In one of Anupama Chopra's interviews, she discusses the portrayal of Kolkata in Hindi films with directors Sujoy Ghosh, Dibakar Banerjee and Pradeep Sarkar. At one point, she asks them about the unwritten rule of Howrah Bridge almost compulsorily featuring in movies trying to capture Kolkata. Pradeep Sarkar then explains that it is an effective establishing tool.
Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani uses this tool too. In the first few minutes of the film, there are fleeting shots of the Victoria Memorial, yellow taxis, fish markets and phuchka stalls. In the course of the film, we see hand-pulled rickshaws, TMC and CPM symbols and slogans on the walls of buildings, idols being sculpted in Kumortuli, dilapidated North Kolkata houses, the iconic Howrah Bridge and the tram (Rana the policeman takes the tram home from work every night and receives his mother's call with "hain Maa, aashchi" – yes Ma, I'm coming), which almost anyone even outside of the city can easily recognise, thanks to their repeated visuals in popular culture. But the characteristically Bengali elements that one has come to associate with Kolkata by default are more than just tools to establish the Bengali-ness of the setting.
What Kahaani does differently is that it goes well beyond using these very familiar visuals to establish the fact that this is the city, Kolkata, where this story is going to unfold. The city isn't just the setting of the story, it is a character in the storytelling, so much so that this particular story couldn't have been told without Kolkata at the heart of it. Perhaps this is because director Sujoy Ghosh knows the city and its spirit like the back of his hand. In one of the most prominent recurring elements of the film, everybody addresses Vidya, the protagonist, as Bidya. She in turn calls the little boy Bishnu in the guest house Vishnu.
To add to this, the story takes place when the city is being decked up in preparation of its most loved festival, Durga Pujo. When Vidya first lands here and gets into a yellow taxi, she sees huge skeletal bamboo structures as pandals are being readied. Hoardings with advertisements of sponsors appear every now and then. On the day the climax takes place, dhaakis play their dhaak to an enthusiastic crowd, and there are visuals of bubbles being playfully blown among pandal crowds and, of course, dhunuchi naach.
But perhaps the most brilliant incorporation of Kolkata into this story is the one following the climactic scene. As Inspector Khan angrily instructs his men to go catch her – pakad usse, safed saari pehni hai – and then rebukes one of them for staring bewildered at the crowd into which she has disappeared, he realises the trick she has played on them. The women in the moving crowd in front of their eyes cannot be told apart from each other: each one of them is dressed in near-identical white sarees with red borders (the laal paar shada shari that is traditionally worn on Dashami). Vidya becomes unrecognisable as she blends into the crowd and vermillion is smeared onto her face.
A line from the introductory song about Kolkata, 'Aami shotti bolchi' goes, "aisa sheher hai jisska double role hai", and in the course of the film, director Sujoy Ghosh exemplifies exactly that through the story he chooses to tell. In the beginning, Vidya asks Rana why everyone calls him so when the name tag on his uniform says Satyoki. When he explains that everyone in the city has two names, daak naam (pet name) and bhalo naam (official name), she exclaims, slightly amused, that every person has two identities – alag alag pehchaan. These opposing dualities recur as motifs in the film. Vidya is initially assumed to be a helpless woman in search of her missing husband. Khan comments on seeing her for the first time: she's completely harmless. She eventually outwits all of them and turns out to have known exactly what to do to get to her goal the whole time. As the city plunges into celebration, a wanted criminal meets his end in the dark lanes of the city. Kolkata itself has two faces in the story – one is celebratory, and the other is grime and crime.
Ghosh does not stop at using only visuals that relate to Kolkata. A couple of scenes in the movie are a hat-tip to iconic scenes that the Bengali cine-goer knows all too well. Vidya, lonely, looking out of her window is a nod to Ray's Charulata. The Monalisa guest house has a board that says "running hot water", but there is no running hot water per se: only a little boy who runs up to rooms with a kettle of hot water in his hand. This is a nod to another one of Ray's movies, Joy Baba Felunath. Kahaani stands out because it captures the city not just as we see it, but also the way its people feel it and live in it.