Director: Diya Annapurna Ghosh
Writer: Sujoy Ghosh
Cast: Abhishek Bachchan, Chitrangda Singh, Amar Upadhyay, Samara Tijori, Maneesh Verma
Cinematographer: Gairik Sarkar
Editor: Yasha Ramchandani
Streaming on: ZEE5
A great pleasure of Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani (2012) was the sheer enigma of Bob Biswas, a meek life insurance agent moonlighting as a cold-blooded contract killer. He supplied the movie truth that the most thrilling antagonists are often the ones we know nothing about; the ones unburdened by context. The randomness was only fuelled by the fact that most Bollywood enthusiasts had never heard of Bengali actor Saswata Chatterjee before. The way Chatterjee played him – as a hassled middle-class everyman who just happens to be a smooth sharpshooter – suggested that the story of Bob Biswas was not a time but a place: the city of Kolkata. Where he came from doesn't matter so much as where he comes from. But all good things come to an end.
9 years on, the feature-length humanization of the out-of-shape bhadralok hitman has arrived in the form of a Sujoy Ghosh-written film, directed by daughter Diya Annapurna Ghosh. To be fair, even I'd have found it hard to resist the temptation of doing a spin-off on someone like Bob Biswas and therefore defeat the purpose of Bob Biswas. The idea may seem attractive on paper, but it's fundamentally unsound – you cannot familiarize us with characters whose anonymity is their chief weapon. It doesn't help that a known face is now behind the wickedly unknown entity. Abhishek Bachchan replaces Saswata as the bad-but-good man, not too long after Bachchan tried but spectacularly failed to convey a similar duality in the web series, Breathe: Into the Shadows. It feels like this film is conceived to suit the actor rather than the iconic character – Biswas has a wife, two kids, a conscience and an amnesia problem that allows him to look clueless and confused.
Bachchan's sincere striving makes it tougher to watch. There's no doubt that he is using the new medium – and his own second innings – the way it's supposed to be used. The risks are being taken. But the rewards are far from pretty. In and as Bob Biswas, Bachchan looks like a person imitating an idea; a laboured Bengali accent appears only when he 'pronounces' his own name, ceasing to exist for the rest of the film. I still think he does rage well; when a character is angry or unhinged, his face stops performing and starts being. But a lot of Bob Biswas is about a man combating a history of rage. Bachchan's rendition – the body language, awkward smiles, gullible gait – creates the illusion that Biswas is mentally diminished, not an ordinary man with an extraordinary job. For instance, despite not retaining any of his memory, operating a gun comes most naturally to Biswas. The problem lies in how Bachchan expresses this like-riding-a-cycle moment; the pre-gun Biswas and gun-toting one are not two different versions of the same man but two different men altogether. Ditto for when he confronts his son's bully – the prospect of Bob pumping a trademark bullet into the child's head is not as twisted because you sense Bachchan pretending to be an ominous kid instead of a creepy adult.
But to focus on only the performance would be to spare the flimsiness of the film itself. It opens with Kolkata facing a drug problem; students across the city are addicted to a blue pill whose underground market forms the core of the story. (One of the many customers, of course, is Bob's teenage stepdaughter). Simultaneously, we see Bob Biswas emerge from an 8-year-long coma, with no memory of a previous life that culminated in a near-fatal accident. His debt-ridden arc collides with the simplistic drug narrative. The body count is high.
It's a sign of poor writing and world-building that it's still not clear if Bob Biswas is situated in a post or pre-Kahaani world. At first, I was under the impression that this would be an origin story – the tale of how a man with amnesia perhaps mistakenly assumed the identity of a hired killer. Maybe his family is fake, too. But the coma and the mention of a near-fatal accident by an exposition-spouting doctor suggests that Biswas has woken up 8 years after failing to assassinate Vidya Bagchi. He was already a killer, people from the past recognize him, his family is real, and his employers expect him to get back into the flow in no time: all hints that the events of Kahaani happened in a previous life. But then the film ends with a gimmicky shot that upends this whole theory and implies Kahaani could be the future. Two hours of drama, and this was the only nagging question in my head. The "2020" on a tombstone only deepened my conflict.
In any case, the film flounders on both accounts – there's no way an origin story can't tell you why Bob took up the job to begin with, and there's no way a 'sequel' simply turns into a villain-making sob story. An unconvincing Chitrangada Singh as the catholic wife, a super-stilted Tina Desai (who incidentally played a Bengali lady in Mumbai Diaries 26/11) and a Kolkata that could pass off as Mumbai turn Bob Biswas into a spin-off that's begging to be unmade. Though I do appreciate the detail of a bag from 8 years ago containing only 100 rupee notes: Demonetization, my dear Watson. Never mind that inflation makes that bag today look like a month's salary.