Sunday, April 05, 2015

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! by Dibakar Banerjee

It is hard to live up to nostalgia. Byomkesh Bakshi is nostalgia distilled and concentrated by time. The story is immensely popular among native Bengali speakers. But even in the Hindi belt he has been immortalized in the Rajat Kapoor led Doordarshan series of the 90s. Thus, the expectations the 2015 adaptation by Dibakar Banerjee faced were of Himalayan proportions.

How do you live up to nostalgia? By not catering to it at all. Right from the opening sequence, the movie upends all expectations. Sushant Singh Rajput looks nothing like Rajat Kapoor. Kapoor's Byomkesh was poised, mature and in command. Rajput's is young, excitable and bumbling. But that's that point.

The film narrates the journey of a young Byomkesh who is bored with his life to the point of playing carrom with himself. There's a fledgling love interest which isn't really panning out. Perhaps all this has to do with his terrible social graces. In this state of utter loser-dom, he is approached by Ajit Bandopadhyay (who will later grow to be the Watson to his Holmes) to solve the case of the disappearance of his father.

Byomkesh embarks upon the investigation with gusto. He is driven in part by the prospect of getting handsomely paid - enough to marry the love interest that's soon going to get married to a (presumably rich) doctor. But mostly he's driven by his own obsession. Byomkesh cannot resist a good mystery.

And eventually his becomes his foil. Without giving too much up, the audience discovers that Byomkesh is ultimately being used by men much more powerful and cunning than he is. The plot spans multiple themes - drug trade, femme fatales, politics, WWII and freedom fighters. Byomkesh finds himself in deeper and deeper holes but manages to save the world in the end (of course!).

And over the period of the movie, he grows. I really liked the development of the chemistry between Byomkesh and Ajit. Byomkesh' growth as a detective and a person is also well done. One shortcoming of the movie was that there were too many peripheral characters which get introduced but aren't put to much use later on. The film could also have used tighter editing.

The soundtrack, besides being absolutely delightful, is also one of the way audience expectations are completely turned on their heads. Gone are the surreal tones of the 90s TV show. We are hit hard with a blood pumping heavy metal score recorded with independent artists and giving a much needed voice to the upcoming Bengali rock scene.

The visuals are impeccable. Every frame a painting indeed. The atmosphere is immersive - transporting the audience to 1940s Calcutta like no film has ever done. This alone is the biggest strength of the movie. The sound editing is impressive. Despite sitting in an American suburban movie theater, I couldn't help but feel like I was back in India at moments.

The dialog, though, was weak at times. I don't know why but I had the feeling that at least some of it was written first in English and then translated to Hindi without much thought. However, the script was very solid. Usually I often have trouble following detective fiction plot but that wasn't an issue here. And the final threat that Byomkesh had to face felt really big and credible. The backdrop of WWII was a clever ploy that lend sufficient gravity to the dangers our protagonists had to face.

People are going to get very upset with me for saying this but I think Dibakar Banerjee has managed to do with Byomkesh Bakshy what Guy Ritchie failed to do with his 2009 Sherlock adaptation.

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