Director: Debaloy Bhattacharya
Cast: Abir Chatterjee, Sohini Sarkar, Joy Sengupta, Bidipta Chakroborty, Rahul Banerjee, Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee, Arindam Sil
A man, only his legs visible, walks into the frame, a knife, dripping blood, in his hand. In the background we hear the wail of a police siren. A legend on the screen says ‘Nonapukur Thana, 11 p.m.’. To ominous background music the man walks up to the station premises. A police officer, half-dozing, gets up, startled. The knife in close-up, we hear the man (we don’t see him yet) say, ‘Aami ekta khoon korechhi.’ (I have committed a murder.) He asks for a call to be made to a senior officer. And then demands that an FIR be lodged. Asked to identify himself, he says, ‘Abhimanyu Bakshi, son of Byomkesh Bakshi.’ Well, that’s as exciting a premise to kick off a film as any.
What follows immediately after whets your appetite further: over the opening credits, you have an aging Byomkesh Bakshi (Abir Chatterjee) sculpting a face out of clay, then reaching for his walking stick and making a slow trudge to the windows to light a cigarette. We are then introduced to his daughter-in-law and his angst-ridden grandson Satyaki (Abir Chatterjee again) – who has unresolved issues with his absentee father Abhimanyu (Joy Sengupta), who has also been missing for over two years, as well as his legendary grandfather. And so the stage is set, it seems, for a cracking mystery with strong relationship undercurrents.
Alas, ‘between the idea / and the reality … between the conception / and the creation … falls the shadow’, to quote T.S. Eliot from ‘The Hollow Man’. I am not sure what Eliot was referring to in those immortal lines, but he could well have been describing Bidaay Byomkesh. Because here is a film of which you could well say: ‘Between the intriguing premise and its execution falls the shadow.’
For a long time after I watched the film, I kept wondering what this ‘shadow’ was. For all practical purposes, it’s a film that looks good, largely shadows and night-time, the performances are competent, if not exceptional, the background score is appropriately haunting for the genre. So, was it that with Byomkesh Bakshi, I was expecting a crackling murder mystery, and instead what I got was a film that had as much to do with murder as with the fraught interpersonal relationships between three generations of the Bakshis. But then, that in itself should have been a fascinating mix.
No, the problem lies elsewhere – it lies probably in the writing, in the technical flourishes (flash cuts within a conversation to underline an action) which don’t serve a narrative purpose. The problem probably lies in the fact that it is muddled. Almost as if writer-director Debaloy Bhattacharya is not quite sure which way to tilt – a full-throttle murder mystery (for which the pacing is too laboured, too languid) or a family saga where murder is a device to address troubled relationships. It ends up uncomfortably straddling two worlds which never come together as a whole.
The problem primarily lies in the writing, which is at times downright sloppy – unpardonable for a murder mystery. There are convenient creative licences taken to overcome plot hurdles – consider, for example, the discovery of the veterinary clinic that goes some way in solving the murders.
The plot is too convoluted to recount here – and, in any case, in what is a murder mystery that would amount to dishing out spoilers. But ‘convoluted’ is not the problem. Convoluted one can revel in. Convoluted one digs. Most famously, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, where, as film lore has it, when the novel was being scripted, the film-makers asked Chandler: ‘Who killed the chauffeur?’ Chandler’s reply is the stuff of legend: ‘Damned if I know.’ And it doesn’t matter because you are swept away with the narrative. Of course, comparisons are odious, and it isn’t even fair to bring in The Big Sleep. But the point is, the narrative, the dialogue, in Bidaay Byomkesh never soar enough to overcome its convoluted plotline.
The problem primarily lies in the writing, which is at times downright sloppy – unpardonable for a murder mystery. There are convenient creative licences taken to overcome plot hurdles – consider, for example, the discovery of the veterinary clinic that goes some way in solving the murders. It comes about almost as a throwaway, an afterthought, as a lady walking a dog asks Satyaki, who is aimlessly wandering about trying to figure things out, if he knows of a vet clinic in the area. And voila! In a jiffy he is making his way to the scene of yet another murder. There’s another sequence where the man in charge of the autopsy says that the corpse is at least two days old, while in a scene immediately after, a police officer mentions both murders having been committed the night before! Well, the police are expected to be daft in detective fiction involving a private eye – and there might even be a hint of police collusion at work here – but in this film, they are way beyond stupid.
Then there are scenes that simply do not work – the one, for example, where Satyaki’s girlfriend Tunna (Sohini Sarkar) shares a cigarette on the sly with Byomkesh is intended to be a ‘cute coming together of the generations’, but instead come across as schmaltzy. Or the scenes involving Chaplin’s The Kid, as Satyaki reminisces about watching the film as a child with his grandfather. Do we really need to be shown sequences from the film repeatedly – one even at the film’s long-drawn-out climax – to make the point? (It is important to mention here that unlike the many other Byomkesh films, this one is not based on a story by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay.)
Coming to the climax now – well, a whodunit is always difficult to wrap up. What works in a book where the detective gathers all the suspects around and unravels the mystery is almost impossible to replicate in a film. Satyajit Ray himself changed the structure of his two Feluda films, Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath, to overcome this – so that in the films, unlike in the novels, you are aware of the villain right from the get-go, and the films then become more an adventure about how the detective will go about bringing the criminal in. In Bidaay Byomkesh, the denouement is so protracted and spelt out in so many words that by the time it has played out, you are no longer invested.
Which is sad because there are some genuinely good moments here that could have been fleshed out. Byomkesh, all bent over, weary, and living in a shadowy world, talking to his long-dead friend Ajit and his wife Satyavati (Sohini Sarkar again), who provide him with clues to prove his son innocent. The grandson, seething against his detective grandfather and police officer father, who would ideally have nothing to do with the world of crime (he prefers working on his ‘Optical Research into the Spectral Decomposition of Light’!). There are some good red herrings too – including a suspect police officer and a real-estate promoter, which could have been quite intriguing if followed up. And having Abir play both Byomkesh (Brando-esque padding of the cheeks and whisper of a voice and all) and his grandson, while Sohini essays Satyavati and Tunna, their wife and girlfriend respectively, is a nice touch.
Byomkesh Bakshi has had a revival of sorts in films in the last decade or so. After Satyajit Ray first brought him to screen with Chiriyakhana in 1967, there was a long lull before Byomkesh came back with Anjan Dutt’s wonderful take in the 2010 film Byomkesh Bakshi, which starred Abir as Byomkesh, a character he went on to make his own. Of course, in between we had Basu Chatterjee’s 1993 and 1997 TV series starring Rajit Kapoor, who to this day is considered the definitive Byomkesh. Since then there have been at least a dozen film involving the sleuth, six of them directed by Anjan Dutt, who has had a major role in reviving and reinventing this immortal detective in the popular imagination in cinema. Rituparno Ghosh made one with Sujoy Ghosh as the detective while Dibakar Banerjee directed a Hindi version, which was almost Byomkesh on acid, as critics have pointed out, in keeping with the way Sherlock Holmes has been reinvented by Guy Ritchie.
As such one hopes that this film does not actually say goodbye to Byomkesh. If at all Byomkesh deserves a farewell, he deserves it in a much better film. Because this one, for all its polish and flashiness, again quoting Eliot, ‘ends not with a bang but with a whimper’.