The Bakshy in Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is spelled with a ‘y’ and the film’s title ends with an exclamation mark. Never has the name of the famous detective – created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay – been spelled that way. Even the Basu Chatterjee TV series is Byomkesh Bakshi. Banerjee does not care much for faithful adaptations. He likes to mix and match – like he has done here with different Byomkesh stories – and he also likes to put his own stamp on the material which is again something he has attempted here at times with great results and a lot of times with middling payoffs. The ‘y’ works but the exclamation mark – not always.
The Calcutta of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy rests completely in Banerjee’s head. It is an imagined Calcutta that has more to do with internal than external factors. We see streets, we see those bridges (and some of this could even be anachronistic much like the background score here) and there are placeholders like the wall graffiti, boards and ads for Lipton Tea and Brylcreem. But they are not important. Banerjee wants you to focus on the action inside. Between people and inside people’s heads. The opening credits has the camera resting inside a tram, focusing on Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Calcutta rolling behind him. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy’s Calcutta of 1942 is a microcosm of the actual thing. That’s best represented by the scene where Bakshy meets Anguri Devi for the first time as she takes a dip in the Hooghly and Bakshy wanders to have a look. There is a small link between the bank and from where Anguri Devi dives and Banerjee frames it in such a way that it looks like a small Howrah bridge in front of him and Bakshy at this moment crosses over from his small case of a missing person to a much complicated game of spies and drugs. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy boasts of the most beautiful canvas from Bollywood this year and also tough to surpass. The camera work and production design is striking and unique and Banerjee has great potential for world building here. Every image is gorgeous.
And Bakshy works best in its claustrophobic world. The hostel scenes are brilliantly crafted and the interaction between the roommates, the cook is some of the most exquisite scenes in the film. A scene of note is the one where Satyawati (Divya Menon) visits Bakshy at the hostel and he is pretending to be sick with a cloth over his eyes. The roommates are trying to eavesdrop outside, the cook serves tea (a Byomkesh staple) with his hands forever trembling and Banerjee cuts across each of them with Bakshy taking in what Satyawati is here for. Banerjee also has a thing for time and place that jump about without warning. A scene outside hostel soon after Bakshy has taken residence suddenly has the camera panning and we see Ajit (Anand Tiwari) – who was conspicuous by his absence till then – has joined them . There is another scene towards the end where Kanai (Meiyang Chang) takes Bakshy and Ajit to the market to meet with drug dealers and this happens twice with the scene beginning exactly the same way both times. This masterful staging though is disappointingly abandoned when it comes to storytelling.
As a story that details a character’s beginnings and something Dibakar Banerjee wants to explore further going by the ending, it is a little too complicated of a web. There is great build up in how the various characters come together but the piecing of the story feels tedious. There is also a lot of exposition followed by Bakshy’s eureka moments – something you can stomach if this was not a film from Dibakar Benerjee. There is an elaborate scene in the end laying out every detail of the plot that required a more deft handling and with all the major characters stuffed around the table. It is jarring when everyone else apart from Bakshy and the antagonist is reduced to a mere observer in a scene that had no business being this long. The greatest culprit in this group is Swastika Mukherjee’s Anguri Devi. It’s hard to tell if the role is badly written or badly performed. The Chinese characters also suffer with the most unimaginative lines and performances. There is an element of pulp but that isn’t enough to get Banerjee out of jail. Neeraj Kabi’s performance is. His exchanges with Bakshy are. The characters are all there despite the exhausting premise. And in Dibakar Banerjee – who is yet to make a bad film – we trust.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)