There are so many things to like about Kahaani, not the least of which is the movie’s setting in Calcutta, sorry, Kolkata. Name change notwithstanding, the city seems much the same to someone who left it 20 years ago—claustrophobic but convivial and female-friendly. Director Sujoy Ghosh treats the city and its denizens with familiarity and affection, and I could sense the many Bengali viewers in my local multiplex just settling down in their seats a little more comfortably as the movie rolled on. It is such a pleasure, and a rarity, to watch a Bollywood movie that has no Punjabi characters or North Indian settings.
Kahaani tells the story of a very pregnant Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi (“Bidda Bagchi” to locals) who arrives in the city looking for her missing husband. To share much more would be to reveal a plot that the writer (also Ghosh) has taken great pains to craft for maximum surprise and shock value. As the movie unfolds she is helped in her search by cops and civilians sympathetic more to her condition than her plight. For those squeamish of sad endings involving kids (present and unborn) Kahaani has a very satisfying denouement.
Vidya Balan is great in the Ashley Judd-style role (oops, did I reveal something?) of Vidya Bagchi. She is helped by Ghosh’s little human touches in what is a by-the-numbers thriller.( I mean that as a compliment, by the way; it isn’t easy to execute a perfect suspense drama, and Ghosh succeeds admirably.) Balan’s interactions with the little kids reveals the glow in her smile, and when she dons the Korial lal paar sari (I hope I am getting it right) for Durga Puja, she is the classic Indian beauty that we loved in Parineeta. As the sole lead, she is ably supported by a cast of character actors, several of whom have familiar faces and forgettable names.
Kahaani is deftly edited, though one senses that some scenes layering character and adding depth were left on the floor to preserve the tight pacing. Or maybe they were deliberate red herrings. For instance, the cabbie who takes Vidya from the airport to the Kalighat police station seems very friendly and even gives her his number. He is never seen again. Was this just a loose end? There are many such moments in the film that peter out but, to Ghosh’s credit, they do not distract.
The soundtrack by Vishal-Shekhar is great, though only Amitabh Bachchan’s rendering of Tagore’s “Ekla Cholo Re” makes it into the movie – it is beautiful and AB’s sonorous voice does it full justice (at least to this non-Bengali!).
Ghosh, who also directed the underappreciated Aladin (so sue me!), has clearly evolved into a director who understands the importance of drama. One of my biggest issues with the pleasant but rather tame Jhankaar Beats was the lack of that slightly larger-than-life element that makes a good theater movie. Kahaani makes up for that in spades.
Other reviewers have commented on the unapologetic display of the pregnant female body and Ghosh’s preoccupation with motherhood (Juhi Chawla’s pregnant Shanti is the calm centre of Jhankaar Beats). The setting of the climax during Durga Puja also invokes a certain symbolism (again, saying anything beyond would spoil the suspense) but Kahaani is not meant to be introspected on too much. Enjoy it for what it is – a gripping home-grown thriller that avoids all the stereotypes of anti-terrorism movies “inspired” by Hollywood. There are no high tech toys, no larger than-life villains, and no sexy foreign locales. Just good, solid entertainment and total paisa vasool. Is it as good as A Wednesday? Almost. Almost.