Director: Arindam Sil
Cast: Abir Chatterjee, Rahul Banerjee, Anindita Bose, Arjun Chakraborty, Bibriti Chatterjee, Anjan Dutt
‘Satyanveshi, Satyabati and Satyakam, we will make a lovely triangle,’ says the client to the detective, casting a suggestive look at the latter’s wife.
Detective stories where the client approaches the sleuth with a case where he suspects there is someone out to kill him are probably dime a dozen. However, I am not sure there are many where he wants the investigation to begin only after he has been murdered. And I am positive there aren’t any where the client – a rogue with a glad eye – actually hits on the detective’s wife, enclosing lines from Kalidas’s erotic poetry in a coat she buys from his department store, ‘accidentally’ brushing his fingers against hers on the pretext of passing on a cup of tea – and yet have the private eye not only take on the case but also see it to its end, despite the moral dilemma he faces. That is one of the many little joys of the latest installment of what is now Bengali cinema’s most popular franchise.
Saradindu Bandopadhyay is unlike any other writer of Indian detective fiction – not that there are too many to begin with – in the way he plumbs the darkest depths of the human soul, and his Byomkesh stories are a class apart on that count. As it is in ‘Rakter Daag’, the story on which Gowtra is based. Lust, incest, filicide, you name it and it’s there in Gowtra, which is as much a triumph of the writer as it is of the director, given the liberties he takes with the source material, adding his own interpretations and insights (including takeaways from Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol and Ho Jo Bo Ro Lo) along the way.
The first of these liberties is moving the action from Kolkata of 1956 to Landour, Mussourie, of 1952. Though necessitated by the impossibility of creating Kolkata of the era outdoors, it turns out to be a blessing, as the all-enveloping mist and the twilight ambience of a hill station create just the atmosphere a ‘dark’ film like this needed.
It also enables the film-maker to incorporate some fascinating information on the hill station, including the fact that a murder at the hotel, The Savoy, in 1911 actually led to the creation of one of the world’s greatest fictional detectives: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affairs at Styles!
There’s also an intriguing scene where Satyakam (Arjun Chakraborty) offers a Havana cigar to Byomkesh, leading to a conversation on Batista’s oppressive regime, and foreshadowing the coming of the revolution in Cuba. And also a reference to Bengal wicketkeeper Prabir ‘Khokon’ Sen, who stumped Don Bradman on the 1948 tour of Australia! These may not be germane to the plot per se, but they add a certain flavour to the proceedings, enlivening it, given that Byomkesh stories do not lend themselves to easy cinematic adaptations with their emphasis on the written word.
In a film this dark, it is only appropriate that the ‘villain’ has the meatiest role. In a throwback to the classic noirish characters inhabiting a grey world between good and bad – rakish and vulnerable at the same time – Arjun is effective right through
Two others aspects that give Gowtra its just-right feel need special mention. One, Bickram Ghosh’s music, which hits the right note from the outset – the eerie twilight prologue where a car winds its way through the mountainscape. Then there’s Satyakam’s plangent theme which adds to the disharmony of the character. Bickram uses a five-beat structure throughout the variations of the theme to draw on a metaphor of the five senses that underlie the film’s theme. It changes to a four-beat structure once the mystery is resolved. Western music is the mainstay throughout until towards the end where Indian classical takes over to connote a homecoming. This is experimentation at its delightful best: a Bengali ‘cabaret meets rock-and roll’ number and a thumri rendered in Raga Multani, which, as the all-knowing detective points out, is rare.
The other thing that stands out is the production design – from the vintage cars, to the costumes (including a hilarious scene where Ajit has to wear Western clothes to enter a British club, even though the British have left, as he points out), to the plush interiors, there’s not one wrong note in creating the period, and the film – primarily shadows and darkness – is a visual treat more than anything else. Though purists may object to the two fight sequences, which have a very contemporary feel to them, much like the OTT ones in those potboilers from the south where bodies go flying at impossible angles!
Abir has effortlessly grown into Byomkesh and he is in fine form here. There’s something arresting about his face, an intelligence that comes through whether he is chiding Ajit (Rahul Banerjee, who is impressive as Byomkesh’s chronicler-friend, keeping to the shadows without getting overshadowed) or exchanging poetry with Satyabati, or mouthing, almost off-handedly, the seeti-maar dialogue about being Satyanveshi and Sabyasachi at the same time and thus equally adept at using both hands if need be. It makes him, in my opinion, the best Byomkesh on-screen yet (I can see Uttam Kumar fans and old-timers up in arms).
In a film this dark, it is only appropriate that the ‘villain’ has the meatiest role. In a throwback to the classic noirish characters inhabiting a grey world between good and bad – rakish and vulnerable at the same time – Arjun is effective right through. My one grouse lies about the underdeveloped women characters who are largely cast in the victim mould here – though Satyabati (Sohini Sarkar), in keeping with her outspoken nature and conscience keeper to Byomkesh, has a line that is startlingly contemporary, even politically incorrect maybe, in the light of #MeToo: ‘Why is it that women are always treated as victims – isn’t it possible that at times they step into a moral void willingly, quite aware of the consequences.’ Which is what all three women in the film do, giving in to Satyakam’s advances. Also, given what a fine actor she is, going ahead one hopes that Sohini Sarkar gets a little more to do in the next film.
The only quibble I have – and one that makes me take away half a star from the rating – is the rather protracted last act, the exposition, which makes the cardinal error of explaining everything
The only quibble I have – and one that makes me take away half a star from the rating – is the rather protracted last act, the exposition, which makes the cardinal error of explaining everything. I am aware that the limitation is ingrained in the genre – the detective gathering the suspects around to elucidate his deductions, but in a visual medium, and in this film, otherwise so intelligent in its approach and where the director has already given us enough indications of the denouement, it rankles. What it also does is expose the one chink in the performance of Arjun Chakraborty: after a fine balancing act right through, his manic laughter at the realization of his parentage in this section just does not work, and is in fact quite a letdown, which is a pity given how good he otherwise is. However, there are enough delights in Gowtra which makes it overcome these lapses and makes one look forward to the next Byomkesh film from the team.