Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!: High on style, not so much on substance

Good directors have a childlike fascination with iconic characters: They are less interested in recreating them, more in reinterpreting them. Take, for instance, Christopher Nolan’s Batman, whose relationship with his own guilt is as intriguing as his curious hatred for his nemesis; or, for that matter, Anurag Kashyap’s Devdas (Dev), whose untrammelled anger and abrasive manner are just tools of self defence that help him keep away from something he’s inherently good at: self-pity. These protagonists, based on popular books that were later adapted into a bunch of films, acquired a different meaning over a period of time: they morphed from characters to symbols. Which is why Nolan’s Batman series and Dev. D, even with their share of flaws, were a welcome addition, because those filmmakers said, “Look at my Batman; this is how my Devdas will stumble.”

Dibakar Banerjee’s latest, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, similarly, takes a popular literary character (the eponymous detective) and not only upends his very sense of being, but also plays around with the rules of the sleuth’s world. For instance, consider one of the early scenes in the film: We are in 1942’s Calcutta. Byomkesh shows up at Dr Anukul Guha’s (Neeraj Kabi) lodge, looking to rent a room. Bakshy lies to Guha about his name and native town, but soon gets caught. Guha’s method of deduction is meticulous and methodical — or, as we all know it, very Sherlock Holmesque — it’s a small, funny scene, but what follows next is more interesting; Bakshy smiles and says, “Bakshy. Byomkesh Bakshy.” Guha is more deadpan and introduces himself with calculated theatricality: “Guha. Anukul Guha.” It’s one of those silly, now nearly ubiquitous, references to James Bond, but here’s the thing: there was no James Bond in 1942. Ian Fleming created the character in 1953. In any other “period” film, this bit of anachronism would have most likely put you off; however, in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, you let out a chuckle and probably mutter, “Ah, I see what you did there.”

The motif of deliberate anachronism is furthered by an ingenious soundtrack (songs from such independent music artists as Peter Cat Recording Co., Blek, Madboy/Mink, Joint Family, among others) that underscores a Calcutta trying to hold itself together in the midst of the Second World War. It’s an inspired choice: by divorcing the audio and video, and conflating two markedly different idioms, Banerjee succeeds in creating a separate idiom of his own. Banerjee’s Bakshy does live in Calcutta and wears a dhoti, but he’s not a “babu” in the strict sense of the word — stolid, sedate and correct at all times — this Bakshy is thankfully all over the place: silly, darkly funny, cunning and, inevitably, sharp and resourceful. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a refreshing exercise in style, where form not just aids but also rivals content.

But the other question is also as important: What about the content? What about the film’s hero, story and characters that populate this heady world? Banerjee’s Bakshy begins on a fascinating note: He’s just about not normal — obsessed with grisly crimes, imagined deaths and the case at the cost of appearing misanthropic at times (one of the fascinating scenes in the film has Bakshy exhorting and shaking a man breathing his last, trying his best to extract anything valuable from the guy before he kicks the bucket) — and, yet he’s not unlikable; these deft writing flourishes tell us that Banerjee is as interested in the man (at least to begin with) as he is with him solving the crime. And thereby corrects a flaw that’s common to many crime thrillers: you come out of the film knowing everything about the crime but barely anything about the person who solved it.

We do engage with Bakshy’s story but only till a point — before the plot kicks in with full force — and that’s a bummer because we just don’t want to be with Bakshy-the sleuth but also Bakshi-the man; we want to see him untangle and make sense of the clues; we don’t want him to be in complete control at all times. Banerjee also turns to an old trick of the genre to make the film’s plot more complex and dense than it originally is: by concealing vital information at different points. This choice could have worked for any other film where the ultimate revelation took you by complete surprise; however, here it not only takes us away from the film’s leading man (Sushant Singh Rajput, very assured) but also heaps us with clunky exposition in its final few minutes. In fact, Banerjee keeps erring on the wrong side of exposition for the most part: Bakshy’s cracking a clue is painstakingly described to us in scenes aplenty. These choices are at odds with what the film initially seemed: an audacious, breezy thriller that joyously subverted the formula.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is torn between, and sporadically let down by, two contrasting filmic styles, but it does succeed in telling us this: filmmaking style is not inferior to story; sometimes style can tell a story on its own.

The review was first published in The Sunday Guardian


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