Sunday, January 6, 2013


The performances in Kahaani (Tale, 2012)—especially those of Vidya Balan as Vidya Bagchi, a very pregnant woman seeking her missing husband, and Parambrata Chatterjee as Inspector Rana, a Kolkata cop who helps her—have been justly praised. The look of the film is also notable: director (and co-writer) Sujoy Ghosh and cinematographer Setu took concealed and hand-held cameras into the streets, subways and celebrations of Kolkata, giving the film a real sense of urgency and immediacy.

But a suspense thriller has to be suspenseful, and on that level Kahaani doesn't always succeed so well. For one thing, even though I'd avoided reading reviews of Kahaani before seeing it so that I wouldn't be alerted to any plot twists, my efforts were in vain. Less than a third of the way in, I'd guessed the film's big secret (and this despite several instances where Ghosh attempts to misdirect viewers).

And for a film that goes out of its way to establish its verisimilitude, at key moments Kahaani lacks realness. At one point Vidya and Inspector Rana are searching for a personnel file on a suspected terrorist, Milan Damji (Indraneil Sengupta). They are told that the file may be in an old office now used for storage. They break into the building (which looks like it's been abandoned for 20 years, not just 2, but never mind) to look for the file, but are closely pursued by a professional killer, Bob Biswas (the creepily effective Saswata Chatterjee). In the old office, Vidya and Inspector Rana hear Biswas coming up the stairs. Having only seconds to act,

—Spoiler alert!—

Vidya grabs the entire folder labelled "DA," containing dozens of files. Somehow Biswas' suspicions aren't raised by finding that the main entrance to the building has been left unlocked, and that the first folder in the "D" drawer of the file cabinet is labelled DB (DB?). Can he believe that no one named Das (or Dalai, Dalasingharay, Danadapatta, or Dasgupta, just to mention some common eastern Indian names) has ever had a personnel file? This is only one of many holes in the script, which repeatedly had me thinking, "But wait a minute..."

I was also disappointed by Vidya's transformation at the end of the film, when her apparently multilayered character suddenly becomes flattened into a stock action-movie figure. Although Ghosh drops several hints earlier in the film that Vidya is other than she seems. Inspector Rana's formal name is Satyaki, identified by Vidya as Arjun's charioteer in the Mahabharata. Arjun, of course, is the righteous warrior who, in an epic battle, kills the treacherous Karna. And in a confrontation two-thirds of the way through the film, Vidya turns out to be a suspiciously good (and surprisingly cold-blooded) shot. That there is no official inquiry after this incident is another one of those "But wait a minute..." moments.

—End of spoilers—

So while Kahaani is worth seeing for the performances and for the vividness of its Kolkata setting, it only works if you don't allow yourself to think too hard about the kahaani. For a compelling Vidya Balan movie with complex characters and very real suspense, I recommend instead No One Killed Jessica (2011).

Kahaani trailer


  1. Saw this movie on an outbound international flight. Think that I liked it more than you. Incoherencies in suspense thrillers don't bother me as much, perhaps. I let myself be carried away by the plot twist diversions and cinematic grit, rather than try to resolve them into a logical puzzle or by verisimilitude. I haven't watched all that many Bollywood movies, but enough to know that I probably enjoy the crime genre more than the song and dance musicals. À chacun son goût, heh? I will be sure to check out No One Killed Jessica.

    1. M. Lapin, if you're interested in Bollywood crime dramas, you have a long and rich tradition to explore. You may want to take a look at one of my favorite movies seen last year, C.I.D. (1956), a Bollywood film noir about corruption in high places. It's similar in atmosphere (though not in plot) to Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953).

      Other films in the crime/gangster genre that have been recommended to me include:

      Deewar (1975): Two brothers grow up on the mean streets of Bombay; one joins the police force, while the other turns to crime. Of course, their paths will inevitably cross... (the link is to Filmi Girl's review).

      Parinda (1989): Another "brothers on opposite sides of the law" film, which also nods to the gang-war plot of Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest (1929).

      Satya (1998): A newcomer to Mumbai gets drawn into a gang war; features the excellent Manoj Bajpai in a career-making performance as an underworld boss.

      Manorama Six Feet Under (2007): A frustrated mystery novelist unwisely turns detective and uncovers more than he bargained for.

      Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). Directed by Anurag Kashyap, one of the writers of Satya, and featuring that film's star Manoj Bajpai, this 5-hour mob epic covers several generations of warring criminal families.

      If you watch No One Killed Jessica or any of these other films, please let me know what you think.