In defence of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!: Sushant Singh Rajput’s film deserved sequels, but you messed up
There is a fleeting moment early in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! – a single shot, really – in which our hero, exclamation mark and all, is riding one of those iconic (but cruel) Kolkata rickshaws through the city’s famous Chinatown. There are large, street-wide banners over his head advertising stuff in a language as foreign to him as the people he finds himself surrounded by. Neither is concerned about the other; they have things to do and places to be.
There are barely any Chinese left in Kolkata anymore; most of them have moved abroad, mainly to America and Canada, further distancing themselves from their culture. What’s left of the population still lives around the old Chinatown, the past reduced to faded memories.
And that’s the powerful emotion that Dibakar Banerjee’s film – set in 1943 - tries to evoke through images, moods and characters.
When I saw that quick shot of Sushant Singh Rajput sat on a rickety cycle rickshaw pulled by a wiry old man, I was immediately reminded of a very vivid image from my youth – a vibrant splash page from The Blue Lotus, the Tintin adventure set in China.
Whether or not that moment was inspired by Tintin is, of course, debatable. But all things considered, it would be one of the safer bets you could make. Like The Blue Lotus, in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! there are many Chinese gangsters. One of them is blind, and several of them are rather large. There are also Japanese gangsters. There are shady opium dealers and corrupt government officials and kindly local sidekicks. But, unlike The Blue Lotus – or any other Tintin adventure, really – in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! there are also many, many paan-chewing, Statesman-reading babus, and one very irritated sardarji.
And that’s what makes this movie our own. Dibakar Banerjee has, presumably, looked into the past – his own past – and found memories – of Tintin and Chang, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, and Feluda and Topshe. And in Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s characters he has found the perfect world in which to relive those memories.
He does it by creating the most painstakingly researched, most delicately designed and most patiently constructed period Kolkata I’ve ever seen in a movie. And through his longtime cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis’ lens, it takes on an almost sinister appearance at night, with shadowy characters lurking in the darkness and the damp streets glowing with the light of melancholic lanterns hanging outside opium dens. The famous coffee houses have a lived-in feel, with carom boards that once used to be smooth and floors that once used to be clean. And then there are the streets, authentically recreated with slovenly trams and loud cars to evoke, once again, that magic feeling: Memory.
Unlike Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet – a film that I defended recently – Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is hardly a damsel in distress, being dangled from a cliff-top, in need of immediate saving. By most accounts, it was warmly received upon release, which isn’t something Bombay Velvet had going for itself. Neither was it as legendary a commercial disaster as that movie, even though it barely made a mark at the box office. But if there’s one takeaway from both Bombay Velvet and Byomkesh Bakshy, it is that when Indian audiences are presented with a period movie, their reaction isn’t unlike that of a restless teenager being given a lecture on the intricacies of municipal corporations. They’re simply not interested, even if you pepper the story with death metal and rapcore.
No matter how accessible you make the movie, it’s not going to have the appeal of one of those ‘mass entertainers’. And by the way, Byomkesh Bakshy! is dumbed down to a fault; with every deduction being emphasized in flashbacks and characters literally explaining what just happened on screen so even if you walk in an hour late, chances are at some point a character will neatly recap the events for you to catch up.
It doesn’t even matter if your actors deliver strong central performances – actors fully aware, mind you, of the sort of movie they’re in. As Byomkesh, Sushant Singh Rajput essentially proved that he could carry a film on his shoulders. He brings an innocent pompousness to the role that makes the ‘detecteeve’ even more endearing. And as Dr Anukul Guha, Neeraj Kabi – who can do no wrong by the way, even when he is force-feeding Lord Mountbatten goat yogurt – is gloriously over the top.
Just like a Tintin villain. Perfect.
Perhaps one day Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! will find its cult of fans, the sort of people who don’t forget the stories that defined their youth, particularly images of nervous boy reporters riding rickety rickshaws in Chinatown.