Bollywood cinema has changed a lot for the better in the last decade or so, partly due to the arrival of new filmmakers willing to break the conventional Bollywood format and style for more substance and story. A recent Bollywood blockbuster movie, “Kahaani” (2012, “Story” in English), is a dazzling entertainer, not in the manner expected of a Bollywood hit. The film’s entertainment value is not boosted by featuring catchy dance numbers or by including elaborate action sequences. Even from a story line perspective, “Kahaani” is not another boy-meets-girl story–a subgenre in Bollywood that has become bread-and-butter for the industry. If you are looking for star power, then there are no “big” and “popular” actors in the film, either, to draw an audience to theaters. In spite of these elements stacked against the film, how did “Kahaani” succeed in becoming one of the biggest hits from Bollywood in recent years? In short, two reasons: the lead actress, Vidya Balan, and a twist ending.
Vidya Balan stars as a pregnant Vidya Bagchi, who arrives in Kolkata to find her missing husband. She files a missing person report at the Kalighat Police Station, and thereafter she is helped by a junior police officer, Satyaki “Rana” Sinha (Parambrata Chatterjee). Vidya claims that her husband came to work for National Data Center (NDC), but the HR manager at NDC, after looking at Vidya’s husband’s photo, tells Vidya that the photo resembles another employee, Milan Damji (Indraneil Sengupta). The plot thickens as soon as Vidya decides to trace Damji, with an unknown assassin ordered to kill. A tough-talking inspector, Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who works for Internal Bureau (IB), is tipped off when Vidya tries to access Damji’s file at NDC and tries to warn Vidya of the repercussions if she doesn’t stop her search. Despite this, the pursuit for Vidya’s husband continues, and at each step, she gets closer to her husband.
Director Sujoy Ghosh has built a tight film that moves at a rapid pace, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat, right up until the riveting climax. The case of a missing husband in the narrative is just an entry point to the world of double-faced characters, whose intentions are never clear. Rather than presenting the main story up front, the script writers slowly but methodically reveal key plot details at every step. The subplots, however, are unpredictable and left intentionally open-ended, packing in surprises and thrills with the number of what-is-going-to-happen-next moments. Sure enough, these moments are effective because they truly increase the depth of the main story. Moreover, the subplots feel like mini puzzles, and solving the puzzles answers some questions about the film’s characters and the story, while leaving a few questions unanswered, too. As a result, the story line doesn’t diverge much because we are never introduced to unwanted characters and filler action and comedy sequences; the emphasis remains on uncovering the truth.
Given the context of how the narrative plays out in the end, the twist ending, nonetheless, can be dissected from multiple angles. Indeed, the end is unpredictable, and I didn’t see it coming, since I kept on thinking about an extreme outcome. There are two levels in the twisted climax; in the first part we learn about the identities of different characters, and in the second part we learn how the plot is constructed by a character, which works great, even after you watch the film for a second time. The first element in the twist, however, fails to supplement the narrative, and if this was omitted, the film would still have worked well without losing significant plot details. Looking back, the first aspect of the twist certainly enhances Vidya’s character, in a way that exposes the vulnerabilities of people around her and makes the film’s premise entirely plausible.
“Kahaani” is a female-centric film, which is a rarity in Bollywood. In recent times, the New Wave of Bollywood directors are willing to try out new and less familiar actors for their films. Those days are gone when you only see Bollywood hit movies consisting of actors Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Askshay Kumar. For a male-dominated film industry, “Kahaani” means many things to Bollywood, mainly underlining the shift in the star-power equation and its ability to entertain us with a nonmainstream narrative. Ghosh, who was born in Calcutta (now called Kolkata), is deeply influenced by the works of Satyajit Ray like “Devi” (1960) and “Charulata” (1964)—films that are driven by female leads. The casting of a female lead and how women are portrayed in Ray’s films played a big part in designing the character of Vidya Balan in “Kahaani.”
“Kahaani” works simply because of Vidya Balan’s mesmerizing performance. I am sure only time will tell, but Balan’s performance may go down as one of the best performances of the past decade. In her last few films, “Ishqiya” (2010), “No One Killed Jessica” (2011), and “The Dirty Picture” (2011), Balan picked strong female-oriented, nonconventional roles, garnering positive critical acclaim for her roles. For “The Dirty Picture” Balan won a National Award for Best Actress. In many ways, Balan’s character in “Kahaani” is an extension of her character played in “No One Killed Jessica.” In both films, Balan represents a woman undertaking the challenging task of investigating a case of a close family member. If “No One Killed Jessica” exemplifies the shortcomings of the Indian judicial system, then “Kahaani” is about crooked Indian security agents.
In “Kahaani” we are immediately drawn to Balan’s character, from the moment Vidya exists from a taxi. The sight of Vidya as an overly pregnant woman softens people around her, as they try to help her out of basic human courtesy; people are sympathetic and no one takes advantage of her. When we look at Vidya, we are stunned by her sheer energy and motivation to search for her missing husband, in spite of her weighty pregnant figure. There are scenes when we are exasperated by looking at Vidya, not because of the performance but out of genuine concern for a pregnant woman. Balan’s mannerisms of a pregnant woman are accurate by mingling the right emotions and expressions. She has molded herself to the character extremely well, and we really wonder if she is, in fact, pregnant in real life, too. Realistic performances don’t come very often in Bollywood, and Balan’s portrayal of Vidya will stand as one of the timeless characters from Bollywood.
Then, too, Ghosh’s camera work captures the action straight-on, with less clutter appearing on the sides of any given shot. We rarely see any unwanted objects in the shots, allowing us to focus on pertinent things and building suspense in the plot. This style of shooting creates a tunnel-vision effect, and when mixed with Setu’s cinematography, the film has a polished, beautiful look to it. Even though Kolkata has a large population of people living below poverty line, and the city for the most part is largely underdeveloped, the film’s cinematography injects soul into the city life by representing cheerful people during the holy festivities of Durga celebrations. Even when Ghosh has to enter narrow city streets, his delicate and tightly composed shots never show Kolkata as an impoverished city.
“Kahaani” largely remains a clever, tense ride, making it an unmatched film in the genre. The story is multilayered, and even when the character development might be inadequate, Balan’s performance makes us forget about minor issues with the story. How can a movie without a menacing villain, a superstar, or catchy tunes become a box-office blockbuster? See it for yourself. All I can say: Bollywood is changing and that’s a good sign.