Clutching her stroller in one hand, the other tightly gripping her passport and a bottle of Evian, a very pregnant Vidya Bagchi steps out of Kolkata international airport, and almost immediately appears lost, even as half a dozen cabbies heckle her for business.
Kahaani, written and directed by Sujoy Ghosh, hits the ground running with Vidya Balan playing the helpless Mrs Bagchi, who has arrived from London in search of her missing husband Arnab. With a sympathetic cop helping her on this mission, Vidya combs every corner of Kolkata. But all leads go cold – the guesthouse he was staying at, the National Data Center where he’d been assigned, even the Indian immigration authorities have no records of Arnab Bagchi. When it seems like her husband’s disappearance might be inexplicably linked to a most-wanted terrorist, Vidya pokes her nose around in dangerous places, angering the Intelligence Bureau that is trying desperately to keep some secrets hidden.
Taut and refreshingly original, the script of Kahaani keeps you on your toes with its tendency to throw surprises and twists at every turn. The emphasis here is on the story – who is Arnab Bagchi? Does he exist outside of Vidya’s head?
As is integral to all good stories, Ghosh creates solid characters. There’s the do-gooder rookie cop Rana, played by Parambrata Chatterjee, who’s constantly by Vidya’s side. Their antagonist comes as the surly Intelligence Bureau officer Khan, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who wants the search abandoned. In Kahaani, there is attention to detail served to even bit characters like an impish errand boy in the guesthouse who becomes friends with Vidya, and a sinister contract killer who bumps off his victims after greeting them cordially.
To reveal more details is to let out spoilers in this mystery, but there are some contentious script twists that you may not take a shine to. Ghosh does, however, cover most of his tracks, so when you work your way backwards, there is logic (flimsy sometimes) applied to those twists.
Because this is a film shot on real locations, there are times you notice bystanders staring straight at the actors, a minor pitfall that nevertheless jars. It’s hard to imagine this film set in any other city, because Kolkata is everywhere, almost like an actual character in Kahaani. Set during the Durga Puja festival, the city is in turns warm and menacing, and the camera captures Kolkata with so much love that you’re instantly drawn to it. Watch how it reflects the mood as Rana softens before Vidya; or the frenetic energy that a city in the grip of Puja lends to its dramatic climax.
Expectedly, Kahaani unspools as a one-woman narrative, so Vidya Balan reveals once again that she can carry a film, even with no other recognizable star. She is alternatively firm, fierce, vulnerable, playful and charming that you’re sometimes unsettled by these shifting emotions. What she does do is lend undeniable credence to her role and to this thriller, making you walk with her every step of this journey. Bengali actor Parambrata Chatterjee gets every sensitive nuance of his role spot-on, as the cop who assists her along the way and endears himself completely to the viewer. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, meanwhile, has an angry presence that commands the camera with every pithy dialogue he spouts.
In the end, Kahaani feels longer than its 115 minutes running time, partly because there is no escape from its gritty tone. Yet the suspense remains consistently tight, and the story well-executed. A word also for the haunting background score that only adds to the mood of the film. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for director Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani. The film delivers on its promise, and keeps you guessing until the end. It’s a delicious thriller – don’t miss it.