Well, he had to stumble at some point.
Director Dibakar Banerjee has possessed, for the past decade, possibly the most original voice in mainstream Hindi cinema. From 2006's breezy Khosla Ka Ghosla to 2012's Shanghai (not to mention his best film, 2008's Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!), the director has been one of the precious few who has managed to find a way to work with well-known actors and big production houses without, mostly, compromising his vision.
But in his sixth outing as director with Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Banerjee falters. A sprawling, graphic-novel-esque adaptation of Bengali author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay's immortal Bengali detective character, this two-and-a-half hour film is largely a disappointment, albeit an impressive one.
Banerjee had claimed in his interview with HuffPost India that Indian audiences have never seen anything like this. That claim is not untrue. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! boasts some of the most stunningly detailed production design ever seen in a mainstream Hindi film. It is moody and stylish. Nikos Andritsakis's cinematography is top-notch, perfectly capturing the greyness of a city in decay as well as the Hollywood-y orange-and-teal patina that is added to some of the film's darker moments. Some moments -- such as a lovely pan shot from behind a car featuring a chain of characters bumping into each other as they walk down a crowded Calcutta street -- are a testament to the director's superior sense of mise-en-scène.
But what this event-driven yarn lacks, apart from a soul, is coherent storytelling. Set in 1943, we are thrust into a time-warped Calcutta, where unemployed Bengali youth sit in dingy addas and smoke incessantly. Bakshy (played by Sushant Singh Rajput) is introduced to us in one of these places, playing a solo game of carrom. He is approached by Ajit, a young writer, who wants him to hunt down his missing father, Bhuvan Banerjee. The police thinks he has run away. Bakshy suspects foul play.
"There were a couple of times where I found myself muttering "Get there faster!" under my breath."
We're introduced to a smorgasbord of characters, and the screenplay (written jointly by Banerjee and frequent collaborator Urmi Juvekar) attempts to give them all defining quirks. So, at a boarding house, we have Ashwini Babu (Arindol Bagchi), Bhuvan's ex-roommate who has an inordinate amount of love for paan; a character named Puntiram (Pradipto Kumar Chakraborty), a servile domestic help whose hands constantly tremble while he serves guests; Kanai Dao (Meiyang Chang), a likeable Chinese immigrant who 'legally' sells opium in the city's Chinatown area; and, finally, the worldly-wise owner of the premises, Dr Anukul Guha (Neeraj Kabi), in whom Bakshy finds an intellectual equal.
The first half of the story is essentially a very long set-up, which combines the opium trade between Shanghai and Calcutta with the continued disappearance of Bhuvan Banerjee, a reputed chemist. It is at this point that one realises two things about this film: one, that it thrives on direct exposition; and two, that it assumes that its audience is viewing the film as though they're also in 1943.
Both realisations are somewhat problematic from a viewer's perspective. 'Byomkesh Bakshy' uses exposition as its ace-in-the-hole, portraying its lead character as one who is ahead of his time. The problem is that, while that makes sense in its own world, the average viewer who is exposed to far more sophisticated storytelling is already two steps ahead. There were a couple of times where I found myself muttering "Get there faster!" under my breath.
Of course, this is a problem that can be circumvented with stylish storytelling, which is what the film endeavours to do. The soundtrack features music by contemporary indie artistes encompassing genres as diverse as electro-swing and nu metal, some of them remixed by Sneha Khanwalkar. In theory, it's a cool stylistic flourish; one we've seen Quentin Tarantino use in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012) to dazzling effect.
However, the way this neat little trick is used here, it doesn't always quite work. I waited eagerly for the rollicking, transcendental cinematic moments that would anachronistically use distorted guitars, rumbling bass, and pounding drums to create unforgettable montages -- what I got, instead, were forced and random insertions of music hurriedly stuffed into 10-15 seconds of screen-time before sound design took over. Indeed, another of DBB's biggest problems is its stubborn refusal to let emotional moments sink in, with the editing sometimes sacrificing depth for pace.
"Indeed, another of DBB's biggest problems is its stubborn refusal to let emotional moments sink in, with the editing sometimes sacrificing depth for pace."
What it eventually comes down to, then, is the acting. Rajput, sporting a unibrow, plays Byomkesh as a young, directionless 24-year-old and is competent, but never really riveting. Stealing the show far more often is Tiwari, who gets the film's biggest laugh in one of the better-written scenes towards the end. The rest of the supporting cast is, again, satisfactory without being outstanding. The only brickbats I would reserve are for the actor who plays the main antagonist, whose hamming in the climax I found impossible to take seriously.
Despite all its flaws, I would still say that DBB's ambition, scope, and attention to detail are reasons enough to watch the film. But by the end, it seems evident that the film is far too aware of its own coolth and is more interested in using it as a smokescreen than as a welcome embellishment.
A lesser director could've been forgiven for it, but with Banerjee, the bar is set higher than it is for most.