‘My husband is missing’

In Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani, motherhood becomes the plot premise of a Hitchcockian thriller
Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata

The poster of Kahaani calls it "A Mother of a Story", and with a pregnant Vidya Balan striding forward with a Durga idol in the background, this lends itself to many interpretations – a Kafkaesque wait for a missing husband, a Fellini-esque interpretation of dream and reality, and closer home, a very Mrinal Sen-esque portrayal of lives fractured by this disappearance. Instead, motherhood in the hands of the director Sujoy Ghosh becomes the plot premise of a Hitchcockian thriller.

As Vidya Bagchi (played by Balan) waddles out of the Kolkata airport (yes, she is that pregnant) and goes straight to the Kalighat Police Station, you are sucked into her search for her missing husband, Arnab Bagchi, who had come to Kolkata on work and has mysteriously disappeared. Assisting her in this search is a young police officer Satyaki (Parambrata Chatterjee), her "Arjun ka Saarthi", her guide through the labyrinths of Kolkata as she tries to find a husband who doesn't seem to exist at all – no one remembers him, no one has seen him, and even his office has no record of his employment.

As the story unfolds, the audience is deftly manipulated into a game of deception and intrigue. The script is tautly paced and the tight editing ensures that the audience's interest doesn't wane. Just over two hours long, the narrative does away with the usual Hindi movie distractions of song and dance, and keeps you focused on the plot twists. To execute this, the movie is minutely detailed, texturing every scene so that the audience would revisit the scenes again and again after the movie ends.

The ensemble cast (comprising mostly Bengali film and TV actors) makes sure that they don't bloat the screenplay with an extra glance or dialogue. Parambrata's shy innocence as Satyaki is pitched perfectly with the restless energy of Vidya Balan. His infatuation with her is almost palpable, without anything being put in words. His genteel Kolkata self is also the perfect counterfoil to the brash arrogance of Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the intelligence officer from Delhi. Everyone, from Satyaki's affable colleague Inspector Chatterjee (Kharaj Mukherjee) to Bishnu, the little boy at the guest house, turn in a good performance, especially Bob Biswas (Saswata Chatterjee) – the deliciously colourless LIC agent who is ironically not really in the business of insuring lives.

The film, however, totally belongs to Vidya Balan. She conveys anguish, charm and wilfulness so naturally that she makes Vidya Bagchi her own.

A thriller is mainly a sum of its characters, and here each one fits the jigsaw puzzle perfectly. Moreover, using local talent gives one a feeling of familiarity with the city, and adds a natural nuance to the performances. In fact, Kolkata is so seamlessly integrated into the script that the city adds to the narrative rather than remain just a backdrop to the story. Familiar landmarks like the Mocambo Restaurant and the idol-makers of Kumartuli carry the plot forward. Metro stations become part of a terrorist plot and a delicate unrequited romance flowers on ageing trams. The resplendent image of goddess Durga and the colourful Durga Puja celebrations provide a fitting climax to the story.

Kolkata is so seamlessly integrated into the script that the city adds to the narrative rather than remain just a backdrop

The director also pays homage to Kolkata's most famous director with certain scenes reminiscent of Satyajit Ray's Joy Baba Felunath and Charulata. Vishal Shekhar's music uses Kolkata's resident singer Usha Uthup in Shotti bolchi to get the best feel of the 'City of Joy'. The musical score adds to the mood of the story as it progresses, and includes a lot of RD Burman numbers playing in the background – yet another homage by Sujoy, whose film Jhankaar Beats was an ode to RD. The only song that jars is Amitabh Bachchan's rendition of Ekla chalo re, where even the famous baritone cannot save it from clichéd musical gimmickry.

Kahaani is a clever thriller, but it sacrifices the opportunity to create a strong memorable villain battling Vidya Balan's Mother Courage. Evil remains a mere will o'wisp that haunts as a benign presence rather than a truly malicious one. This, however, does not take away from the fact that Kahaani is a well-crafted story that is told well – definitely a welcome addition to the new wave of storytelling in Bollywood.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2012