KAHAANI. Director: Sujoy Ghosh. Players: Vidya Balan. Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Music: Shekhar Ravijani. Theatrical release (Viacom).
In a sinister, dimly lit science lab, there sits a tank holding skittish, antiseptic white mice awaiting their fate. A masked figure—whose heavy breathing alone is the surest indication that they could be Darth Vadar’s kin—hovers over the tank. The masked figure raises a syringe and without any hesitation whatsoever drops some serious poison into the tank, sending the furry critters into fatal convulsions.
The pulse quickens as the masked figure appears to look right into the camera—as if gloating over a dark victory. The fate of the mice is sealed, they cannot escape—the greater concern is whether humanity will survive this sick experiment. Thus opens Kahaani, in what is likely the first ever mainstream Hindi entry that unleashes an edge-of-the-seat thriller about bio-terrorism.
In yet another extraordinarily role for her, Balan plays Vidya Bagchi, an intriguing international jetsetter. Adding to the aura of mystery about her, Bagchi, who is also heavily pregnant, heads straight to the police station—and files a missing person report for her husband. To add even more complexity, Bagchi has advanced skills with computers and is an expert hacker to boot. Is she really who she says she is? Who exactly is her husband’s look alike who disappeared from a Kolkota tech firm?
Darkly beautiful, Ghosh’s handiwork is unrelenting in its chess-board guessing game design. Bagchi’s every move suggests a surreal parallel and yet she appears perfectly grounded. There is tension just beneath the surface, a sense that nothing is at it appears and that no one is entirely safe. The ability to manipulate the viewer and force them to suspend reality to this degree is quite phenomenal. And who are we kidding—we enjoy every minute of it!
After the incredible box office for her last movie—the amazing biopic The Dirty Picture and Balan’s equally amazing turn as the sex siren Silk Smitha—Vidya Balan suddenly is the toast of the female wing of Hindi film box office stars. Not only did The Dirty Picture win a handful of Filmfare trophies—including a well-deserved best actor—female statuette for Balan, The Dirty Picture become the highest grossing Hindi movie with a solo female “heroine.” Inflation adjusted, that is more than any Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit or Aishwarya Rai led movies ever. This gal has arrived!
As Bagchi, Balan is not afraid to go all soft and tender and meek. At other times, she is the shrewd tigress who can pick any lock with a hairpin and hack into just about any computer. Her one-eighty degree midriff turn and focusing her rage into stabbing the bad guy in the foot in nothing short of something Angelina Jolie would do as her onscreen alter-ego Lara Croft. Balan is that good.
There are only two songs. And they are marvelous. One is veteran singer Usha Uthap doing an earthy folkie number. The other is Bachchan doing a Rabindranath Tagore folk song. The use of Kolkota—and West Bengal generally—as a backdrop is executed with finesse. Backing up Balan are two cop-figures, each with their own agenda that unfold ever so deliciously. Chattopadhyay is a local beat cop who empathizes with Bagchi so much so that he will go out of his way to aide her. Siddique plays the bad cop to Chattopadhyay’s good cop. Siddique represents that super-secret branch of government where they have to kill you if they have to tell you. Both actors support Balan with gusto.
Hindi movie seldom get a cutting edge topic (bio terrorism), incredible story telling (double, possibly nefarious, identities), a stunning setting (the human sprawl of Kolkota against a aptly-used backdrop of the massive Durga Puja festival) and acting dynamics (Balan all the way) with touches from artists that were/are geniuses in their time (Tagore, Bachchan) simply radiates in one tight package. After underperforming with Aladdin (2009), Ghosh serves early notice for 2012 and strikes back with a punch that combines high science with high art. Bravo!
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.