This movie is just remarkably good all around, and Sushant is the center of all that goodness. More people should watch it to enjoy the pure quality of excellence on screen.
This is a movie I showed to my brother-in-law and he actually liked it! Despite his general disliking for Hindi films. That’s the thing with this movie, it is a Hindi film for people who don’t usually like Hindi films. Of course, conversely, that means that it is NOT a Hindi film for people who usually like Hindi films. Minimal songs, emotion, relationships. Maximum action, logic puzzles, and in depth historical recreation.
I first saw it in the theaters, at a 10:30am matinee with just me and my friend in the theater. Which I think is the only way I would have learned to enjoy it. Because I was in the theater, so I was stuck not just finishing the movie, but focusing on it. And since we were alone in the theater, my friend and I could also talk about it as it was playing and sort of help each other get into the mood. And by the end, I not only really really loved the film, it inspired me to track down Howrah Bridge and CID and some other old school Noir classics. Because, and I gave a little talk about this at a conference a few years back, Byomkesh is a total throwback to that era in all kinds of different ways.
I’m not going to make you sit through the whole talk, because why would you want to, but here is the big thing you need from my research for it, the British Film Institute’s list of the necessary elements of a classic Noir film:
Byomkesh has it all! Except for “European emigre director” and “Script based on American pulp fiction”. Because it has a Bengali emigre to Bombay director instead, and a script based on Bengali pulp fiction. But otherwise, identical!
Including the plot being complex and/or far-fetched, which means my spoilers section of this is going to include a lot of “I didn’t follow this part”. And also means, you SHOULD NOT read the spoilers before you see the movie! It is SUCH a great plot! At least, what little of it I could follow.
Going back to my beginning point, this is why it works so well for the kind of people who usually say “Indian films? Yuck!” It’s not about turning off your brain and just feeling things, it’s about turning on your brain and turning off your heart.
Ouch, that sounds mean. There is still heart there, definitely. But the goal of the film is not to evoke an emotional response, it is to challenge you intellectually. In all sorts of ways. From catching the occasional little language play in the dialogue, to making us notice neat little continuity Easter eggs (like how Byomkesh gets an idea in the middle of shaving, and then for the next few scenes his face is only have clean-shaven), to tracking the relationships through little moments, not through big declations and fantasy songs.
A big part of this is the removal of songs entirely. There’s a few quick snatches of sound, but they are there to evoke the era more than anything else, not to speak to the character’s emotional state, or to try to bring out that same emotion in the viewer. So I guess it’s not a removal of songs, as much as an ALMOST removal of songs.
In the same way, there is an almost removal of romance, and of relationships. The other big tenants of Indian film. Oh, and also of stars.
That “almost” is why I feel like I could only enjoy this movie thanks to seeing it alone in a theater with a friend to discuss it with. The relationship and romance and star and song stuff that I enjoy is still there, I just had to be focused enough to see it. To treat it like a “mystery”, with tiny little clues along the way, just like everything else in the film.
The end result is, I think I was more committed to it all! Because I had to focus so much, the little bits that I gleaned became that much more powerful and meaningful to me, then if they had just been thrown in my face the way they usually are. Everything, from wanting to follow Sushant Singh Rajput’s career, to wanting to read the stories so I could learn more about Byomkesh’s wife, to listening to the soundtrack at work.
Now, in my SPOILER section, I am going to deal with the actual “mystery” in a very superficial manner. Because if you’ve seen the movie, you know all about it anyway. And if you haven’t seen the movie, DON’T READ THE SPOILERS. But what I want to really dig into and discuss is all the side-stuff that I enjoyed so much more, the little call-back jokes and relationship hints and character building.
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Ready for the mystery plot in no time at all? I’m not even going to go through it as we discover it in the movie, I’m just going to lay it out chronologically as everything would have happened. 4 years earlier, the local head of the Chinese opium gang was forced out and “killed”. He managed to survive, and instead went into hiding pretending to be a landlord and ayurvedic doctor, gaining the trust of the neighborhood. He discovered one of his tenants was a brilliant chemist who had come up with a way of hiding heroine so that it would only appear chemically once it was processed by the body. He sent his mistress to get close to the owner of a chemical factory so they could use it to process the opium. And, at the same time, he became close to a local Japanese spy who was secretly training young freedom fighting college students to help the Japanese invade and take over Calcutta, with the promise of them giving the college students a Free Bengal. Finally, it was all coming together, he was helping the Japanese plan their attack using the opium routes, he killed the chemist to get him out of the way, and faked blackmail letters to the factory owner to frame him for the murder and get rid of him too. When that didn’t work, he had his mistress kill the factory owner for him. He was going to take over the Calcutta underground with the support of the Japanese and the freedom fighting students who were innocent of the bigger plots. Enter Byomkesh! Who figures out the whole plan just in time, alerts the British to stop the invasion and save the city (not that the British are great, but they are better than the Japanese/a crazed drug dealer would have been), makes sure all the innocents are released from prison, and is generally great.
What makes the movie really jaw dropping in plotting is how the first half shows Byomkesh easily solving all the mysteries. Finding the chemist’s body, figuring out he was making opium, discovering the involvement of the factory owner and the blackmail, it all seems to be falling into place and clear. And then at the interval, the audience learns along with Bakshy that all our solutions were set-ups, there is a whole other level to the game we didn’t even see.
Which brings me straight to characters, the part I found interesting! This is very much an origin story. But it’s not just “and then I discovered I was really good at solving mysteries”. It’s a lot more than that. It is showing how Bakshy was driven to this career not just by his intellect, but by his ethics and his character and his internal pain.
(Wouldn’t it be great if we could go back and get an origin story for Don? How did he become so smart and powerful and ruthless? What happened to him?)
We first meet Bakshy in the college lounge, he is a brilliant student but no one likes him because he is so rude. He rejects Ajit’s initial advances both because he isn’t interested in solving a mystery and because he isn’t interested in making a friend. But then we see him meeting with a young female student, telling her that he has a good job offer, everything her parents might want, so they can get married now, right? And she gives him her wedding card, for her marriage to an even more successful student.
So, what have we learned? Bakshy is a kind of unpleasant difficult person. But he wants to be “normal”, kind of. He is in love, he is ready to get a normal reliable job and marry this nice shy looking girl and live like everyone else. And then he fails, she doesn’t want his efforts, she wants someone else who is naturally successful. And so he gives up on the “normal” and throws himself into the mystery Ajit offered him.
And he really has fun! At first, he is into it for the excitement of solving mysteries. It’s a challenge, but it’s kind of a “boy’s adventures story” kind of thing. He gets to dress up and meet new people and solve riddles. And explore deserted factories and be seduced by beautiful women. And, most of all, he is able to find a partner in this, the equally quick and sort of on a different level then most people Doctor who runs his rooming house.
But then the second half hits. And all of a sudden he sees that his fun adventure has real consequences for real people. The Doctor becomes his dark mirror, someone who chose to use his intelligence and ability to see the truth of a situation to manipulate events with total self-interest. Byomkesh is disgusted to see how he himself was used, how his simple enjoyment of puzzle solving was turned into something to be used for evil purposes. And he determines that he must continue with this mystery, not for the joy of solving it (although it’s still kind of fun, both for Byomkesh and the viewer), but because it serves a larger moral purpose in the world. Byomkesh has grown up into the real “Truth seeker” he was meant to be, in it for the virtue and the higher purpose and the true justice, not just for thrills.
This is where the “Star” part of the film is still present. Sushant is really really good in this. Really giving himself to the character, which means being opaque for the first bit, then overly eager for the second, and finally kind of serious and opaque again in the end. It’s not a showy role, it doesn’t scream “A Star is Born”. But the film works better if you pay attention to Sushant, if you let him be your total focus, just like star driven narratives are supposed to work. It’s a similar trick to what he pulls off in Dhoni, keeping the real life person and story as the centerpiece, but still allowing himself to be the focus of this version of it.
(This is another movie my brother in law would really like. If it is out on DVD or streaming by Christmas, I might suggest it for another family viewing)
And Byomkesh’s two biggest relationships, Ajit and Satyabati, both play a big part in these character shifts, and serve as markers for the audience to track them. At first, Byomkesh rejects Ajit. Ajit is emotionally conflicted over his father’s dissappearance, it is the kind of emotion Byomkesh doesn’t want to think about. And Ajit himself is a faithful follower and clearly a “good man”, but is not the sort of exciting distraction Byomkesh wants.
Usually in Noirs, the hero is torn between the “good” and “bad” woman, and that is the case here as well (although he is never really attracted to the “bad” woman, more kind of puzzled by her). But more than that, he is torn between the “good” and “bad” partner. Ajit, simple and sincere and loyal. Versus Dr. Anukul, who is quick and witty and a little bit more complex. In the first half, Byomkesh is drawn to Anukul and rejects Ajit. But then he discovers witty and fun Anukul was only witty and fun because he truly didn’t care how his actions affected others. When Anukul invites him to join in his campaign, to live a life of thoughtless adventure and mind games and domination and power, Byomkesh is horrified at himself. And retreats to Ajit.
In the second half of the film, we get to see the beginnings of the partnership between Byomkesh and Ajit, which is also the beginnings of Byomkesh learning to relate to people as people, not as puzzles. It’s not just Ajit, he also feels responsibility for the young freedom fighters that Dr. Anukul is leading to their death, for the undercover cop who lives in the rooming house with them, for eventually all the people of Calcutta who are under threat from the Japanese.
That’s another thing I love about this movie, how humanist it is. Byomkesh the character, and the film, both have a strong message of “we aren’t judging the Japanese, or the British, or the Chinese drug gangs. We are just trying to find the solution that will cause the least death and pain to the people of Calcutta.” It’s an era in Indian/Bengali history when there are no clear “good guys” or “bad guys”. Yes, the British had been oppressing them for over 100 years. But, on the other hand, the Japanese are actively bombing the city. Even the Chinese drug gangs, the film makes sure we are aware, are a side-effect of the evils of Colonialism, under British rule the opium trade was tolerated in India, and encouraged in China. And these gangs have their own code of honor and ethics, in the long run it is better to let them continue their trade than give the city over to Dr. Anukul. That’s the bottom line, Dr. Anukul is the only character who really truly does not care about anything besides himself. And therefore is the character who (along with those he has tricked into joining his plan) can cause the most amount of damage to the people of Calcutta.
While the growth of Byomkesh and Ajit’s bond is the biggest sign of Byomkesh’s heart opening up (to put it in very sentimental language), the romance is the culmination of all of this. I know it doesn’t look this way, if you aren’t watching for it you might not even notice the romance is happening. But I think Banarjee the director was counting on us knowing to watch closely. Because his marriage to Satyavati is such a well-known element of the books, as soon as her character was introduced, we should have been studying her and Byomkesh’s reactions to her.
First, she confronts him. He is running all over the place through his house, and she holds her ground and confronts him. Second, she makes a quick decision to trust him and help him gain entrance to the police captain, and is able to easily use her strength of character to make it happen. Third, she goes to his all male rooming house and tries to hire him, which is what brings him out of his depression following the realization of how he has been tricked. And she takes charge of the treatment for his illness, confidently ordering proper food food for him. Fourth, at the very end, she is the first thing he thinks of in the final confrontation, diving across the room to grab her hand and pull her to safety.
Byomkesh thought he wanted a “normal” wife, that shy little co-ed we saw at the beginning. But now that he has embraced his true self, his non-conforming brilliant self, he also knows he doesn’t really want that. He wants someone who is made of stronger stuff, who is a little unusual, who not everyone will notice or appreciate. And who challenges him to be better.
Alternatively, there is the “femme fatale”, who is constantly using tricks and wiles to try to confuse him. And only succeeding in making him feel vaguely uncomfortable. It confirms that he doesn’t want a “tricky” wife either, he wants someone who is bluntly straight-forward.
(Why Lauren Gottlieb? Why not, I guess?)
Satyavati sees through his simple charade to gain entrance to her house. But she also sees that he can help and she should trust him when he shows up again, half-shaven, at the police station. She sees him more clearly than anyone else ever has. And later, she helps him see himself. When she appears at their boarding house, begging for help, he suddenly sees how his talents can help others, and why he can’t just give up and give in. And he sees her clearly too, and sees that she has already chosen him for her life partner.
I really like her character, so simple and straight-forward and strong. And one of my favorite parts is when the poor rooming house servant comes in with snacks and she immediately starts giving him direction on what Byomkesh should be eating. First, confidently knowing she has the answer. Second, completely comfortable giving directions to this servant she has never met before who works for a bunch of men in an all male rooming house. And third, no concern about the obvious statement it makes of her interest in this man, that she is taking control of his care and feeding.
Byomkesh diving for her at the end feels out of nowhere, lazy, unless you have been watching closely for the rest of the film. And then it feels natural. She sparked his interest, she took control of his life, they were already a couple without needing to say anything.
Although he does have to actually propose. I love his proposal, telling her that “all he has to offer is Ajit”. As in, “Ajit, my loyal friend who is both a possession and a family member”. And her calm (well, calm for someone who just survived a massive gunfight) reaction, which feels kind of like “well, okay, I hadn’t thought about it before but now that you say it, this is obvious”.
That’s what their whole romance is, obvious. There’s no games, no hidden emotions, it’s all there if you look for it. The audience just needs to look.
Like everything else in the film, the clues to the mystery, the character building, the relationships, it’s all there in front of you if you look hard enough.