Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, directed by Dibakar Banerjee, is a moody thriller set in 1943 Calcutta that unravels at an unhurried pace. Loosely adapted from Bengali crime fiction writer Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s enduring literary series, the film is intended as the origin story of the famous fictional sleuth.
Banerjee’s Calcutta is a city of secrets and shadows lurking at every corner. A terrific opening scene – in which mysterious sinister elements show up and thwart an opium deal in the dead of the night – sets the mood for the film’s noir-ish leanings. With World War II currently at its peak, the threat of oncoming Japanese bomber-jets looms large. It is against this landscape that Byomkesh (Sushant Singh Rajput), a recent graduate on the verge of taking up a teaching job, lands his first investigating assignment.
A young writer named Ajit (Anand Tiwari) is concerned about the whereabouts of his father, a reputed chemist, who has been missing for two months. The police think he’s run away, but Byomkesh is convinced that the old man has been killed. As he sets about prying into the mysterious disappearance of Ajit’s father from a local lodge, our private eye protagonist stumbles into a much bigger conspiracy involving Chinese drug dealers, a Japanese dentist, a femme fatale from Rangoon, and a slew of assorted characters who may or may not hold clues to the case.
Far from the sure-footed, razor-sharp sleuth of Bandopadhyay’s stories, Byomkesh, in Banerjee’s film, is an amateur investigator slowly coming into his own. ‘Slowly’ is the operative word here, as Banerjee and co-writer Urmi Juvekar spend more or less the entire first hour setting up the plot. Sushant Singh Rajput nicely slinks into the part of the unibrowed detective who’s clearly learning on the job. He has a fragile ego, he gets queasy at the sight of blood, and oftentimes he misses clues that are staring him in the face. Rajput has a boyish quality that serves the character well; he gets the Bangla mannerisms right, the body language down pat, and gives us a hero we grow to care for.
It’s the snail-paced plotting, and the surprising lack of urgency and imminent danger that cripples the film. Story strands and characters are abandoned arbitrarily, only to be revisited later. The big reveal isn’t too hard to guess – stick with your gut, don’t let the red herrings distract you, and lo, you’ve figured it out. The climax too is a mess of hammy acting.
But despite these problems, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a far more accomplished film than your average Bollywood offering. Every frame is crafted lovingly; the cinematography is stylish and evocative, Sneha Khanwalkar’s mostly heavy-metal soundtrack terrific, and the film’s production design simply first-rate. Aside from the odd clunky performance, by Swastika Mukherjee as the unintentionally hilarious seductress, the acting too is solid, particularly by Anand Tiwari, the Dr Watson to Byomkesh’s Holmes, who brings stray moments of much needed lightness to a largely humorless film. Ship of Theseus’ Neeraj Kabi also makes a big impression as a wise homeopath and the owner of the lodge where much of the action unfolds.
In the end the film has a lot going for it, even if it isn’t as fully satisfying as Banerjee’s previous works. This is a sprawling, ambitious effort with remarkable attention to detail; a film that deserves to be watched, especially for its masterful filmmaking.
I’m going with three out of five for Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!. Give it a chance, prepare to be patient, and chances are that it’ll stay with you.