I watched Dibakar Banerjee's Detective Byomkesh Bakshy last weekend. Despite being Bengali, I never had the pleasure of reading Saradindu Bandapadhyay's Byomkesh series in the original. I learnt my Bangla from the Bangla newspapers that came daily to our home every evening--my reading was therefore untutored and without any formal trajectory. However, I was not without any exposure to the literary Byomkesh as various people in the family who were avid consumers of the Byomkesh series often read out entire stories to me. The debonair, precision-mad detective with his heart in the right place made as much of an impression on me as my first exposure to Doyle's Holmes in the BBC series of the eighties where the master-sleuth was played by the superbly talented Jeremy Brett.
When Dibakar's Byomkesh released last week, every newspaper, periodical and online platform rushed to publish reviews, and they all reiterated two things over and over again--that Dibakar's Byomkesh was not the literary Byomkesh imagined and given life by Saradindu, and that the film was far too slow to be thrilling or even intriguing. While the first observation--I call it observation as I don't see it as criticism--was self-evident, the second left me flummoxed.
To bring a murder mystery to screen is no easy job, one might say. One might even say that having a master-detective at the centre of a murder mystery makes the job of a filmmaker even more complicated. Unlike in prose where the author can quickly spell out what the master-detective is thinking, the filmmaker is at a loss in doing so on the screen, without putting entirely facetious sounding dialogue in the mouth of the master-detective, which would ultimately destroy the sense of enigma the master-detective must be surrounded with.
"[T]he best detective stories are not whodunits but howdunits."
Now, in Dibakar's Byomkesh, the main protagonist is not yet the master-detective we all know he becomes in time. To complicate matters even further he's on his first case, muddling through, at times putty in the hands of an already-fully-formed Moriarty, figuring out his mistakes, and forging ahead once more. By the time we reach the end of the film, our master-detective is beginning to show signs of maturing, and he has learnt, as he admits, not just from the master-criminal himself but also from the law; he tells his fellow boarding-house inmate, the young Chinese man who is a policeman incognito, "Seekh raha hoon".
The plot of the case, the motive for the murders themselves, are complex webs, emerging out the times the protagonists live in--second world war, and Calcutta in 1942 as a hotbed of intrigue in which the Japanese played an important role in trying to corner the Allies in this Eastern outpost. Dibakar therefore sets out to delineate the context lovingly, and he does so aesthetically as well as informatively. It turns out that this context-building is critical--a young girl next to me in the theatre asked her friend disbelievingly during a scene showing Japanese aerial bombing--'Bombs in India during the second world war??' For others in her predicament, have a look at this account of the Calcutta bombing by the Japanese to see how right Dibakar gets it in the film.
The film unravels therefore at many levels--the context itself, and simultaneously, Byomkesh's emergence on the scene, and the specific plot itself. The visuals are not just breathtaking, as many reviews have claimed, they are infused with clues throughout, much like a comic book. You cannot focus on the frame with Byomkesh on the tram without taking in the headlines of the newspaper being read by the man sitting next to him. And if you think you knew who committed the murder before Byomkesh did, it's because Dibakar meant you to. How else would the characterisation of the young detective muddling through his first case be complete? As another friend who enjoyed the film said to me recently, 'the best detective stories are not whodunits but howdunits.' The pieces of the puzzle come together at the end, startling in their complexity, and yet fitting with each other seamlessly, without a single edge visible.
As I said, I was therefore flummoxed by the criticism that the film is not 'pacy' enough. I wondered if these critics had watched even a single episode of the Jeremy Brett BBC series of Sherlock Holmes--masterly as it was, there is no better example of 'slow burn' than what we saw in those episodes. Most of the series was shot indoors adding to the often claustrophobic feeling one got as the plot unravelled, and Brett himself was famous for his unhurried performances and delivery. I love re-watching episodes of that Sherlock series as much as I dig the new avatar of Sherlock on BBC with his fingers constantly tripping over his cellphone keypad. Or take Hercule Poirot of the famous Poirot series---pitch-perfect, and categorically lacking in pacy histrionics. Rather held together by masterful performances and our own never-ending curiosity about how at the end Poirot will expose the howdunit.
"The pieces of the puzzle come together at the end, startling in their complexity, and yet fitting with each other seamlessly, without a single edge visible."
Dibakar's Byomkesh, as one review correctly pointed out, is a mish-mash of all our best loved introspective detectives--Poirot, Sherlock, Inspector Morse; the only difference being that Dibakar's Byomkesh is how all these detectives, who we encountered only as much older men and already accomplished in their craft, would have been on their first case. Dibakar's film is outstanding in achieving the authenticity of this impression, as much as to make us want that sequel by the end--both because we want this Byomkesh to mature into the master-detective we know so well, and also because of the other clever ploy of bringing in an-already formed, utterly sinister Moriarty--kyunki till our Byomkesh defeats YongYuan, picture abhi baaki hai, bhai!