Film review: 'Kahaani' unspools like a Hitchcock-ian whodunit

Sujoy Ghosh’s ace direction keeps the suspense taut, while Vidya Balan excels as a woman torn between conflicting emotions

Right as I was stepping into the cinema, a whisper was overheard with two women shaking their heads in dismay while a third narrated that renowned Indian numerologist, Sanjay B Jumani, has predicted “Kahaani” won’t fare well at the box office.
While the reasons for this ‘dismissal’ performance could not be eavesdropped upon further as we were ushered to our seats, the conversation simply added to the genre of prejudices and preconceived notions that a director faces when a film readies to hit the marquee.
It is no wonder that sometimes many crack under such pressure, losing the grip on their direction halfway through the plot.
Watching “Kahaani” unspool on screen made this journalist admire director Sujoy Ghosh all the more for spinning a yarn that, despite some predictable flaws, keeps the plot on track, with a gripping screenplay that demands excellence from its cast and crew.
The film opens with a terror attack in Kolkata that massacres over 100 people.
No explanations are given at the time and rather than dissecting the past, “Kahaani” travels two years ahead where a young and heavily pregnant Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) is seen stumbling out of the Kolkata airport in search of her missing husband, Arnab Bagchi (Indranil Sengupta). 
Enlisting the help of the local police, Vidya is joined by a fellow sub-inspector Satyoki Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee, excellent in his Bollywood debut) as the unlikely duo painstakingly takes apart scraps of evidence to retrace Arnab’s steps through the colourful streets and alleys of India’s City of Joy.
But resistance is met at every turn as government bureaucrats, led by the effervescent Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), hinder this young woman’s personal crusade to uncover the truth.
As the story unravels, further sub plots reveal a more sinister angle to Arnab’s disappearance, which weaves in naturally and with a technical masterstroke that would have done Alfred Hitchcock proud.
Writing any more would give the plot away, but what can safely be said is that few will see the climax coming in that final crescendo, which, albeit a little dramatic, neatly ties in the lead up without loopholes littered through the screenplay.
Ghosh has steered a tight ship, drawing inspiration from a potboiler of Hollywood films, including a few shades of Angelina Jolie’s “A Mighty Heart” and “Taking Lives.”
But to say that it’s a copy of any one would be incorrect on every count. The director has stamped his love for Kolkata in every scene, giving it his own uniqueness through Setu’s mastery at camerawork to capture the city’s very essence that is rare for mainstream filmmakers.
The City of Joy is a character on its own in the film, throwing up curves and colours that literally transport you into its underbelly, slowly watching it come alive as the Hindu festival of Durga Puja erupts onto screen in a larger than life visual.
Goddess Durga’s analogy is central to the film’s theme and the protagonist, played flawlessly by Balan, as she sheds her vulnerabilities to draw in on her inner strength or shakti to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The actress proves her worth by single handedly carrying the film forward on her firm shoulders, with an experience that transports you back to an era when Madhuri Dixit achieved the same with élan, breaking every rule in an industry that still favours a male lead.
Such a grim premise could have faltered with a heavy-handed approach, but Ghosh has expertly weaved in subtle humour to bring a welcome relief to the proceedings. Kudos here especially goes to Saswata Chatterjee, who breaks every stereotype that exists of your average hitman. You’ve got to see it to believe it.
“Kahaani”, which premiered on March 8 in Dubai with Balan strutting a ‘baby bump’ to live her character, is a breath of fresh air in an industry that more often than not asks its audience to leave their brain at home and stroll into the cinemas.
Thank you Balan and Ghosh for showing gumption and courage to respect your audience.

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