Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The story of Kahaani

I am a movie buff. That means I like watching good movies. Only good movies. If it's an awful waste of time, I end up in a foul mood. I can feel like I lost IQ faster than my natural, physiologically-ordained rate of degradation. And since I don't have much of it to start with, I'm naturally a little guarded.

Having been burned enough in the past by the pabulum Bollywood often pedals as entertainment, and then having been hit on the head with recycled trash of late from Hollywood, I have been wary of watching garbage on the big screen. The fact that I have to shell out hard earned dollars for it, only adds insult to torture. In short, it hurts. If I had to enshrine my feeling in a movie character, I suspect the emaciated food critic from Ratatouille would perhaps come closest.

However, I was pleasantly surprised on watching the latest Vidya Balan thriller Kahaani("Story"). I don't want to reveal too much, but then I will talk about it because I don't think too many netizens stumble on-to my blog, so I guess I'm, ironically, safe.

Kahaani starts with a very fragile, and very pregnant Vidya Balakrishnan Bagchi (played by Vidya Balan) arriving at Calcutta airport. Her portrayal of an NRI (non-resident Indian) from the UK landing in the hot, humid, congested Calcutta is spot on. One look at her, and anyone who's become habituated to more temperate climes than the sub-tropical weather of the Indian sub-continent can immediately empathize with her plight. Her relief at encountering the air conditioned environment of the National Data Center after days of shuffling around in the dusty, thick, steamy summer heat of a foreign but friendly Calcutta is eminently natural and refreshing. The fact that she has to labor to keep moving from place to place, while bearing a child who seems ready to force its way in to the world, only adds to the concern the audience feels for Mrs. Bagchi.

Much as Vidya deserves accolades for her portrayal of a hapless pregnant South Indian NRI floundering in Calcutta in search of her missing Bengali husband, kudos are due to the crisp editing and engaging direction. Each scene and every gesture has a well defined purpose and only adds to the narrative. While the fact that a despondent Mrs. Bagchi is desperately searching for her husband who seems to fallen off the face of the planet is clear from the start, the reason for his disappearance only seems more mysterious and intriguing as the story plods forward on Mrs. Bagachi's ponderous steps. The supporting cast is well composed as is every scene. You even get to see Calcutta and India in their natural colors: neither Yash Chopra-ization nor City of Joy-ization here.

The characterization in the movie is smart, if not shrewd. A terrorist attack is depicted as shattering a nation... but it is not an Islamic radical element who perpetrates it. Nor is it a fanatic Hindu oppressing any minorities. The little known Information Bureau (as opposed to the more popular CBI and RAW) provides a rich backdrop of intrigue. There is a token Christian person too... Fortunately, the secularization instinct is not carried too far. Sikh, Buddhist and people of other religions are thankfully absent since the story does not need them.

The narrative and plot twists do have weaknesses. One notable instance is when an assassin is chased by an unarmed cop. Why the Glock-wielding assassin doesn't simply stand his ground and deal with his pursuer is, simply, puzzling (no, he didn't fire enough bullets to be empty). The other laughable element is the depiction of software and computer technology. While, to their credit, the creative team does try to depict extant interfaces, the depicted screens couldn't trouble a wandering fly, let alone allow someone to accomplish daring hacks into the bowels of heavily fortified websites and encrypted data networks. A Windows console showing ping results does NOT equal a hack. At best, it is equivalent to phoning your friend for a cup of coffee. A Windows Notepad window showing 10 characters, or a syntax highlighted page of HTML represents as much hacking cred as a glass of orange juice. But such is the depiction of technology even in Hollywood. If you don't believe me, watch Swordfish or the Angelina Jolie starrer Hackers. Oh and there is also a Team America worthy montage.

These peccadilloes, fortunately, are limited and do not derail the story (which incidentally starts with a terrorist attack in the Calcutta Metro subway).

With tense drama, crisp narration and solid characterization the movie delivers on all levels. So much so, that it brings the ignominious enquiry "which foreign movie is this inspired from?" My friends mentioned that the plot is similar to the Andie McDowell starrer Ruby Cairo. I certainly hope not. I haven't felt such admiration for Bollywood fare very often (Swades, Peepli Live, Rang de Basanti do have my respect).

I want to give this movie 9/10, which in my book is rather high (not that it matters), but given the pall of suspicion that hangs on Bollywood (with good reason), I will give this a 7/10. If I do find that this is an "inspired" work, I will still give it 5/10 for amazing assimilation in to the Indian context. If it isn't I'll happily give it 9. In any case, this is another notch on the yard stick against which other Bollywood movies will be stacked.

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