Monday, March 12, 2012

KAHAANI: MOVIE REVIEW




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 Cort├ęs 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.

21 comments:

HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED ! said...

If you cant appreciate a good movie i think its your fatal fault you either need to analyse ur criticisinf ability or check your flavor of watching a good movie. This analysis of Kahaani is a mere work of criticising for the heck of it.
Grow up n grow beyond your fortress of assumptions of what a good movie should be.


Lucia Maria Carmine
If me as an international critic can acclaim this movie u as an Indian should uphold the very values of an Indian film shame on you and shame on ur criticism and mr critic Alfred Hitchcock was not born in a day and Sujoy Ghosh as i see has done a marvellous job and by far Vidya Balan is due for her next national award.
Indian Cinema doesnt require people like you who publish a whole lot of hoo haa about an effort since you can make a movie like this the easiest is to write garbage about it.

C-VA said...

At the end of the day, a movie should entertain us....I thought it did. I am not a film student to criticize the way you did such as the angle...shots...etc.,. It doesnt matter. If I miss them, then it is my weakness. The director did exposed himself, but still I missed it. The movie is gripping and climax caught me off the guard...as I was looking for Arnob Bagchi. I was told that this movie was the last chance for Sujoy to prove his mantle. Moreover he did in a shoestring budget (even planning to morgage his home). Naturally production quality might have been compromised. But for an ordinary movie goer, the experience is unique. I appreciate the Kahaani team.

man in the iron mask said...

Oh HWMNBN, I know I suck.
Now let us discuss the movie.

Anonymous said...

@HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED !

LOL.. Why are you so angry??

Anonymous said...

I was surprised by the negative review since I quite liked the movie and assumed everyone would! ;) It is not a great movie, I agree but I think it is a good movie and a great attempt.

Two things you said that bothered me.
1) the photo being identical - in fact, I did not get to see the photo clearly at all. So, I really believed that the two resembled, rather than were identical.
2) the memories were hers, true, but were always being told to someone and so we saw the man who we thought was her husband. the pain and loss and frustration was real. but we thought the reason was what we were told.

I do not think its cheating. I have grown up on mystery books and whodunits and detective stories, and I always find it difficult to digest most movies of this genre, especially in Bollywood. They either are just remake of a foreign movie, or just lack respect for the audience. I felt that in this one, whenever I went 'oh c'mon, give me a break'... there was an explanation in the end.

You may be right about the cuts and the IB involvement or angle was indeed quite shoddy and so the movie could have been better, I agree.

And yes Ms Balan isn't as great an actress as she's made out to be, but she is at least trying to be one unlike most. For some strange reason, in today's new-age modern state-of-the-art Bollywood world, decent women characters seem to be rapidly evaporating.

Anusha

Satish Naidu said...

Thanks Anusha for pointing the two.

Let us handle them one by one.

(1) The photo being identical:
Here’s how the filmmaker sets this up. He introduces that old HR lady, who brings in the name Milan Damji into the equation only because of the resemblance. So, since up to that point, Vidya is genuine, and so is her case of the missing Arnab, an expectation/anticipation is naturally set-up regarding this mistaken identity. This thing simply needs to be resolved. That is the whole point, that Arnab resembles Milan, otherwise why should Vidya seek Milan (That is what she does once she learns she’s being manipulated by the bureau, which is puzzling)? The narrative intertwines these goals for us, so that we’re seeking Milan, because he’s the next step to finding Arnab. So, when we find the file, and absolutely nothing is made of the resemblance, it naturally is suspicious. So yeah, even if the picture wasn’t visible, the resemblance is implied, because Vidya still continues on the search. Why else should she, if there’s no resemblance, and if she has no other ulterior motive?

(2) The memories:
If you were to ask me, the movie is not letting us imagine, and is instead supplying us the imagination, as truth. Consider this, if Vidya were to only tell us about these events, and not show, we would’ve still believed her, but maybe not to the extent of attesting the identity of her husband. And that is how books work, as a medium. Since you have to imagine, it’s more on you than on the book. Images work differently, they are the imagination. Honestly, you tell me, at the halfway mark, didn’t those sequences naturally imply a truth? That is how visuals work, we take them for the truth most of the time, and that is cheating. But that is just the narrative. On a moral/dramatic level, by replacing the figure in the memories, Mr. Ghosh has completely adulterated Vidya’s memories. Isn’t that sad? Imagine a film like Ghajini, where memory is everything, and how precious it can be, especially after a loss. Trivializing it like this is pretty much unacceptable.

Also, here is David Bordwell on Showing, not Telling:

http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2010/01/06/tell-dont-show/

I hope I could express my side of the argument.

And as for the it being a good film, or at least a great attempt, I think, I would roughly saddle it alongside that Sushmita Sen starrer Samay

Amar said...

I agree with Satish on following points:

1. "So, when we find the file, and absolutely nothing is made of the resemblance, it naturally is suspicious."

2. "If Vidya were to only tell us about these events, and not show, we would’ve still believed her, but maybe not to the extent of attesting the identity of her husband...That is how visuals work, we take them for the truth most of the time, and that is cheating."

When central character of the movie has undisclosed intentions, it feels just like another Abbas-Mastan movie. In suspense thrillers, you must have the protagonist whom you rely upon.

Sachin Rehan said...

Wow spot on review Satish... Cheat movie!! and half way through the movie, i guessed the whole KAHAANI...
Also this story could have been presented in any other city, because Calcutta as a city never had an influence on the story/proceedings.
Good example i can think of right now is the way Mumbai was used in movie 'Aamir'
In the end i really wished this story was written and directed by Sriram raghavan

Anusha said...

Disclaimer: I have to admit I am a bit of a softy when it comes to movies - if I see some effort put in, I usually am lenient and hardly expect perfection - may be, I should! I may have lowered my bar a bit more for this one as it is from Bollywood.

I am not sure if I am articulate enough to reply to your very solid points, but let me try, I am glad to be discussing it at all.

I mistook something in your original post. I thought you were saying that Milan Damji was "identical" to Arnab Bagchi and not "just resembling" him and so Vidya's reaction "must be" about her cheating husband and IB would know Arnab does not exist. I wanted to say that it was never shown as 'identical'. Agnes says he looks familiar (the spectacle was missing in the file photo) and so the general reaction was another guy called Arnab exists - it is possible for same man to look completely different in two pics. And Vidya's was doctored as well. She is an agent trained by the best.

I feel now that your point is not that. Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems like your issue is with the lack of any proper reaction and resolution to that angle at all in the movie. If so, I actually agree with you on that totally. But because they offered us a stupid scene later in the guest house when Vidya tells Rana that there are two possibilities from there on, I just let it go as bad/immature direction and editing. Like I let it go when the usage of daak name was projected as a lead for a serious investigation! Or when Vidya in the beginning did not look like a person emotional or panicky enough about a missing, possibly killed by conspiracy husband, while being 7 month pregnant. I let it all go.

But the other things i let go that worked for me: the rookie scared Rana helping her doing illegal things [I do not think a crush or pregnancy is enough explanation], why is Vidya flirting with a cop in a bus while looking for a missing husband. And the fact that although she acts like one, Vidya is not really a strong female lead and leans a lot of men to help her. What if there was no Rana?

The moment she shot Shridhar I almost guessed the end. Until then I thought she actually is married to Milan Damji and knows it. And is either trying to kill him or trying to cover the leads to him so she can live a new life with him. ;)

Regarding 2) - I get your point. But I do not know much about movie-making to know how to do that better. Plain telling is boring. I thought this was the only way. Mystery is always a bit manipulative that way. You're right about books - that's what I love about reading. But in books the expression and reactions and characters have to be explicitly mentioned, and that's where they usually end up manipulating us by hiding bits and pieces.

And I have not seen Samay. And don't know your views. And so did not get the last part.

Satish Naidu said...

Sachin,
Thanks man! And that you invoke Aamir is right on the money. Brilliant usage of the city.

Anusha,
Thanks a lot again!
That's exactly what I meant regarding the Milan Damji resemblance. Oh Anusha, that flirting bit was quite aggravating, espeically in hindsight. I mean, Ishqiya handles that theme way more intelligently.

You know, sometimes merely telling, without showing, can be very effective. The central showpiece of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one example.

Oh, that Samay thing? I saw that movie in college, and we bunch laughed all the way through it. At some levels (in their quality, or lack of it), I think both of these are similar.

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

Satish,

Reverse Engineering. Bourne+Usual Suspects+Ishqiya.

Actually it was audacious of him to use Usaul Suspects scheme here so badly.

Satish Naidu said...

Actually Sadanand, it's sort of interesting. Because, Vidya is both unreliable, and reliable. Mr. Ghosh simply replaces one with another, and the message that is caused is just about as dubious as that of Harry Brown. Of an unwitting state sponsored vigilantism.

Sachin said...

Hey Satish,

I am late putting a comment here but I was waiting to see the film before I read your review. Kahaani is a rare Hindi film that I saw in a cinema so I enjoyed the experience but the word cheating was hovering in the back of my mind because a few things announced their presence.

SPOILERS...

It is one of those films that is build on a series of coincidences. If one thread is pulled out, then the entire plot falls apart. For example, the plot needed the HR manager to see a resemblance. What if she didn't notice the resemblance? Then what was the alternate plan for Bidya (or Vidya :)? And then Khan was using the exact same method for chasing down a mole in hoping Vidya would follow one trail to another.

I thought the identity of the mole was obvious as unfortunately decades of Bollywood films have drilled into us who these moles are. In that regard, uncovering the mole's identity didn't need this plan.

Showing the first image plus altered images of her memory only has a purpose for the audience. Those scenes are forcing audience to believe Vidya only to pull the rug later on. Instead, if those scenes didn't exist, then perhaps a little bit of doubt would be placed in the validity of Vidya's kahaani.

When Vidya looked out of the window at the passing Durga statue, I almost laughed because I was certain the parallels would be duly be spelled out. And they were with a narration to boot. Now, if those altered memories didn't exist, then this scene of her looking at the statue would have been a red flag moment.

You remember Mohra? A twist in the film was that one character's condition didn't exist. So once I questioned Vidya's condition, then things took on a different perspective.

Still, I am glad I saw this in a cinema with regards to the images and sounds of Kolkata.

Satish Naidu said...

Lovely Sachin. My man, you’re being too kind. Coincidence? It’s more like A->B->C screenwriting.
“Forcing” is exactly the word. Mr. Ghosh is almost going out of his way to describe the “reality” only to do a gotcha on us later. Which is pretty silly.
And the whole IB angle? I mean, they have to be a bunch of absolute idiots to hatch a strategy like that, no?
So true on the Durga idol. And even the saree thing. She finds it so difficult, and cut, she’s wearing one. Talk about diffusing dramatic tension.

Satish Naidu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sachin said...

Yeah coincidence was too light of a word. The A->B->C works in such a that one should just get up in a cinema & shout

"Objection. Leading the audience" or

"Objection. Leading the characters".

:)

Anusha said...

Amar, I do not rely on protagonist. But I too like to.

One more thing I remember not liking int he movie was the doctor and his killing. No one cares about it. And the contract killer - I think better things could have been done with him.

Satish, I was thinking of the last thriller I saw and liked - Shutter Island. And I realize how there the imagination was all ours and how here is it all forced. So, yes, I get point 2 better now.

But all said and done, I still quite liked the movie. I wonder what was it that worked so well for me that at the end of it I actually liked the movie in spite of the issues? There must be something it got right. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Anusha said...

Oh one more thing, I heard that whenever Bidda madam was alone, the face of her husband in her memories was not shown.

Satish Naidu said...

Anusha, invoking Shutter Island here is a killer touch, I say. Now there was a movie that was very skillfully done, and yet, I had some problems with it, albeit on an ethical level. Especially with regards to the twist, and some of the formal techniques. I've reviewed it here.

http://movie-place.blogspot.in/2010/05/shutter-island-movie-review.html

You're very right about the doctor. But, you know, in a strange way, I would very much prefer such a mechanical ejection of a vestigial character than the fake characterization Mr. Ghosh employs with that HR lady, you know giving her a private moment just before she's shot.

Now the most interesting part. About you liking it. So did one of my friends whose opinion I greatly respect. I didn't like the film, so I might not be the correct person to offer any worthwhile insights into such a subjective reaction. Since you liked the film, since my friend did, I'm sure there's something there to be had. The film, for sure, did something right. Especially with regards to the atmosphere. Maybe I couldn't tap into it.
I guess Anusha, you, and my friend (Gaurang, can you hear me?), would be doing me a big favor if you could expand on what you loved about the film. The most important aspect to study/inspect about a film is the sort of reactions it generates, and so I might learn a lot.

Anonymous said...

I must admit, This is a thorough review of Kahaani.
Even Sujoy Ghosh would be proud of such analysis and would want to revisit certain parts of the movie.
While I agree to most of the points you have put across in the review, The biggest question one needs to ask is does this movie requires such thorough analysis. When you say its obviously not Andaz Apna Apna, It is definitely not a well thought out thriller.
Having Kolkata in the movie doesnt make the movie skillful and artsy and serious cinema :) :)
This movie need not be taken so seriously.


I definitely enjoyed the movie,although flawed,its a well made movie and does appeal the Indian sensibilities.
Yeah there are tools and mechanisms which invoke thrills, which would have been used, not keeping in mind the integrity of the Story, but with the sole purpose of providing thrills.


P.S. while you brought across most of the flawed points in the movie, I really cant help thinking... how would you analyse a movie Like Race.... Just dont strangle yourself ;)


-- avid reader of your blog

Satish Naidu said...

Hey avid reader, thanks for the wonderful comment. With films like Race, my "analysis" cannot get past the "brake-failed" driven climax. I mean, along with the silencer-thud, the brake-fail helplessness is one of the biggest movie cliches.

But reader, every film deserves analysis, don't you think? I mean, if we cannot think about it then what good it is to us, and why are we wasting our time?