The second showing of the pre-festival screenings was the Japanese premier of a film from the sub-continent: Kahaani. If part of the purpose of the Focus on Asia festival is to encourage cultural exchange then Kahaani has proven to be an excellent choice. Films are a valuable means of gaining an insight into distant or remote cultures. What we get in Sujoy Ghosh’s fourth feature is an uncompromising street level view of the city of Kolkata, culminating in the famous Durja Purj festival – which is incidentally, not dissimilar to Fukuoka’s own Yamakasa festival. Naturally, with the Indian cast and subject matter, it is sure to be somewhat of a novelty to Japanese viewers.
Before we delve into the heart of the matter there two main points of interest: the female lead (unusual for a Hindi film) and the location shooting (again rather rare for a mainstream Indian feature). The rest is unfortunately, not all that novel. The film opens with a curious and at first, unconnected prologue in which a deadly chemical weapon is accidently released on a busy subway carriage. We then jump two years, to Kolkata’s airport, where a heavily pregnant Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) has just landed from London. She is on the search for her husband and heads straight to the police station.
In the weeks prior, her husband Arnab arrived in India for a job assignment. They talked daily on the phone, until without warning, his calls stopped. Everywhere Vidya turns, no one can remember Arnab. There are no signs that his assignment ever took place. There is no trace of him at the guest house where he supposedly stayed. She is confronted with increasing skepticism as all she has as proof of his existence is a wedding day photograph and her protruding bulge. Undeterred however, Vidya continues her search and at times goes to great measures to get her answer.
Balan does perfectly well in a strong, commanding performance as the tenacious Vidya. But her acting chops aren’t exactly stretched to breaking point. There’s something about her character that is a little too relaxed. It’s fair to think that one might be a little more unhinged given the odds that are stacked against her.
Alongside Vidya is Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s endearingly sincere policeman who is taken by her resolve and helps her in her cause, driving her from place to place and tagging along as rearguard. It is an interesting reversal of gender roles. Their close contact throughout the first hour hints at a possible romance to come, winning the film an added depth. Also good is Nawazuddin Sidiqqui as the steely government official who comes in at the half-way point barking orders at everyone in his way. He spends a lot of the time barging down corridors past his inferiors and his (truly) intense presence is put to good use. His terse, heated exchanges with Balan serve as the highlights of a script relatively lacking in hard, raw emotion. But arguably the real winner here is the city itself shot lovingly on celluloid. The bustle and vitality that is the simple nature of Kolkata is captured lovingly on celluloid with some great DP work. Coming out of the film you will feel like you’ve lived there.
Where the pic doesn’t really succeed is in its storytelling. While the first hour set up the characters and the story in a simple, understated fashion, even building some tension along the way, the following acts really drop in pace where they should pick up. Overestimating the charm of it all, Ghosh lets his film run to a hefty two hours. Instead of a racy final act we plod along lifelessly as the characters bounce from one non-descript location to the other, each scene introducing another unnecessary twist and becoming more convoluted. Viewers may find themselves switching off in the final 20 minutes, pinching themselves only in the hope of catching the answer to Arnab’s disappearance.
Crucially Kahaani is lacking in the golden ingredient of thrillers: suspense. Aside from an all-to brief scene that sees Balan and Chattopadhyay break in to a government building at the same time as a hitman, there is never any sense of real danger or nail-biting tension. It’s a little lightweight and could have been far darker.
It all comes to an end with a set-piece shot amongst the vivid colors of the Durja Purj festival. The big twist that comes is smart and unexpected but does little to add to the story or Vidya’s character. Nevertheless it does serve to reinforce the film’s ideological subtext on womanhood. Balan’s solo performance is convincing and powerful enough to serve a spoonful of resounding proof to the Hindi film industry and to viewers that a woman can carry such a film on her shoulders. However, take out the gender politics, the female lead, and Kahaani is a thriller we’ve all seen before.
Contributor: Kenjo McCurtain