Dir. Sujoy Ghosh
For Sujoy Ghosh to call this film Kahaani 2 inevitably sets certain expectations, and Kahaani 2 inevitably fails to meet them. It is a competent and entertaining thriller in its own right, but it lacks the freshness and riveting energy of Kahaani, lacks the vibrant sense of place, lacks most of the qualities that made Ghosh's 2012 work such an intense and special film. Even Vidya Balan is less compelling here, without the trembling intensity and sense of rage just bitten back that made her fill the screen and drive Kahaani through its terrific twist and conclusion.
In particular, in comparison to its outstanding predecessor, Kahaani 2 bears a structural weakness that makes the twist and reveal disappointing. (I don't consider it a spoiler to say that there is a twist and reveal, because that's part of the expectation Ghosh sets by choosing the name. And I won't disclose any of the facts of the twist and reveal here.) In Kahaani, there is only one key fact concealed from the viewer that is revealed in the climax - that Vidya Bagchi isn't really pregnant. That one new fact unravels nearly everything in the narrative, and this is shown from flashbacks, in the style of The Usual Suspects, to moments from earlier in the movie that take on entirely new significance in light of the newly revealed information. In Kahaani 2, though, the structure is almost opposite. Rather than presenting one momentous fact that forces startling reinterpretation of everything that came before, the reveal comes in the form of quasi-flashbacks to moments that had been omitted, moments had simply not been shown to the audience as the story unfolded in its apparently straightforward sequence. It is a legitimate enough narrative technique, but it feels cheaper, lazier; it is inherently less satisfying.*
Kahaani 2 also lacks an anchoring sense of place, the way Calcutta provided a thrilling, shifting presence in the earlier film. Kahaani 2 is mostly set in Chandannagar, a small city in West Bengal, but to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there's no there there; it could be anywhere. Even one of the film's characters, Rashmi (Manini Chadha), wife of the slightly disgraced police officer at the center of the film, Inderjeet Singh (Arjun Rampal), complains repeatedly of the boring sleepiness of Chandannagar compared to Calcutta, as if she is apologizing for the film's failure to replicate this superlative aspect of Kahaani. The scenes from the hill station Kalimpong provide a little more visual interest, but not much in the way of atmosphere.
But it isn't entirely fair to keep picking at all the ways in which Kahaani 2 is not Kahaani. Mostly, it is a serviceable and entertaining movie. Arjun Rampal is never a very expressive actor, and the most one can hope from him, typically, is that he does not ruin the movie one has used him in. He achieves that here, though he adds little, considering how much time he spends on screen. There is a fairly amusing collection of side characters, such as a couple of comical police officers, or the passport forger Goopy who makes a brief but funny appearance. (One excellent blink-if-you-miss-it sight gag occurs during the sequence in which Inderjeet Singh chases Goopy through his warehouse; one room they hurry through contains an easel and a collection of evidently forged masterpieces, such as the Mona Lisa.) The contract killer of this film is no Bob Biswas ("ek minute..."), but she's entertaining in her own right, a frighteningly cold-blooded badass done in by her completely mercenary approach to her job. And Jugal Hansraj as the villain is pleasantly disorienting, as his face still calls to mind the sensitive tear-jerking cutie of Masoom.
And then, of course, there is Vidya Balan. Though she gives a less crackling performance than Kahaani, to be fair to her, this movie's "Bidya" is a less crackling character. In Kahaani 2, she is an anxious, frumpy survivor of childhood sexual abuse, frizzy-haired and tired-looking, and the very ordinariness of her makes both her character's wounds and her occasionally questionable judgment accessible and sympathetic. Balan's character seems an extreme introvert whose life and circumstances push her badly outside her comfort zone; a damaged woman who has fled Calcutta and her past for an isolated life in Kalimpong, she nevertheless comes into relationships and situations that have life-altering consequences. With that theory of her character in mind, Balan is both effective and affecting.**
The points Kahaani 2 has to make about childhood sexual abuse are important, but occasionally heavy-handed; one speech of Vidya's on the subject is especially indulgent. Still, it's rare for a film to take on the most adult aspects of the scars that such abuse leaves. Highway covered the restlessness, the fractured sense of self and broken trust that often comes from it, and though I hated many things about that movie, it was a fairly sensitive handling of the issue. Kahaani 2, though, points its camera straight on at the lasting damage abuse can do to the victim's sexuality and relationships once she is grown. Sujoy Ghosh deserves full marks for taking that on.
* Kahaani 2 suffers too from its use of that hoariest of cinematic plot devices, the debilitating automobile accident. Car accidents that kill or incapacitate key characters at key narrative moments are, I think, disappointingly lazy storytelling. (I was about to say the one I'd seen most recently was in Kapoor and Sons, but then I remembered that I rewatched An Affair to Remember a month or two back. And it was probably already a hoary device by then, in 1957.)
** One thing that Vidya Balan does well, and has done well in many ways in everything from the first Kahaani to Bobby Jassoos to Ghanchakkar and even The Dirty Picture, is allow herself to be completely unglamorous, and here again there is absolutely nothing glamorous about her character. I read that in the early stages of the film's development, Aishwarya Rai was considered for this role, and perhaps the mediocrity of Jazbaa - a story in which Rai, like Balan here, searches for a kidnapped daughter - is a measure of how wrong her perfect-haired, perfect-bodied glamour would have been for Kahaani 2.