Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! review: Beautiful, stylish yet this is Dibakar's most underwhelming film so far
Banerjee's Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! has little in common with the literary Byomkesh. The film credits say the story and characters are based on Saradindu Bandopadhyay's series, but that is Banerjee being polite. He's taken only names and trivial details from the short stories. The blend of history and fiction, the elegant violence and the odes to noir in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy make it uniquely Banerjee's creation.
Within the first few minutes of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, you understand why Dibakar Banerjee is widely regarded as the best director in Bollywood. One simple, unremarkable tram ride through Calcutta is all Banerjee needs to establish the world in which his new film is set. In the foreground of the frame is Byomkesh (Sushant Singh Rajput), out of focus, with his back to the window. The city beyond the window is in sharp focus — because the real hero of Banerjee's film is the Calcutta that the director has imagined.
A gorgeous mix of fantasy and reality, Banerjee's Calcutta is as pretty and delicate as a watercolour painting, but with accents of noir. Shadows loom large here and a hundred shades of darkness haunt its streets. Opium and crime lace the wintry air. The second World War and the threat of Japanese bombs threaten the colonial city. In the middle of all this is a young detective, working on his first case.
When his father can't be found for two months, Ajit (Anand Tiwari) approaches Byomkesh for help. As far as Byomkesh is concerned, there's no mystery here. Considering how long he's been untraceable, Ajit's father is not a missing person but a dead man and Byomkesh bluntly says as much to Ajit. Net result: Ajit literally punches Byomkesh's lights out. Needless to say, it's the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
Byomkesh takes on Ajit's case partly because he feels bad for Ajit and because Byomkesh's ego demands he find evidence to prove his theory that Ajit's father has been murdered. The investigation quickly swirls towards danger when it turns out that a local politician, his mistress, a scary Japanese dentist and Chinese drug dealers are all players in this nasty affair. Throats are slashed, blood spurts, vamps shimmy in and out, sirens wail — and in the middle of all this is Byomkesh, trying to piece together a gory jigsaw puzzle.
Those expecting a factually-perfect vision of Calcutta in 1942 will be disappointed as will those who are expecting to see Saradindu Bandopadhyay's Byomkesh. Neither are present in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!. Banerjee's Calcutta has none of the ravages of famine and despair that scarred the historical Calcutta of that era. This is not a failing. After all, Banerjee is not making a documentary. He's chosen to go with the imaginary, rather than the factual and more power to him for making that choice. There are few people in Indian cinema — mainstream or otherwise — who have an imagination as rich as Banerjee's. Fewer yet have the ability to translate their visions into reality as beautifully as Banerjee has.
Banerjee's Byomkesh has little in common with the literary Byomkesh. The film credits say the story and characters are based on Saradindu Bandopadhyay's series, but that is Banerjee being polite. He's taken only names and trivial details from the short stories. The blend of history and fiction, the elegant violence and the odes to noir in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy make it uniquely Banerjee's creation. The film has some spectacular moments, like the climax that's shown mostly with shadowplay, which show Banerjee at his most stylish and wicked. Not all the opium in the world would have inspired Bandopadhyay to come up with such sequences.
The hero of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is less like his namesake and more like Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat's Sherlock — awkward, socially inept, often foolhardy and somewhat egoistical. He's not a satyanweshi, or truth seeker, like the literary Byomkesh but a puzzle-solver. He doesn't have the literary Byomkesh's razor sharp intelligence. He misses details and takes his time to figure out rather obvious connections. There are also shades of Hercule Poirot and even Inspector Clouseau in Banerjee's Byomkesh. Still, because Banerjee is a wittier storyteller than Bandopadhyay, there are some delightful sequences in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, particularly the ones that show Byomkesh with Ajit, which add a touch of laughter to a largely humourless film.
On paper, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! sounds fantastic. The mix of history and noir is both ambitious and exciting. Unfortunately, it's in the telling that the film suffers. For all its aesthetic wins, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is felled by one critical flaw: it's a whodunnit in which you don't really care who's done it. And if you've read your share of murder mysteries and watched a lot of CSI (like this reviewer), then you'll figure out who's done it well before Byomkesh does, which is quite a letdown.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is slow and lacks tension, which is criminal for a thriller. The lazy and inept editing makes the entire film suffer and exposes the weaknesses in Banerjee's story. Characters like the vamp and the Chinese drug dealers conveniently disappear and reappear. Bad guys are incredibly open to sharing information with Byomkesh when he needs them to do so. A man goes underground and then it turns out that the neighbourhood taxi driver knew where he was all along. Loose ends are tied up very unconvincingly. There are matrimonial ads with more chemistry and romance than Byomkesh's love story in the film.
For all the beautiful production design, the clever use of contemporary indie music as the soundtrack, and the stylish cinematography, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is Banerjee's most underwhelming film so far. It's still significantly better than the average Bollywood fare, but the standards that Banerjee has set with his past work are high and this film just doesn't meet some very basic expectations.
The other critical failing in the film is in the acting department. Swastika Mukherjee as the vamp is intent upon setting a record for how many times an actress can make the audience roll their eyes. Debutant Divya Menon has a barely-there role and fails to make any impression. The cast includes some excellent actors and two of them deliver superb performances. Neeraj Kabi is fantastic as Byomkesh's landlord, Anukul Guha. In one long scene, all he has to do is laugh manically, again and again — it's a testament to Kabi's acting talent that he's able to keep braying with laughter without making his character seem like a over-the-top lunatic.
Anand Tiwari as Ajit is a delight. Whether it's a serious scene or deadpan comedy, Tiwari's timing is superb. It's also impressive that he convinces us that he's the brawny one, given Tiwari is about half of Rajput's height and width.
Rajput has the weight of the film on his shoulders and while his performance isn't bad, the actor struggles to be the star in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy. Part of this may be because Banerjee's Byomkesh lacks consistency. He's a patchwork of character traits taken from other famous fictional detectives. Rajput has shown a lot of promise in past films but here, he lacks charisma and isn't able to hold the audience's attention, especially when he's got actors like Kabi for company.
Also, for reasons best known to Banerjee, there's an attempt to downplay Rajput's looks by giving him a unibrow that looks like it's been coloured in by a toddler with an eyebrow pencil. The actor also looks like he was dunked in brown paint and then rolled in bronzer before each shot. Rather than turning him into an average looking man, this unnatural getup just emphasises the artifice. We never forget that Rajput is in costume and playing a part.
At the end of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Banerjee dangles the possibility of a sequel, which is an uplifting thought. It would be wonderful to return to the world that Banerjee created and perhaps the next time round, there won't be the flaws that pockmark this film.
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