Sujoy Ghosh's outstanding new thriller is taut, compelling, and very satisfying. Kahaani ("story, tale") careens through the living streets of Calcutta, offering a palpable sense of that vibrant city. Toss in an engaging mystery, a female lead who is both strong and likeable, and some excellent performances, and the result is a simply superb movie.
Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) arrives in Calcutta, heavily pregnant, to search for her husband Arnab, who left her behind in London a month previously for a work assignment. Arnab, she tells a young police inspector, Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee), phoned her several times a day during the first few weeks of his time in Calcutta, but then the calls stopped abruptly. Vidya can't get a straight answer from Arnab's employer, nor from the guest house where he was staying. Frustrated, Vidya launches her own investigation, with Rana's help. She soon learns that her husband is a dead ringer for a mysterious figure named Milan Damji. Vidya convinces Rana that tracking down Milan Damji will lead her to Arnab. But her investigation of Milan draws the attention of an obstructive federal intelligence agent, Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), as well as other, even more sinister characters who don't hesitate to use deadly force to block her leads. Vidya's peristence brings her into the crosshairs of thugs, contract killers, and even domestic terrorists - but the danger won't deter her from the trail of the man she came to Calcutta to find.
It is difficult to write about a current thriller without spoiling its surprises. I cannot even name other thrillers with which I think Kahaani shares a kinship, or to which it pays explicit, deliberate homage, without giving too great a hint towards its climax and denouement. But since I want to urge all readers to see this splendid movie, I'll choose to steer clear of much discussion of the finer points of its plot. (This is one reason I prefer writing about older films - I worry less about spoiling those!) Many reviews I've read since seeing the movie pick at the plausibility of its details. I find these criticisms shallow and beside the point. Perhaps Kahaani's twists and angles would not stand up to repeat-viewing scrutiny, but few films do. And among the multi-layered significances of the movie's title is the straightforward interpretation that Kahaani is a story, not real life. No matter how realistically they are portrayed, stories by their very nature reside at the fringes of credulity, exploring the improbable.
Like its Bengali characters with their good names and pet names, Kahaani sports dual identities - it adopts the pacing and format of a slick western-style thriller while remaining a thoroughly Indian movie. Even the movie's denouement, which practically quotes one particular Hollywood thriller, follows a climax that is set among swirling clouds of vermilion in a swarming Durga Puja celebration, and that neatly parallels the mythology of Durga - such allegory is a hallmark of a certain kind of Indian movie, and disarms the criticism one sometimes hears that modern Indian cinema is too keen on courting a western audience. The teeming streets of Calcutta are more than mere backdrop - these are not mere postcard-flashes or scene-setting, but a strong sense of place. The grimy alleys, worn awnings, and cobbled streets lined with tea and snack vendors strongly evoke the feeling of an Indian city, while the scenes in the city's metro and streetcars add a sort of kineticism that is unique to Calcutta, making the city a character in its own right. A cast largely populated with Bengali actors - rather than a truckload of Bollywood stars transplanted to an exotic location - enhances that strong sense of place.
Nearly all of the actors give terrific performances that help keep Kahaani immersive and engaging. The movie is driven by a wonderfully physical performance of Vidya Balan who, even playing an enormously pregnant character, is smartly sexy and confident. Her pregnant-woman waddle is in counterpoint to a kind of nervous energy, a straining fidgetiness that conveys the anxiety of her situation. She shifts from impatience to tenderness, stern anger to sorrowful exhaustion, always broad and screen-filling, never simpering or hyper-feminine. Female characters with grit and power, who are not bitchy and not secondary to a male lead, are rare in movies of any language and particularly thrilling in Hindi movies; Kahaani has given me a thirst for more of Vidya Balan that will take quite a few of her movies to slake. Parambrata Chatterjee, too, as Vidya's would-be protector (Rana's good name, Satyaki, refers to a warrior in the Mahabharat who was a friend and protector of Arjun) is tender, idealistic, and sympathetic. The only performance that verges on scene-chewing is Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the bombastic Khan; even the contract killer Bob Biswas (Saswata Chatterjee) is weirdly appealing as he offers his deferential "Namaskar" to each of his victims.
While Kahaani, like many post-modern multiplex era Hindi films, lacks song-and-dance in the traditional mold, its soundtrack is dynamic, with songs that enhance mood and feeling when they are used. The gritty energy of "Aami shotti bolchi" is the perfect complement to manic scenes of Calcutta's rush. Rabindranath Tagore's pensive poem "Ekla cholo re," sweetly arranged by Vishal-Shekhar and competently performed by Amitabh Bachchan, provides a moment of calm before the film plunges into the churning roil of Durga Puja for the climax. Like the best songs in the best movies, these add more color to an already compelling movie that is everything a thriller should be.