DETECTIVE BYOMKESH BAKSHY. Director: Anup Singh. Players: Irrfan Khan, Director: Dibakar Banerjee Players: Sushant Singh Rajput, Anand Tiwari, Divya Menon, Swastika Mukherjee,, Neeraj Kabi, Mark Bennington, Shivam. Music: Sneha Khanwalkar. Hindi with Eng. Sub-tit. Theatrical release (Yashraj)
Hello Calcutta. Stop. We have a problem. Stop. It is 1942. Stop. War rages in nearby Burma. Stop. There are spies everywhere. Stop. The British spies want something.
Stop. The Japanese spies may want the same thing. Stop. Danger lurks. Stop. All hope lost. Stop. Send help fast. Stop. Is Detective Byomkesh Bakshy available? Stop.
He is? Stop. Survival chances vastly improved suddenly. Stop.
The gifted Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandopaddhay followed in the great tradition of other gifted Bengali writers such as Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (Devdas, Parineeta). Bandopaddhay’s lasting gift to detective fiction, thanks to a prolific output of stories from the 1930s to the 1960s, was the memorable sleuth Byomkesh Bakshi. Rejuvenated by Banerjee for the big screen as Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, the famed detective—um, he prefers “truth seeker” instead of the “D” word, if you don’t mind—now has a highly entertaining movie to add to his adventures.
Against a backdrop of WWII intrigue and a fast-changing subcontinent on the verge of gaining independence, a boarding house in the Hooghly area in Calcutta becomes the vortex of strange goings on. Of the many sordid bachelors rooming here, the most noteworthy is one Byomkesh (Rajput), a collegian with a penchant for solving crimes. Byomkesh reluctantly agrees to help fellow campus bloke Ajit (Tiwari) search for Ajit’s missing father. Little do they know that the game is about to go afoot in a big way.
Director Banerjee goes great distance not only in maintaining fidelity to Bandopaddhay’s characters but also in recreating a spot-on earthy, neo-gothic feel to a city on the verge, as if this were a best-selling graphic novel brought to life. The lipstick is redder than blood. There are opium dens where hush-hush espionage is brokered under pungent, low-lit lamps. The sari blouses are full-cut and the dames’ fashions are frilly and yet ever so stylish.
Byomkesh, meanwhile, now with Ajit as his side-kick, gets entangled with a plethora of fascinating period-specific fauna that help make the story gel even more. There is Anguri Devi (Mukherjee), a local icon and movie star with questionable connection to the rich mill owner Sukumar (Shivam), whose life may be in danger. There is Satyawati (Menon), Sukumar’s sister who may soon seek Byomkesh’s help. All this as an opium-fueled gang war is taking root, much to the consternation of the British keeper Commissioner Wilkie (Bennington), who is also concerned about Japanese spies infiltrating from the nearby Burma border.
Rajput gets under Byomkesh’s skin in a memorable way. The haircut and dhotis are fun accoutrements from an era before denim arrived on Indian shores. As Byomkesh’s compadre, Tiwari’s Ajit perfectly blends humor with ethos in facial expressions that are reminiscent of the brilliant self-deprecating comedy of the late Deven Verma, who Tiwari slightly resembles. Mukherjee’s Anguri Devi is a torchy femme fatale with a swimsuit figure to match. It is only Menon’s Satyawati who could have been drawn a little sharper.
Yashraj clearly expects this franchise to pay off, so much so that the studio has acquired rights to 30-plus Bandopaddhay stories. Indeed, Banerjee recently announced that a sequel is already on the drawing books. For Yashraj, this may not necessarily be about garnering boffo box office returns—although that would not be turned down—but getting their hands on a youth-friendly character that can be developed to change with the times. In a remarkable achievement, unlike most famous fictional detectives, Bandopaddhay nicely allowed Byomkesh to age over the many years that the stories were published.
If there are parallels between Byomkesh and Sherlock Holmes, those too are intentional. After penning in some similarities in his earlier works, Bandopaddhay gradually distanced himself from that model. Banerjee, too, uses that character reference sparingly, including a return to Holmes-like tactic again in the big reveal in the finale. The big question mark is how Byomkesh will deal with his Moriarty-like nemesis—nearly invisible here—who is already hinting at future mischief even before this installment ends. We can’t wait!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.