt in our mind – Why didn’t we see the face? Is it because this face is different from the one in the marriage photograph?
  6. But why show the flashback visuals at all? They were actually unnecessary to the story. Flashbacks are usually shown in movies to tell a series of events taking place over a number of days. Saying them in dialogue form would be tedious and might confuse the viewer. This where flashbacks are introduced. But in Kahaani, we were shown only couple of dialogues which Vidya was as it is narrating. If the flashbacks weren’t shown, then again we would have an iota of doubt in our mind.

But why blame the flashback scenes alone? The mystery in Kahaani is so shallow that we didn’t even need to dip our foot in to feel the depth. But the audience was never allowed anywhere near the waters. What could have been a straight-forward investigation was marred by murders and Durga Puja the moment we felt we were on to something.

So what’s my recommended list of mysteries that have become benchmarks? If you are interested – Any Holmes, Poirot or Feluda. Goldie’s Jewel Thief or Teesri Manzil. Rajesh Khanna’s Ittefaq. Rebecca. And if unimpressed by all, then 12 Angry Men to learn how to write a good mystery screenplay.

12 Angry Men

Verdict: Must-watch because such a movie hasn’t come in a long time 

Do Say: I’m falling in love with Kolkata all over again!

Don’t Say: I hope they send it to the Oscars. 

Stars:     * *

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2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Kahaani

  1. shoubhik on said:

    12 Angry Men might have a mystery, but it is not a mystery movie. The strength of the screenplay comes from the interplay between the characters and not the mystery that is resolved.

    Coming to the cheating part, there is a device used in fiction called the unreliable narrator. Ever heard about a book called the Moonstone, only the first murder mystery in English literature.

    “Wilkie Collins’ early detective story The Moonstone (1868) is an early example of the unreliable narrator in crime fiction. The plot of the novel unfolds through several narratives by different characters, which contradict each other and reveal the biases of the narrators. A controversial example of an unreliable narrator occurs in Agatha Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the narrator hides essential truths in the text (mainly through evasion, omission, and obfuscation) without ever overtly lying. Many readers at the time felt that the plot twist at the climax of the novel was nevertheless unfair. Christie used the concept again in her 1967 novel Endless Night.”

    Books apart, the unreliable narrator is used in movies like Rashomon.

    I reproduce the list given in the page for ‘unreliable narrator’ in wikipedia- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreliable_narrator

    1) Amadeus
    2) Sunset Boulevard
    3) Fight Club
    4) Citizen Kane and
    5) Rashomon

    I believe the script of Kahaani used an unreliable narrator, and once we know the true intentions of the protagonist we understand that the narrator cannot be relied on in this case.

    your turn

  2. I would still consider 12 Angry Men to be a mystery movie. The mystery doesnt arise out of the situation, which seems a straightforward open-and-shut case. It grows and develops with the dialogues. Very different from the conventional format in which the mystery is handed out in the first 30mins.

    The narrator can be unreliable. Thats fun. But not the flashback sequence. Not the director.

    I dont agree with the Wikipedia list. They are more cases of “my version of events” rather than “unreliable narrator”. In all these cases the narrator is unreliable because either he/she is in a delusional state or doesnt have the complete view/knowledge of the event.

    I repeat. I am fine with the fact that Vidya was lying and misleading the audience. Even i got misled by it. But the director didnt give us a chance to crack the ‘mystery’ by showing the flashback scenes. Vidya didnt make a video of the london conversation, no? So it was the director who was showing us those scenes. Why did he show them anyway? Why not simply remove the scenes and then see the movie?

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