I have long lamented the dearth of good noir in Hindi cinema. We did get a decent smattering of it via Johnny Gaddar and Manorama 6 feet under but even reasonable desi noir is hard to come by, and precisely the reason why I applaud Kahaani. This film is about Vidya Bagchi (Balan), a lone pregnant woman come all the way from the UK to find her missing husband Arnab. He apparently left London to come work on a project for NDC in Kolkata. After the first few weeks, he stopped calling and communicating, and now Vidya, desperate, has come to find him.
The local Calcutta police is quite helpful, but everyone has their doubts about Arnab – maybe he’s a fly-by-nighter who’s gotten tired of the wife? Vidya, undaunted, seeks help from the NDC office, but they, while polite enough, have no records of any Arnab Bagchi. No Arnab Bagchi has apparently even left the UK or arrived in India according to embassy records. All Vidya has to show for her marriage and her bulging stomach is a photograph – Arnab and her beaming on their wedding day. The man himself seems to have disappeared into thin air. And as time passes and all her leads come to naught, a weary and distraught Vidya is doubtful of ever finding him . . .
This is a fantastic little film. It is understated and develops slowly, but the tension mounts nevertheless. The characters are beautifully wrought – the babus are dour, pot-bellied and huffing and puffing away, the policemen are frustrated by the new-fangled computer systems, and the seedy guest-house, the “Monalisa”, where Vidya resides (because her husband had also lived there) is populated with a hapless manager, leering co-residents and a general dogsbody – a grinning child named Bishnu.
Vidya Balan is outstanding as the tenacious young woman risking life and limb to find her husband. The other actors are little known but quite good also, especially Parambrata Chatterjee who essays the role of diligent police man Satyoki Sinha aka Raja; as he explains to Vidya everyone in Kolkata has two names – one formal “bhalo-nam” and one informal “dak-nam”. He helps Vidya in her search, she remarking that he is named after Arjuna’s charioteer (see Satyaki in Indian mythology). Nawazuddin Siddiqui is ratty, self-serving Inspector Khan – quite an excellent portrayal. Saswata Chaterjee is the balding, out-of-shape insurance agent Bob Biswas.
I must credit director Ghosh for his handling of the film making it what it is – a unique mix of suspense and tightly-wound placidity. There are no thrumming drum-beats or breathless action to add to the fervor, but it creeps on you anyway, culminating in an unpredictable twist to the tale. Because this is oh-Calcutta, it is peopled by Bengali Babus, all who insist on calling Vidya “Bidda” much to her annoyance. And because it is Kolkata we get beautiful shots of the Hooghly and the Howrah Bridge, and other vignettes into the fetid, festering life on the city’s streets. The beautiful cinematography captures Kolkata in its full glory at the time of Durga Puja – the sparkling, much-decorated statues of Kali, the dancing throngs and the white sari-clad, sindoor-smeared ululating women.
Kahaani is a lovely film, rife with atmosphere and nuanced in its detail. It deserves your time and patience; go see it!