Saturday, January 16, 2016


Byomkesh Bakshi is a contemporary of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. He was born in 1932 in the mind of Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Like many successful character creators, Bandyopadhyay tired of his creation relatively early but eventually resumed writing about his private detective or "seeker after truth." He was working on another Bakshi story when he died in 1970. The detective came to cinematic life in 1967, with no less a figure than Satyajit Ray, India's most acclaimed director worldwide, helming his inaugural appearance. In the last decade Bakshi has become a Bengali cinematic and TV mainstay. Less common are Hindi-language Bakshi films. Dibakar Bannerjee's film -- he changed the English spelling of the detective's last name because he felt "y" was a more dynamic looking letter than "i" -- is the first Hindi-language feature film about the detective to my knowledge, though he had appeared on Hindi TV in the 1990s. If my association of Bakshi/Bakshy with Spade and Marlowe is an attempt to place the Bengali sleuth in the pulp tradition, Bannerjee's movie is even more of an attempt, down to the gratuitous exclamation point. While several of Bandyopadhyay's novels have been translated into English, I'm just discovering Bakshy with this movie so I haven't had a chance to compare the film with the books, though the movie makes me very interested in trying the originals. I could believe that Bannerjee, who freely adapted the first novel, filtered it through his experience of Inglourious Basterds or Captain America: The First Avenger or some nostalgia for 1940s India that the 46 year old auteur never knew personally. I don't know yet whether Bandyopadhyay should be considered a pulp writer, but Bannerjee definitely made a pulp movie that is great fun to watch.

 Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! convincingly recreates 1940s Calcutta, often using authentic locations

Bannerjee has moved Bakshy's first big case forward to 1943, at a time when Japan was bombing Calcutta (now Kolkata) where the story is set, and where nationalists, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders, were agitating for independence from the British Empire. The story starts in indisputably pulpy fashion when hooded killers interrupt a drug deal. Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput) takes on an apparently unrelated case: Ajit Bannerjee (Anand Tiwari) wants to know where his father, a chemist, has disappeared to -- and he doesn't want to hear any theories about his dad being a criminal. When we first see Ajit, he says that Byomkesh looks like someone you'd like to punch in the face, and before the scene is over he's done just that. Like any private eye worth his salt, Bakshy takes a beating over the course of the convoluted story. Despite Ajit's feelings, Byomkesh learns from fellow tenants at the father's boarding house that the chemist apparently was blackmailing his boss, a factory owner involved with a Bengali nationalist party who faces a schism led by his own son. When Bakshi and his new friend Dr. Guha (Neeraj Kabi), the man who runs the boarding house, find the chemist's body, the factory owner becomes the prime suspect in an apparent murder. But when he drops dead, apparently poisoned, in Byomkesh's presence, after gasping out the last words "young gang," or something like that, all bets are off.

Above, Bakshy makes a disgusting discovery.
Below, Byomkesh turns to mysteriously enhanced betel leaves in an attempt to visualize the mystery.

Byomkesh soon learns that he's been manipulated with false leads by Dr. Guha himself, but it may be for a higher good. Guha shares the nationalist aspirations of most Bengalis, and is willing to collaborate with the Japanese to win independence from Britain. Seeing Byomkesh as a potential protege -- he impressed Bakshy earlier with a Holmsean dismantling of a cover story the young detective tried on him -- the doctor invites Byomkesh to collaborate, but our hero can see only carnage and mass destruction resulting from Guha's scheme. Instead, he tries to thwart the impending Japanese attack, though he learns eventually that something more sinister than an invasion is actually planed.

Say what you will about her acting; you will remember Swastika Mukherjee's name.

Throw in a traditional femme fatale -- the singing movie star Anguri Devi (the insensitively named Swastika Mukherjee) -- as well as a good girl, the factory owner's daughter ( Divya Menon) and the killer gang from the prologue and you have a combustible pulp mix that's sure to explode in exuberant fashion. I'll spare you too many spoiler details in the hope that people will give Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! a try on Netflix. Bannerjee has put together a nifty period piece (albeit with some stridently anachronistic hip-hop music on the soundtrack) that should appeal to fans worldwide of pulp or hard-boiled fiction. For those not initiated into the mysteries of genre the film is made worthwhile by the terrifically charismatic performances of Sushant Singh Rajput and Neeraj Kabi as hero and villain. Netflix exaggerates slightly in saying that Dr. Guha has a plan for world domination, but you could believe this man has something like that in him. Bakshy may not quite by Calcutta's Sherlock Holmes, but Guha is a full-on Moriarty, and Neeraj Kabi makes the most of such a mighty role. Someone hire that man as a Bond villain! Meanwhile Sushant Singh Rajput succeeds in making Bakshy ingenious yet fallible, a novice with obvious great potential bolstered with courage and conscience. The climactic showdown in which Bakshy tries to make Guha believe an awesome bluff is thrilling tense despite an initial absence of action -- the scene soon deteriorates into Tarantinian mayhem, albeit carried out with demonic brio by Neeraj Kabi -- thanks entirely to the two actors' charisma and commitment to their roles.  

 Neeraj Kabi as the multitalented Dr. Guha.

Bakshy! gives new life to pulp/noir tropes that may be near exhaustion in their original U.S. context, and serves as a reminder for those who need it that Indian cinema isn't all Bollywood song and dance. The film's ending promises a sequel, or at least hopes to create demand for one. It succeeded with me, at least.

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