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Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!
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by Jay Seaver

"A very cool Bollywood mystery."
4 stars

This movie has an exclamation point in its title, and putting that together with it being from India yields a certain set of expectations - something flashy that jumps from tone to tone, at least some of them self-aware. So imagine the surprise when this turns out to be something akin to a classic mystery movie, albeit one with a dash of pulp and some interesting soundtrack choices.

As things start, it's 1942 in Bengal - the British still control India, but the Japanese are looking to expand their reach even further across Asia. Byomkesh Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput) has already developed a reputation for being able to solve puzzles and find things in his college, although he almost passes up a request from classmate Ajit Banerjee (Anand Tiwari) to locate his missing father Bhuvan, a chemist living in a Calcutta lodge owned by Dr. Anukul Guha (Neeraj Kabi) with a number of other tenants - twitchy accountant Ashwini Babu (Arindol Bagchi), Chinese businessman Kanai Dao (Chang Meiyang), and more. As Byomkesh and Guha follow the clues, they lead to a chemical factory owned by councilman Gajanan Sikdar (Kaushik Ghosh), along with his mistress (Swastika Mukherjee), nephew (Shivam), and niece (Divya Menon). Oh, and there's that Chinese gang, and...

... well, it's kind of involved, with local politics and mysterious arch-criminals whose reappearance sends shock waves all the way back to Shanghai. It's certainly enough to keep even somebody with near-Sherlock Holmes-level skills at observation and deduction searching for a couple hours or so on-screen, and director Dibakar Banerjee and co-writer Umi Juvekar do much better than many at keeping the story moving forward during that time; instead of having Saradindu Bandopaddhyay's creation be wrong and then regroup several times, they tend to deepen the mystery even as the bodies start to drop faster. And while they can't resist Bakshy getting everybody into a room and explaining what is going on, they do a great job of giving that scene higher stakes than usual and giving it a different feel, like Bakshy is the one who feels cornered rather than his nemesis.

Not having read any of Saradindu Bandopaddhyay's original stories, I don't know whether that humility is a defining trait of the character or something done because the film is an origin story, but it gives Sushant Singh Rajput some interesting material to work with. The impression given throughout the story is that he loves mystery and digging into secrets but feels he shouldn't - as the film starts, he's ready to take a stable position as a math lecturer until his fiancée says she has other plans, and without ever addressing it out loud, Rajput gets across that Bakshy knows this is disreputable work even if he is having fun. It's a much less obviously colorful performance and characterization than one might expect from a potential franchise-starter, but it grew on me.

Speaking of going into the movie unfamiliar with the series, I had no idea which characters were one-offs and which might settle into some sort of recurring roles, which is kind of fun. It's a nifty ensemble, highlighted by Neeraj Kabi as Guha, a counterpart who is just as smart as Bakshy and pushes/challenges him while being pretty impressive when he gets to move closer to center stage. Swastika Mukherjee makes a fine obvious femme fatale, with Divya Menon another formidable female presence. Anand Tiwari, Chang Meiyang, Takanori Higuchi, are other standouts in a cast large enough to offer plenty of victims, suspects, and sidekicks.

They're placed in the middle of an extremely good-looking film; its 1943 Calcutta is packed with detail that never overwhelms but feels like a place one could jump into and explore, even though some of the larger actions tend to happen some distance in the background. Banerjee and his crew strike a nice balance in taking a setting that is open-air and busy and giving it a bit more of a shadowy and sinister air. Bakshy isn't a particularly two-fisted detective - he's actually somewhat squeamish when confronted with the bloody aftermath of a crime - so there are not a lot of big action sequences. The one at the climax does look pretty good, though.

It's also one of the moments when the style shifts away from being low-key to more overly stylized, going into slow motion to hint at a kung fu movie. Unlike many of the Indian films that show up in the U.S., Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is not a musical, but the score will often shift to something contemporary with the editing speeding up as Bakshy puts the pieces together, and while some electronica or light metal suddenly popping up in the middle of a WWII detective movie can certainly be jarring, it works that way. Apparently, the soundtrack is also odd in coming from unaffiliated artists rather than singers and songwriters associated with the studio, and it's a nice change - the songs are both less aggressively pushed in a way that can make a movie feel like an ad for the soundtrack and also feel less like they came from a factory.

"Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!" was certainly not the movie I expected going in, which was a big Bollywood masala adventure with something for everyone. Fortunately, I really like the moody yet high-stakes detective story I wound up getting, and wouldn't mind seeing more like this, whether from India or anywhere else, playing theaters more often.

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originally posted: 04/08/15 12:09:05
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