One of the great joys of reviewing films is ending up enjoying one for which you had zero expectations. Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani is one such film and it can best be described as an exercise in subverting your expectations.
Kahaani is an extremely hit-and-miss affair, but it hits more than it misses, and even though its hits are wounded by some unimaginably ludicrous contrivances. The film is engaging despite its over-reliance on typical Bollywood thriller genre conventions, and being a derivative hodge-podge of The Truth about Charlie, Ruby Cairo and Charade. It’s a film that is specially made for folks who like a shocking climax – but it’s not gimmicky and is more of a forthright drama with some misdirection to throw us off track.
From the opening moments, as a toxic nerve gas from a cage of rats makes its way to a subway train in a metro city, we know we're in for something interesting. The story tries to evoke, with some success, the Hollywood spy films of the 1960s where a stranger wanders into a new town and get embroiled in a conspiracy over the course of a hot summer. The stranger in this case is a heavily pregnant Vidya Bagchi played by Vidya Balan who arrives in Kolkata from London to search for her missing husband. She seeks help from the local police, and to her horror she fails to find any proof of the existence of her husband. As the rabbit hole goes deeper, the whiff of a government machination and a killer on the loose haunt her life.
As the story unfolds you begin to realize how the rest of the film is going to play out. The treatment has been done to death in dozens of other thrillers and James Hadley Chase novels, but the ending is quite unexpected and bewildering. In a way, Kahaani is a one-trick pony, but it is a nifty trick. Ghosh directs with a stylish eye and it becomes hard to believe that he made the dreadful Aladin and Home Delivery before this. The pacing of the film is pretty slick and suits the story and the heat that permeates the Kolkata locales.
Vidya Balan, glowing from her recent turn in The Dirty Picture is once again in fiery form. From the moment she struggles to negotiate with the taxi driver vultures at the airport she holds your attention. This is certainly the most complicated character she has ever played and the best she's performed in any movie. However, it's not just the vulnerability but her blatant versatility and the intangible breakdown of her portrayal into smaller, loosely connected segments that makes her stand out. Parambrata Chatterjee does a good job as a cop but Saswata Chatterjee is even better in his shady role of a contract killer.
However it is Nawazuddin Siddiqui who is the brightest light in Kahaani – his overarching naturalism is just boggling to the mind. Siddiqui had small roles in Black Friday, Peepli Live, Paan Singh Tomar and here he is just remarkable as a gruff foul mouthed cop. He makes you crave for a movie that stars him along with Irrfan Khan, Vijay Raaz and Deepak Dobriyal in the lead roles.
The bane of Kahaani is its second half, which is replete with cringe inducing contrivances and plot holes the size of West Bengal. On some occasions the film's pace is maimed by a love track that is as unnecessary as it is laughably overblown. Later, Vidya and Parambrata’s characters suddenly behave as if they are in a tawdry Sidney Sheldon novel – they go about picking locks and ransacking offices.
There is a lot of exposition with shoddily staged scenes where characters literally face the camera and explain what is going on. There are even some hysterically bad instances of computer hacking where the film assumes its audience is comprised only of five-year-olds. Then there’s the finale that is unexpected, but so improbable that one would see a cartoon question mark hovering above audience's heads. This is frustrating because all the good work is undone by every such absurdity – and that’s exactly what keeps this from being a truly great film.
Ultimately, Kahaani is a passably assured piece of genre filmmaking that delivers the goods so well packaged that it doesn’t matter that they aren't fresh. There is a lot to like about the film even though the second half pushes the suspension of disbelief to the extreme. It isn't fine art, it is entertainment, and it’s enjoyed best when taken as such.
(First published in Mumbai Boss)