Once upon a time in British-occupied Calcutta.
In November of 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army was in Burma, and looking to invade British-ruled India through Calcutta. But…this prologue is not about that. This is about a group of gangsters from Shanghai smuggling 500 kilograms of opium into the city. I am not sure why the Chinese would have to smuggle opium into India when the British had imported opium from India to get the Chinese hooked a century earlier, but maybe the British had exported so much that India had run out by 1942. Anyways, these Chinese gangsters are smuggling opium into Calcutta.
They have just moved the stuff from their boat to a car to take to Chinatown when they get ambushed and murdered. But not all of them. The main guy walks up to the surviving Chinese gangster and says that he is taking what is mine before stabbing the man’s eyes out. Lovely.
Fast Forward to January of 1943 in Japanese-controlled Shanghai. The blinded surviving gangster is meeting with his boss. Apparently, the person who attacked them in Calcutta was Yang Guan, whom they assumed they had killed in 1939. The boss tells him to find the stolen opium and Yang Guan.
And this storyline will not show up again until long after the end of my plot summary. So, say goodbye to these characters.
A week after all of that, a man named Ajit Kumar Banerjee arrives in Vidya Sadan College, searching for a man named Byomkesh Bakshi, who is supposed to be very smart. Someone points him the man in a gaming room who is playing a table game meant for two…by himself. Ajit is warned that Byomkesh, is not a pleasant person. Well, Ajit approaches him and can barely get a sound out before Byomkesh says that he does not care if Gandhi stays in jail, but he will never donate. Lovely. The observant among you may notice that Byomkesh Bakshi is the titular character of this movie, even though his family name ends with the letter I. And he is not actually a detective.
Anyways, Ajit says that he needs help finding his father Bhuvan, who has been missing for two months. The police have been of no help, and he found nothing after searching through hospitals and morgues. Byomkesh refuses to help, but he provides Ajit with four possibilities. His father was kidnapped, though no one has asked for ransom. His father was murdered and the corpse hidden after he got caught up in a shady deal. His father is on the run due to his involvement in a shady deal. And finally, his father ran away with a woman. And with that, Ajit slaps Byomkesh, knocking him to the floor. And then…Ajit walks out.
Cut to some time later and Byomkesh is meeting with a woman named Leela. I guess that they were a couple or Byomkesh had hoped that they would be, but she gives him a written notice announcing that she is to be wed to another man. She does not exactly…say anything in this scene, but we do not really see her in the movie ever again either. So, say goodbye to her, I guess.
Byomkesh is eating lunch (or tea?) when he sees Ajit a few tables away. He goes to sit with Ajit and tries to act friendly towards him, but Ajit is not having it. So Byomkesh asks him if his father had left money around, which might help determine whether he had run away or had planned to. Ajit says that he will have to check his father’s box. Byomkesh asks to see it, but Ajit refuses.
I guess that Ajit changed his mind, because Byomkesh is looking through his father’s box of stuff a few hours later. No cash, but stuff from his days as a chemistry gold medalist from Calcutta University. War bonds for Ajit’s mother, diabetic medicine, other stuff. There is a scent of betel leaf, which I gather is what Bok-nam in the South Korean film Bedevilled referred to as Bozo Leaf. Ajit attributes that to his father’s addiction to betel leaf-based paan, specifically his personal paan mix. Byomkesh asks if his father has a paan box, but Ajit says that he did not find it in the lodge where his father had lived. Byomkesh asks what his father does for a living, and Ajit admits that he does not know; he does not have a steady job, and that they have been estranged. Bhuvan pays Ajit’s bills and that is it.
Byomkesh accuses Ajit of hiding things from him. Bhuvan paying his bills without having a job and buying bonds for a wife who is far too young to be Ajit’s mother. Byomkesh eliminates the possibility of a newly-married Bhuvan running off with another woman. He says that he should figure out what is going on after two days in Bhuvan’s lodge.
After seemingly going all around the city, Byomkesh arrives at the lodge. He enters to see two men trying to tend to a third man’s leg injuries. The older man tells Byomkesh to help out, which he does. Apparently, the young guy was beaten by police for shouting “Free Bengal” slogans.
Byomkesh asks for a place to stay. He gives a fake name and fake backstory. After sending the young man on his way, the older man pokes holes in Byomkesh’s story and says that he rents out only for decent folk and not liars. Instead of trying to explain away the holes, Byomkesh grins and provides his real name. The man gives his name too: Dr. Anukul Guha.
At dinner, Byomkesh meets the other men staying at the lodge. There is Praffula Rai, the insurance agent. He is away a lot and was away when Bhuvan disappeared. There is Mr. Ashwini…who is Bhuvan’s roommate and…uh…oh, there is Mr. Kanai, who works close by in Chinatown. So, that is all of them. Oh, and Puntiram the servant. Poor lowly Puntiram; everyone yells at him. Byomkesh asks about the whereabouts of Bhuvan’s paan box. Ashwini starts acting weird after hearing that, and just outright leaves the table after Byomkesh says that he suspects that someone murdered Bhuvan and hid his body.
Uh oh. Air raid. It looks like the Japanese are trying to attack the city. Everyone runs around to find a safe area. Byomkesh and Kanai stand together in a doorway. Kanai tries to ask him some questions, but Byomkesh interrupts him by asking if his name is really Kanai. Kanai chuckles and says that Bengalis cannot pronounce his Chinese name, so he changed it. Byomkesh does not ask what it used to be, but he does ask what Kanai does. He sells opium. Really, a Chinese person selling opium? But he has a license for it, so he still counts as a decent person. Guha interrupts their conversation to give Byomkesh a piece of…something…to put between his teeth in case there is a nearby bombing. Guha does not have one for himself, not liking the taste.
Once things have calmed down, Byomkesh goes to confront Ashwini. Ashwini tries to be casual and cool, but his jitteriness gives him away. It does not take long for Byomkesh to find that Ashwini had taken Bhuvan’s paan box and stashed it in his own area. He ignores Ashwini’s series of conflicting lies and opens the box. In it, he finds some cash, what looks like a sex booklet, a bus ticket, medicine, and paan. As Ashwini insists that he is just an accountant, Byomkesh gleefully exclaims that Bhuvan was murdered.
Byomkesh tells Guha that Bhuvan had left behind his paan box that was full of money and medicine, meaning that he had meant to return to the lodge the night that he went missing. Ashwini insists that he is innocent of whatever happened to Bhuvan, but Guha is upset over his theft of Bhuvan’s paan box. Byomkesh asks what Bhuvan did for a living, and Guha recounts that Bhuvan had called himself a freelance genius, paid the rent on time, did not cause any trouble beyond sometimes coming home late, and that was it. Guha suggests that they go to the police, but Byomkesh asks what the police could do about a possible murder case.
So they all, including Ajit, but not including Puntiram, go to the police station and…it appears that Ashwini gets locked up for theft, as he is not among the group walking back to the lodge. The rest walk free, thanks to Guha knowing the station chief. But, without a body, there is no murder case. Still, Byomkesh insists that Bhuvan was murdered. He takes out the bus ticket and suggests that Bhuvan may have worked at the chemical factory and gotten there on the bus. Ajit has had enough of Byomkesh, accusing him of wanting Bhuvan dead even though the police chief says that he is merely missing. Ajit goes back home.
Guha asks Byomkesh how he figured out where Bhuvan’s paan box was and Byomkesh just recounts Ashwini’s various tells. Guha is impressed, calling Byomkesh a doer, and not just a talker. So, there is room in the lodge for him. And so he stays there overnight.
The next day, Byomkesh takes the bus to Ghosh Chemical Works, which closed up back in November, a few days before Bhuvan went missing. He walks to the river and sees a woman about to go for a swim. Her friend (or handmaiden) approaches him and calls him out for staring, but the woman seems more amused than anything else. The femme fatale, folks. Byomkesh sticks around on the factory grounds until the woman returns from her swim. His questions amuse her. She is a little surprised that Byomkesh does not seem to recognize her. She explains that she knows Mr. Sikdaar, who owns the property. He asks if she knows Bhuvan, and she does not.
The women give Byomkesh a lift back to the city center. He asks whether she is Mr. Sikdaar’s wife, which gets her friend, Ruby, laughing again. She is Anguri Devi, the famous actress from Rangoon. Somehow, he did not recognize her. He says that he must question Mr. Sikdaar over Bhuvan’s disappearance. Anguri stops the car and kind of clutches her purse. She repeats that she does not know Bhuvan. She says that she had assumed that Byomkesh was either a fan of hers or a member of the Party. The Party? Anguri glares at him. Does he seriously not know anything? Oh, Byomkesh realizes that Mr. Sikdaar is Council Member Gajanan Sikdaar of the Forever Bengal Party.
Well, Anguri does not drop Byomkesh at the lodge, instead going to a studio to perform a song and having him wait in her makeup room. He looks around a bit before opening up Anguri’s purse and finding two envelopes.
Byomkesh returns to the lodge and shows the letters to Guha. They look like blackmail notes using words cut out from English-language newspapers and mailing them from a post office near the lodge. The first was sent two days before the factory closed; the second on the day that Bhuvan went missing.
Byomkesh goes sifting through the various English-language newspapers that the servant Puntiram had been…uh…archiving in the lodge. He finds a copy from November that is full of holes. Well, that has to settle it, then. Bhuvan was blackmailing Gajanan Sikdaar in regards to…something…and Gajanan killed him over it.
Byomkesh goes to the Sikdaar residence to see Gajanan’s nephew Sukumar Ghosh, holding a rally against his uncle, and declaring the formation of a New Bengal Party. He encounters the young man whom he had met when he first arrived at the lodge. He seems to be standing well on his own now. Byomkesh asks where Gajanan is and the man states that he is in hiding now that Sukumar has split the party.
Byomkesh walks up to the front door, bluffs his way inside, and then bluffs his way past Gajanan’s bodyguards. He manages to eavesdrop on an argument between Gajanan and Sukumar about…someone…when a woman walks by asks what his business is, not so-subtly suggesting that he go outside. Byomkesh tells her that he is here to question Gajanan about the murder of a man who worked at his factory.
The woman calls out to someone, probably with the intention of getting Byomkesh thrown out, when Sukumar emerges from the room, loudly threatening his uncle with death if he tries to stop the new party. Byomkesh is finally able to meet Gajanan and ask him about his relationship with Bhuvan, what the blackmail was all about, and whether he has anything to do with Bhuvan’s disappearance.
Of course, Byomkesh finally gets thrown off the property altogether. The young man from before is standing outside the gate, perhaps with little idea of why Byomkesh was thrown out, but still grateful for him helping him out way back. Byomkesh asks him who the woman was and the man replies that she is Satyawati, Sukumar’s sister.
With a fancy suit provided by Guha, Byomkesh is allowed to return to the house to see Anguri in her bathtub, oh dear; she did that on purpose to rattle him. She scoffs at his sense of propriety, claiming that he did not show any principles when he was rummaging through her purse. Eventually Byomkesh gets his bearings and is able to ask her why the name Bhuvan scared her. She hesitates before saying that a man named Bhuvan Banerjee visited Gajanan a few weeks ago and spoke with him privately for hours. Gajanan emerged from that conversation looking more scared than ever and locked up the factory the next day. He asks whether Gajanan was at the factory on the 29th. She does not answer, choosing instead to…uh…sniff his suit. Okay.
Byomkesh returns to the factory the next day to break in, accompanied by a nervous Guha. They encounter a pair of guards, but Byomkesh manages to actually bluff them into opening the factory doors. He notices that there are some new machines in the factory. He also notices that bugs are congregating around a specific smelly machine.
He opens it up to find…oh…that must be Bhuvan. Byomkesh was certain that Bhuvan had been murdered, but this? This is…eesh.
Erm…well, at least the mystery is solved, right?
It was not until after watching this movie that I found out that Byomkesh Bakshy was Byomkesh Bakshi, the protagonist of a mystery novel series by Kolkata’s own Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, published between 1932 and 1970. There have been radio dramas based on the books and many movies as well, particularly between 2009 and 2019. Heck, this movie was one of four Byomkesh Bakshi films released in 2015 alone. That said, it was the only movie in Hindi released that year. As far as I can tell, all of the other movies were in Bengali. That makes sense, as Byomkesh Bakshi is specifically a Bengali character, but I will get back to this later.
Byomkesh Bakshi is kind of a Bengali answer to Sherlock Holmes. I am not sure if that was deliberate in the novel, but this movie kind of calls attention to it, even overtly at one point. He has excellent powers of deduction…though sometimes his conclusions just happen to be correct despite seeming like a real stretch. His knowledge about everything is counterbalanced by his near-complete ignorance regarding pop culture and politics. He can be rather terse with people as well. That said, he is not a total jerk like Sherlock can be. He does seem to be hung up on Leela, given how he keeps her marriage notice and often looks at it. I don’t know how much of a character she is in the books. Also, his attitude towards drugs is…uh…somewhat different from Sherlock’s…maybe?
This movie is based on the book Satyanweshi, which I gather was the first or second novel. However, you might notice that first or second novel means 1932, a full decade before this movie is set. Indeed, Bandyopadhyay had stopped writing the series in 1936 (or 1938?), started up again only due to popular demand in 1951, and then kept going until he died. That means that the original story did not take place during WWII and did not involve Japan being on India’s doorstep. It also means that certain things like the British rule and attempts at Bengali independence could not be looked at with the benefit of hindsight back then either. It could have incorporated elements from books written after WWII and Partition, but I have no idea.
I cannot say exactly why the movie set the story during WWII. It does present an interesting wrinkle to the story, though I cannot say how, since I know only the synopsis that I have read on Wikipedia. It also, however, shows a Calcutta that was not about to go through a horrible famine. Whether that was caused primarily by the British or the Japanese is beyond the scope of this write-up, but it appears to be completely irrelevant to this movie, as people seem to be eating regularly without a care in the world in regards to their next meal.
It is a peculiar choice out of various peculiar choices, but I loved the world that the movie presented. I am not sure if it is any way accurate to Calcutta of 1943, but I loved the environment of it. It was…like a place out of time. The soundtrack kind of helped that. The movie is not a masala, with only Anguri’s stop at the studio providing even a hint of such a genre. Still, there is a rather varied soundtrack that often becomes gleefully anachronistic, and not in the song-and-dance way, but in a rather left-field style choices that greatly amused me, but may irritate some.
I cannot say how the movie changed the story from the books, but I get the impression that it took a somewhat simple story and added a bunch of other elements that made it more convoluted. That led to one particular part of the movie when I outright wondered how the movie had so much more time to go, only for the whodunit to take a back seat to a grand conspiracy. That means that the story brings in morally grey characters and conflicting schemes, only to try to wrap it up in a neat bow, smoothing out most of the wrinkles and papering over the plot holes. This is a mainstream Bollywood movie, after all. I am not going to say that it helped the movie make sense; it didn’t, but it gave the air of making sense.
Oddly, in trying to re-simplify a story that the movie had made complicated, the great reveal brings the movie to a strangely screeching halt. Sure, there are mystery movies that allow characters to reveal the great mystery, but usually there is still some momentum to the story and buildup to something. Not here. The actual climax of the movie is quite bombastic, but that extended sequence before that is rather confounding.
The strange storytelling choices help to make the movie interesting to me, though I would not be surprised if it turns other people away. The movie was, apparently, well received by critics, but did not do well at the box office. It could have been that Hindi-speaking India have not been really exposed to Byomkesh Bakshi since the 1993-1997 television show and that Bengalis would not really care to watch a Hindi version of their guy when there is so much Bengali-media for them to choose from; ones in their language, which do not anglicize his name differently. It could have been setting it in 1943 Calcutta and not referencing the famine. It could have been the bizarre music choices. In any case, I enjoyed it, even if I see reasons for not liking it.
Perhaps I will check out the Bengali movies about Bakshi at some point. There are a few on the Einthusan website.
There had been hopes for there to be a sequel to this movie, as there are plenty of Byomkesh Bakshi stories to tell. Could the sequel have addressed the famine? Perhaps. But there has been no sequel. Of course, the financial failure of this movie was a factor. But it became even less likely after…uh…the lead of the movie, Sushant Singh Rajput, committed suicide in June of 2020. Uh…yeah…that was also something that I had not learned until after watching the movie. I gather that it was related to his difficulty in getting work, supposedly due to nepotism in Bollywood. His death sparked a huge controversy surrounding that issue, but it is too early to tell whether changes will happen. Not that Hollywood is immune from nepotism if news about The Rightway is anything to go by. Anyways, there is somehow still talk of maaaybe doing a sequel to this movie even after all this time and after what happened to the lead actor. I am not sure how serious it is, though. Who even knows…
Despite the movie’s various issues, I really enjoyed it. Or maybe I enjoyed it because of some of the problems. In any case, it was an interesting trip and…on the off chance that it continues, why not, I guess. I will look into at least a few of the Bengali films at some point. Until then, I liked this one.
WTF ASIA 172: Vengeance is Mine (Japan: 1979, approx. 141 minutes)
WTF ASIA 173: Kung Fu Angels (Hong Kong: 2014, approx. 87 minutes)