Friday, January 25, 2013

KAHAANI: The Wrath of Vidya

vidya balan kahaani
It’s been two months since I wrote a word here about an Indian movie, in spite of promising myself that I’d post at least weekly. Partly the silence was due to year-end busy stuff, partly it was due to my not seeing any Indian films for a while (!!), and partly, I suppose, it was due to disappointment at this kind of dreck. But even though my last two posts were responses to some truly soul-deadening cinema, since the end of 2012 I have watched (and re-watched) quite a few good Indian films. And after the performances I witnessed late last year, how wonderful it’s been to see so many actors actually doing, and apparently enjoying, their jobs—even Salman, who has had a tendency to phone it in since at least the beginning of this century.

So let me talk about a movie in which a passel of actors were clearly having a fine time, with the result that I did, too. First and foremost, let’s talk Vidya Balan. Many filmgoers seem to have a whole new respect for her interesting career—one that has actually gotten more interesting since she passed 30, which, for a woman in films of any continent, is a pretty cool achievement. How much fun she (and everyone else) seemed to be having in 2010’s Ishqiya:

And how I loved the first half of The Dirty Picture, though I was really disappointed with the sudden downfall-slash-comeuppance that awaited Vidya’s sexpot actress character at the end….

Well, now we have Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani, which features Vidya’s best performance yet in a wild Kolkata thrill ride. (Look away, spoiler-haters!)

vidya balan, parambrata chattopadhyay, durga puja, kolkata
Mrs. Vidya and Rana
It’s Durga Puja time in Kolkata, and all the city is preparing for the big event. Vidya is Mrs. Vidya Bagchi, who has brought her giant pregnant belly all the way from London, where she’s a computer expert, to the mysterious lanes and zero-star hotels and giant data centers of Kolkata, where her husband was last seen. Or so she says. Nobody she meets can corroborate her story, quite. The police station is her first destination on arrival, but most of the cops assume that her husband just doesn’t want to be found. The one sweet cop, Satyoki, nicknamed Rana (the endearing Parambrata Chattopadhyay), feels sorry for her and starts volunteering to drive her around to look for Mr. Bagchi. Her big eyes and her way with children appeal to him. Soon she’s fixing his computer, and then, before he knows it, he’s breaking into storage rooms on her behalf.

bob biswas, Saswata Chatterjee
Creepy, na?
Converging on Vidya’s trail is the bespectacled, balding insurance agent Bob Biswas (Saswata Chatterjee). “Kolkata is a dangerous city, very dangerous,” he tells Mrs. Vidya after he’s just prevented her from falling in front of an oncoming train. He is also the person who pushed her. Bob may have a sweet face and a soul-crushing day job, complete with a younger, type-A boss who delights in berating him, but he’s also an ace hitman who has been gunning down all the people who have given Mrs. Vidya information about her missing husband. Characters in movies don’t get much more entertainingly terrifying than this.

nawazuddin siddiqui
A. Khan. But which one??
And ooh, let’s not forget A. Khan, an intelligence agent from Delhi who shows up to nip the investigation in the bud. He doesn’t want Mrs. Vidya sniffing around Kolkata any more than Bob Biswas seems to. A. Khan is all sharp edges and shouts; the taller, softer Kolkata cops bend tentatively over him as he swaggers past them, like alpine meadow-flowers buffeted by an icy wind. He's focused on the big picture and cares less, much less, about keeping Mrs. Vidya unharmed. (This ethical conflict resonates a bit, as we've seen a horrible gas attack on Kolkata's Metro at the start of the film and know that preventing another mass killing must be a priority--but then Movie Ethics kick in to remind us that Khan is talking about letting Vidya Balan die, a thing that must not be allowed to occur.) A. Khan is brought to vibrant life by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, another actor who’s suddenly commanding everyone’s respect, and just as in Gangs of Wasseypur, it’s hard to take your eyes off him here. The Mrs. Vidya/Khan standoff provides a roiling undercurrent to the flow of the story.

And it is a story, as the film's title reminds us. That gnawed at me, and Khan’s suspicions about Mrs. Vidya wormed their way into my thoughts, too. Clearly she's inventing things. Clearly there are things she's not telling anyone. For a disturbing few minutes, I was wondering whether she would turn out to be another Aaron Stampler. But though Mrs. Vidya lies to almost everyone in the film, her motive for trickery turns out to be payback, not evildoing. First, her helpless pregnant-lady routine takes in all the men she meets, and then she rises up in the midst of the gloriously chaotic Durga Puja festival to reveal the avenging goddess she's been hiding all along. Woooooo!!

Sure, there are some imperfect moments—mostly involving the aforementioned office-plundering and some computer-hacking that seems either too easily accomplished or too pointless—but those went by so quickly that I was fine with shrugging "whatever" and falling back into the story. Yes, the film should have ended before the thuddingly heavy-handed voiceover that s-p-e-l-l-s o-u-t the Durga comparison that even I, a non-resident non-Indian, had figured out (and had felt quite smart about doing, thank you, which made the Amitabh* Let Me Splain moment even more irritating); I kind of wished I had shut it off five minutes earlier.**

But all in all, I was happy to be bowled over by the sheer force of actors having a grand time playing great characters—and by the film's other major character, the charismatically crumbling city of Kolkata. In the end, the Durga statues sink into the Hooghly, and Mrs. Vidya melts into a crowd of sindoor-smeared, identically clad women. But as those left behind realize, Mrs. Vidya's Kahaani isn't like all the rest.

*And you know I love you, Big B. 

**On the other hand, if I hadn't stayed for the end credits, I'd have missed this rather pretty song. Lyrics by Rabindranath Tagore. Voice by Amitabh.