Cast: Vidya Balan, Parambrata Chaterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Director: Sujoy Ghosh
Runtime: 125 min.
Verdict: Mediocrity. And a cheat.
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Kahaani is mostly shoddy. And an exercise not in misdirection but flat-out cheating. Consider the opening sequence, and how Hitchcock’s lessons have been thoroughly lost in translation, and how the film’s subsequent set-pieces, the existence of whom is realized only in retrospect (as some sort of appendage), are mostly, well, silly. And while we’re at it, let us be charitable and ignore the film’s obsessive compulsion to cut almost every second, if not sooner, and induce something close to a headache. That it is immensely grating, so much so that our own compulsions (thank you DVDs) almost want to hit the imaginary pause button and rewind the damn thing. Irrespective of the moment, or the sequence, or any other variable, Kahaani never ever pulls its foot off the one-second cutting, and one might even suspect the hand of an auto-edit tool. Dear reader, if you’ve any plans to stay with this film, you just have to bite the bullet and hope your viewing system plays along with that forced rhythm. I would be lying if I claim that mine did, but it almost went the distance. So yeah, let’s be charitable and move on.
To the opening sequence. We’re introduced to a lab-rat. And a masked man holding between forceps a sinister little sphere. [Fact: 473 cuts have been spent on us till now]. The sphere drops, the rat drops, and all of its friends in the nearby compartments drop too. Dead. We cut to the hustle and bustle and shaky camerawork of daily city-life. Near a metro station. A schoolboy clutches to his schoolbag just as he would hold on to his dear life. Since this moment comes right on the heels of the lab-rat, and we’re in the midst of a crowd containing faces we barely know, the random cuts/jumps from one face to next basically screaming “anonymous people”, the fear on the schoolboy’s face and his bag become some sort of a red herring. And since all these anonymous people indulging in everyday small-talk are oblivious to the existence of this schoolboy, he becomes Hitchcock’s ticking time-bomb. Now, comes the part to engage the audience. I mean, if it were merely the disconnected equation of the crowd versus the schoolboy, since the former has been set up as absolutely incapable of looking beyond itself, the sequence becomes sort of fatalistic. So, enter a group of other school kids who also provide the screenwriter the services of a bully, thus enabling the anonymous crowd to interact with the red herring. And, as an add-on, a man looking at the bags, acting as an agent of our fear, trying to resolve the matter of this time-bomb. I say, beyond the “everyday conversations” and “bullying” and nauseating snatch-and-cut strategy, it’s mostly fine and dandy. Except for the bizarre notion that a schoolbag might contain a chemical weapon. I mean, your mind starts to wander off in a hundred different directions, especially in the wake of Elvia Cortés and Brian Douglas Wells, and wonder how the hell the terrorist convinced a school kid to become a live weapon. A woman and her mother (-in-law?) are wondering about their kid’s milk-bottle, which the former seems to have forgotten. One of them gets up, I don’t know which, and it is less a reflection of my poor memory and more about the inter-replaceable characterization that Mr. Ghosh’s filmmaking serves us with. The bottle shows up. And just about the same time the bullies manage to reveal for us that the schoolbag contained a harmless comic (or something to that effect). The bottle is made of glass, and it drops, and when it breaks just as the sphere did in the lab. Cut. A little pan along the train as everybody in the train is deep in sleep. To never wake up again. The school kid? Gone. The man? Gone. The bullies? Gone. Is this what you would call a clever resolution of tension, or misdirection? Or would you call it cheating? I mean, the bottle doesn’t announce its presence until the final few moments. Mr. Ghosh might as well have cut to the engine driver discovering a bomb under his seat and I would have been just as bummed.
This set-piece cross-cutting strategy is what makes for a lot of Kahaani. It is Mr. Ghosh’s go-to device for generating tension, and despite the number of attempts, he just doesn’t get it right. Not once. For various reasons. For instance, a sequence down at an old accounts office, that fails miserably because of the lack of a coherent establishment of the geography of the space and his inexplicable insistence on close-ups and medium-shots. Where a single overhead shot from the top of a fan, or someplace else, could draw the relative positions, Mr. Ghosh keeps cutting from one to the other, and we are left with the unenviable task of drawing the imaginary lines. Tension needs complete knowledge, or at least considerably more knowledge than the players involved. And since much of the film, with its constant expositions, observations worthy of Ajit Banerjee (that tea-glass connection is the sort of stuff I’ll tell my grandkids about) and generally short-term memory span reminded me of ACP Pradyuman and his merry men, we perhaps ought to move on and over and consider the narration.
So yeah, SPOILER ALERTS in the paragraphs ahead! The old accounts office again. And the file of Milan Damji, the terrorist the IB is looking for the past two years. Why would it still be there? Unless, the IB never came across it, in which case they are a bunch of nincompoops. Or worse. Which doesn’t stand consistent with the rest of the film. Assume, for an instance, they intentionally planted the document there for Vidya Bagchi (Ms. Balan) to find it, and note the address on it, and let the enemy react to her move. By sending a contract killer, who also happens to close the chapter on three other people. Honestly, if using Vidya to lead them to their man was the bureau’s masterplan, I fail to imagine how they could possibly have fared any worse had they followed the breadcrumbs themselves. Especially when they knew the mole was within their organization. A different, probably a more telling outcome of this old accounts office plot-device is Mr. Ghosh giving the game away. We’ve seen her husband Arnab Bagchi, it’s a familiar face (Mr. Indraneil Sengupta, although I didn’t know his name I recognized him from those VIP Frenchie advertisements), and we see the same face on the file. Yet, neither Vidya(and the script) make much, or any ado about this huge coincidence, nor do they make us privy do any degree of conflict on her part, because, hey, this is the real world, and such a resemblance (for sure this isn’t Andaz Apna Apna) should naturally entertain thoughts about an unfaithful husband. On the bureau’s part they fail to observe this lapse in “normal” human behavior (as opposed to Vidya shattering us with the first-name familiarity thing), and so they still emerge as authoritarian nincompoops. And since Ishqiya exists (a direct influence on the proceedings here), the twist ending is not really all that twisty.
Screw the plot, I say. Especially something as reverse-engineered as this. What I care about is how different a film is with respect to its Wikipedia plot-entry. Kahaani isn’t. Not one bit. Not even with those Kolkata-showcasing cutaways. Here is a film that is amateurish enough to “establish” its characters by obligatorily giving them something other than the plot (the HR woman dancing to the tunes ought to have been deleted), before knocking them off. It doesn’t help that Ms. Balan is mostly mediocre here (as she was in her National-award winning performance), or to snatch a description from my friend Srikanth Srinivasan (who has himself snatched some killer frames from Kuroneko), there’s absolutely no history to her performance. It is mostly bland and without layers. But most importantly Kahaani is a cheat. It serves us with visual clues about the identity of the husband, only to replace the face later. The events are true, the memories are not. This narrative decision on Mr. Ghosh’s part thoroughly trivializes the memory of a widow, a widow whose son has been killed in the process. His cheap gimmick undermines the tragedy, an act exacerbated by the ridiculous nature of his cutting, leaves everything replaceable, including the photo of a husband, making it not a memento of the past but an aid to a twist (pretty hardcore I say), a twist that is more or less incompetently set up in the first place. That makes me a little confused – if Kahaani is shoddy because it is immoral, or whether it is the other way round. I don’t know, the SPOILERS END here.