Vidya Balan is on a roll. Kahaani (directed by Sujoy Ghosh; screenplay by Sujoy Ghosh, Suresh Nair and Nikhil Vyas) is arguably the fifth movie in a row in which she has played an interesting, unconventional character. Kahaani as a whole is an interesting and unconventional movie – a thriller not only with a female character in the central role (also called Vidya) but a heavily pregnant one at that. The pregnancy increases the tension in the film since it augments Vidya’s physical vulnerability, while at the same time it highlights her inner strength as she perseveres in her search for her missing husband, who disappeared during a business trip to Kolkata, despite the physical challenges.
I think it’s wonderful that they have written a woman-oriented movie like this, and wonderful (if not surprising) that Vidya chose to star in it. I can’t imagine anyone else doing justice to the role. Vidya is just so good in Kahaani – gorgeous with hardly any make-up on and sporting a series of de-glam floral maxi dresses, and totally convincing whether she’s charming shy little boys, standing up to condescending men, crying in the privacy of her room, or teasing Rana. As Rana, the young Kolkata police officer who helps Vidya in her search, Parambrata Chatterjee also delivers an excellent performance. His slight baby-face works to his advantage in the role, and he is a very warm and kind presence on screen, but also convincingly chases down one suspect, and trades punches with another. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, including the two boys sympathetically portraying working children, Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the hard-nosed Intelligence Bureau officer Khan, and Saswata Chatterjee as the truly creepy ‘insurance salesman’ Bob Biswas. And the city of Kolkata is like a character in the film as well, with its gloomy metro, dilapidated tenements, and abandoned office buildings the perfect, sinister setting for Vidya’s search.
I’ve seen a bit of (figurative) ink spilled online since the release of Kahaani, picking at various aspects of the film’s plot. But as far as I’m concerned, most thrillers usually have plots that barely hang together, and to me that’s actually an element of the genre – I see them as almost descended from the film noir of the mid-20th century, which also tended to have plots that didn’t bear thinking about too much. Like in film noir, in thrillers things are often not what they seem, and that is certainly the case in Kahaani. This theme is wonderfully emphasized by the motif of ‘double names’ throughout the film: for example, Tamilian Vidya becomes ‘Bidya’ in Kolkata. Later, Rana explains to her that everyone in Kolkata has two names – Rana is his ‘pet name’ while his ‘good name’ is Satyoki (charioteer of Krishna). And then of course there is the duality of Arnab Bagchi and Milan Damji.
Another motif used to good effect is a religious one – like giving the man helping Vidya (and literally driving her around Kolkata) the name of Krishna’s charioteer, but also setting the film during Durga Puja, and especially the climax of the film on the last night of Durga Puja. In fact, one of my only critiques of the film would be that Amitabh Bachchan’s voiceover at the end emphasizing this aspect was heavy-handed and unnecessary. Otherwise the climax is wonderfully surprising and satisfying, but also emotionally and visually haunting. How great to see a nicely-crafted Hindi thriller, and how great to see a movie with a strong female character at its center – and one who uses the male characters’ underestimation of her to achieve her aim. It seems the old adage still holds true: sometimes it takes a woman to do a man’s job.