Before Bob Biswas became famous in Kahaani as the insurance agent you would never suspect of being a contract killer, he was just another ordinary guy in the neighbourhood, living in a two-room tubelight-lit place with his wife and two kids probably called Bapon and Mou. With filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh exposing him to the world at large, Bob is now the new face of villainy: the ordinary bad guy, the jet black sheep from RK Laxman's Common Man's extended family.
For those of you who haven't watched the film yet, probably because you avoid going to cinemas where you'll have to sit in a dark room with all kinds of strangers, Kahaani is a great story told with compelling visual force about a woman searching for her missing husband. The depiction of a stranger in a strange land - that too in the strangest of them all, Calcutta - is hitched to a mystery story that swiftly becomes a mysterious one. Vidya Balan, ably supported by Parambrata Chatterjee as a young police officer, is clearly the centrepiece of the movie. But it's Bob who burrows into the brain like a borderline taboo.
When we first meet Bob, we have no inkling about where he fits in with the rest of the kahaani. He's in a crusty insurance office with other nondescript colleagues and is getting ticked off by a boss in a spiffy shirt for not getting any clients. Bob's a balding, middle-class Bengali with a paunch and shabby clothes, hallmarks of Bengali middle-classhood. His permanent touch of overpoliteness, again another 'Bengali trait', can come across as servility. We figure that this is the Little Man with his little joys and little sorrows.
Which is a portrait that gets ripped apart when, a few scenes later, he faces a sweet old Anglo-Indian lady, greets her with folded hands, a saccharine smile and what we will realise to be his signature line, "Nomoshkar, ami Bob Biswas. Ek minute?" (Hello, I'm Bob Biswas. Do you have a minute?), and shoots her dead as if taking her photograph for an LIC form.
But even after the knowledge that Bob is a professional killer, we don't become super aware that the man is a nasty piece of work. In fact, he continues being the kind of chap who'll be sitting next to you in a doctor's clinic or standing in front in a queue and who, if you do take a second look, will strike you as harbouring secrets nothing darker than a lottery ticket habit, a porno collection or a dependence on some spiritual guru.
"We kept Bob in most scenes as part of the crowd, indistinguishable from everyone else. We wanted to emphasise his utter ordinariness," says director-co-author Sujoy Ghosh whom I called up to ask how the character popped into his head. While he didn't have any models to base Bob on, Ghosh was clear about what Bob would not be: an overtly villainous character, especially those stock, kitschy ones in Bollywood who guffaw when a smile would do. "I was influenced by the Bengali young adult fiction of the 70s-80s. Characters like Doshyu Mohon [a dacoit], Niharanjan Gupta's stories of [the detective] Kiriti Ray, Narayan Debnath's Haada-Bhoda comics [a proto-Dumb and Dumber with two boys causing a riot and providing solutions at the same time]..." Bob draws his life force from this popular cultural universe where everything is easily identifiable (and, therefore, ordinary) but remarkably infused with the unreal. And Bob works with double force because he's really a cameo in the film. "We never meet Professor Moriarty too many times in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Irene Adler features only in one," says Ghosh, adding that keeping Bob in the margins was to heighten his presence.
Saswata Chatterjee, who plays Bob, bringing his own touches to the character, now is Bob the way Heath Ledger is the Joker. If the Joker is fearful chaos unbridled, Bob is the maudlin humdrum next-door 'uncle' who makes us nervous each time he says hello.
For far too long, villains have been depicted as monstrous hams or cartoonish caricatures. "I saw Bob as someone working on a second job to make an extra buck. Some people earn extra money by giving tuitions. Bob's supplementary income comes from killing people, something he's good at, certainly better at than his day job," says Ghosh.
Bob Biswas is the ultimate coming-of-age symbol of the Common Man. Coming at a time when the aam aadmi has become a pop cultural deity to be worshipped, he's the confirmation that we can be very bad people too.