Director: Kushan Nandy
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Bidita Bag, Shradha Das, Divya Dutta
Ask me two years from now if I had ever watched a film called Babumoshai Bandookbaaz and I might mistake the memory for the drunken weekend I watched Badlapur (2015), Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016) consecutively without understanding a damned thing. Because this is the strangest film. Surreal, even. And not in a good way. It's all over the place – almost boring in its pursuit to look erratic. The first half looks like an impoverished world-building tribute to Anurag Kashyap, while the second half turns into an ugly, stake-less and un-subversive imitation of Sriram Raghavan's primal storytelling.
Eventually, it comes across as a disparate collection of moments, thoughts, characters, genres, themes, passions and homages. For a film that counts on its abruptness, on the little films within the big one, none of them are even remotely memorable.
A fundamental lack of coherence can be charming if it's supported by indulgence and mood. But even the quirk here feels aspirational. Nothing is too shocking by the end.
You'd think a lawless hinterland-gangster saga is right down someone like Nawazuddin Siddiqui's alley; all he needs is an adequate amount of screen-time, a little spontaneity and he can override any screenplay's overpopulated chaos with his trademark eccentricities. But I've rarely ever seen him unable to elevate – or, perhaps even rescue – a film this way. It's not his fault, either. He looks confused for most part, because he probably doesn't know why the script is as lawless as its environment. He doesn't seem sure of which part of the stilted narrative he is occupying. Hell, nobody does. If things stop making sense – and this whimsicality is a permanent tone – either someone has sex or someone is shot by a desi katta. Sometimes, both in one go. O.K., maybe I'm exaggerating.
Or am I?
A fundamental lack of coherence can be charming if it's supported by indulgence and mood. But even the quirk here feels aspirational. For instance, when two hit men bicker over who will shoot the hapless final victim, their banter is endless, almost as if they're striving hard to sound ridiculous, and not because they are inherently cold-blooded. It's for effect, a flimsy way of arresting our attention – just like the film's opening scene, which has a sleazy politician enjoying the sight of his wife being pleasured by his masseuse. I get that we aren't supposed to be comfortable with any of the faces on screen, but there's a curious sense of tokenism to these events. Nothing is too shocking by the end. Even stray shots of dogs could have sexually charged undertones and I'd be none the wiser.
And this unpredictability becomes a formula of sorts. I wouldn't have been surprised if a bullet broke the fourth wall, tore through the screen, lodged itself in my head and put me in a coma for eight years. The point is: I'd survive. And return to avenge this betrayal. Just like the film's contract-killing protagonist, Nawazuddin's Babu Bihari, does. It won't make sense, of course, because in director Kushan Nandy's derivative world, anything goes.
Babu Bihari is established as a rural legend of sorts, with a penchant for bullets, swag and a sensuous girl named Phulwa (Bidita Bag). He isn't as colourful as he'd like to believe, though. He is caught between two local politicians (Divya Dutta, cussing and smoking her way to oblivion), and soon finds himself competing with a young upstart of a pretender. A rival contract killer, Banke Bihari (Jatin Goswami), is hired to kill the same three targets.
They develop a peculiar mentor-protégé relationship and an unhealthy sense of competition that, for the life of me, I cannot understand. Babu doesn't trust Banke, taunts and bullies him, but secretly wants him to carry on his legacy. I expected them to kiss each other, too, in line with the film's commitment to not committing at all. They play fun "killing" games to identify who is more competent, threaten each other at different points, injure and maim one another and even end up spending weeks bonding and shacking up with Babu's squeeze on the outskirts. This phase, again, is random in context of who they are.
Except for the one conversation they have about their first "kill" fee and the current market rates – the freelancer in me took notice of the way the senior boasts about his current rate to the lowly junior ("5000? I get 25000 per body") – much of their equation is garbled and inconsistent. It wants to be complex, but rarely goes beyond a punch line or just a punch. The only character vaguely interesting is a corrupt cop (a strapping Bhagwan Tiwari), Divya Dutta's hired pooch, who spends much of his time executing her orders while answering domestic phone calls from his wife. But he, too, at some stage, becomes a puppet in this Theatre of the Absurd.
There is a classic Nawaz moment in the beginning when, on realizing that Phulwa is a cobbler, he tries to damage his sandals on a gate. He looks like a fool as he swings across, thrashes and flays around clumsily. It is perversely amusing to see a remorseless killer unable to do something so basic. There's a metaphor in there somewhere, for this neurotic film. I'm just too tired to locate it.