"Kahaani captures this moment of rising disillusionment and change in the world. There is no 'riding-into-the-sunset' happy ending, for Vidya still remains an unhappy widow at the close of the movie: perhaps an appropriate resolution for these angsty times."
At first glance, Kahaani (2012, meaning "story" in Hindi), directed by Sujoy Ghosh, is just one more film in the detective/thriller genre, in the tradition of Bollywood films like Ghajini (2008, purportedly inspired by Christopher Nolan's Memento), Dum Maro Dum (2011), or Jism 2 (2012). But fifteen minutes into Kahaani, the viewer begins to wonder if the film is about the terrorist attack on the Metro station in Kolkata city, with which the movie begins, or about a very pregnant woman's search for her missing husband. After a token presentation of the public crime of the Metro railway attack, the film seems to forge ahead on the personal and fraught story of Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan), a software engineer who has arrived from London to find her husband, Arnab Bagchi (Indranil Sengupta), who had come to Kolkata to work in the National Data Centre for two weeks and then vanished. Indeed, Vidya's first stop in Kolkata straight from the airport is the Kalighat Police Station, where she files her missing person report.
The real action begins with Vidya showing her wedding photo to Agnes D'mello, the HR Manager of the National Data Centre, to see if she recognizes Arnab.1 Meanwhile, the suggestion (made prominently, but not only by Inspector Khan) that Vidya's husband has abandoned her, threatens to draw the story further into the personal domain; Inspector Rana's shy admiration of Vidya promises also promises to add a romantic edge to the story. Abandoning these potential if predictable outcomes, however, Kahaani invests heavily in woman power, with Vidya Bagchi checkmating2 everyone, including Inspector Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Milan Damji, the perpetrator of the Metro attack, on two extreme ends of the legal-criminal spectrum. In a series of murders that subsequently follow fast one upon another, the movie conflates the personal story with the public crime so that they become the same story. Rather than unfold by involving the police and state apparatus, Kahaani traces the plot back to the personal end comprising familial relations: all crimes in civil life are, in the final analysis, crimes against a husband, a wife, a parent, a child, or a friend.
Furthermore, even as she holds on to all the symbols of vulnerable womanhood, Vidya manages not just to outwit her adversaries, but also to reinstate, perhaps paradoxically,3 the Hindu religious myth of Mother Durga, the goddess whose destruction of the demon Mahishasura4 is annually celebrated with great pomp in the state of Bengal and its state capital, the city of Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta).
Whodunit, Thriller, or Both?
In his landmark essay on detective fiction,5 Tzvetan Todorov explains the distinction between a whodunit and a thriller. In a whodunit, curiosity is the predominant interest of the viewer, and it proceeds from effect to cause, with "how did it happen?" being the question that is chased by the story. In contrast, suspense is the predominant interest-factor in a thriller. The story moves from cause to effect in order to answer, "what will happen next?"
Kahaani skillfully weaves in elements from both these genres. While the search for the missing husband contributes to the element of curiosity, the introduction of Bob Biswas (Saswata Chatterjee) — a contract killer who is shown committing two cold-blooded murders and is on Vidya's track as well — keeps the viewer on tenterhooks about Vidya's fate, thereby also generating suspense.
Kahaani is also self-reflexive, as signaled by its frequent forays into the metafictional mode. There is first the title, which draws our attention at the end, when Rana tells Khan that Vidya was in fact telling them "a story" about her husband. This explanation encourages the interpretation that "story" is interchangeable with "fiction." Arguably more significant is the mise-en-abyme at the beginning of the film. Intrigued by Rana's explanation of his two names, "Satyaki" (his official name) and "Rana" (his nickname), Vidya comments: "Fascinating! The same person, yet two names, two identities!" Ironically, this is exactly what Vidya is revealed to have in the climax of the movie, except that the viewer never learns what her real identity is. In this scene also lies one key to the mystery.
Crime, Power and the City
In tracing the trauma, anger, and revenge of a wife, Kahaani appropriately locates its action in Kolkata, the city of the common man, rather than in the national capital, New Delhi. The choice of locale is a deliberate concession made to the empowered individual over the power of the state.
As soon as the first murder, that of Agnes D'mello, takes place, the viewer learns that its ramifications lead all the way to the Intelligence Bureau Headquarters, New Delhi, also the national capital. Nevertheless, rather than let the scene shift to this center of power, the plot unfolds with Inspector Khan arriving from New Delhi to Kolkata to deal with the matter. This simultaneously cues the viewer that the kind of power structures that work in Delhi will not work in Kolkata. The latter city with its historic Marxist identity invests typically in the individual, whereas Delhi with its show of power very naturally produces a sophisticated civil servant like Bhaskaran, the head of IB.
The Delhi-Kolkata duality can also be seen as a male-female contrast. The all-male Intelligence Bureau, whose investigation drives the terrorism and public-crime aspects of the story, is based out of Delhi. Vidya, on the other hand, is impelled by personal tragedy, and both uses her feminine vulnerability to her advantage and projects herself as "Mother Durga." Kolkata is her realm; here she remains completely in power. Her initial encounter with Inspector Khan appears to leave him with an advantage over her, gained primarily by his ability to intimidate by raising his voice. Over successive encounters, however, Khan begins to grudgingly respect Vidya's intelligence and also give her a place in his investigation.
Two noteworthy observations in this regard are, first, that even as Khan decides to make tactical use of Vidya in order to hunt down Milan Damji, he finds at the end that he has been outwitted by Vidya, who has allowed him to think that he has used her, while in fact it is she who has exploited him and the state apparatus to achieve her private ends. The second is that even though Vidya deliberately projects symbols of her vulnerability on multiple fronts, whether it is her pregnancy or her charm, she nonetheless resists stereotyping as either a weak woman who needs a man to protect her or the morally dubious female character whose extreme incarnation is the vamp or moll.
Vidya's character achieves this in part due to the overarching symbolic value of Mother Durga in the creation of her role. After she has killed Milan Damji, she escapes from the police by mingling with a large crowd of women celebrating Durga Puja, as the festival of the goddess is called. All of these women, including Vidya herself, are dressed in the customary white saree with red border worn by women during the Puja. This is also the costume of Mother Durga, with whom Vidya is ultimately identified by the voice-over at the end of the movie: "Sometimes Gods too make mistakes. The Gods made Asuras (demons), gave them power; but when they began to misuse these powers, the Gods created Mother Durga to destroy the demons. It is said that the power of all mothers was combined to create Mother Durga. Every year, she comes, destroys all evil, and returns; all so that we can live without fear and in peace."6
While the few scenes in Delhi move the plot forward, the seat of action always remains Kolkata. So that when the police informant tells Rana towards the end of Kahaani that Milan Damji has returned to Kolkata, the viewer senses that the onset of the final confrontation is close by.
Creative Transgressions of the Genre
In his twenty rules for detective stories, S. S. Van Dine specifies that "[t]he reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described" and "no willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself."
Kahaani frequently uses subtitles to indicate a change in locale or to introduce a new character, and to the viewer who is in the dark, these subtitles acquire the status of an authoritative omniscient narrator.
In the first post-titles scene, however, the subtitles introduce actor Vidya Balan's character as "Mrs. Vidya Bagchi," which the viewer learns at the end of the movie is not her real name. In order to preserve the illusion of her false identity, the viewer is also shown flashbacks of her married life with Arnab Bagchi, who turns out to be a fictitious person.7 These narrative techniques enhance the shock of the final revelation, but they also point to the filmmaker's decision to deliberately interject misleading facts into a domain that calls for authorial reliability. This prompts the question whether this transgression would not qualify as "willful deception."
Villains in Bollywood tend to be campy and baroque, two classic cases being the evil genius Mogambo, from Mr. India (1987), running his criminal empire from his own island, and Crime Master Gogo, from Andaz Apna Apna (1994), with his penchant for playing with his enemies' eyeballs. Bob Biswas is a complete contrast in every way to the quintessential villain of Bollywood cinema.
The massive fan following for this middle-aged, bespectacled, pot-bellied villain is hence surprising. A Facebook fan page shows over 37,000 likes in a period of just five months; jokes and cartoons have been making the rounds of the internet, and reportedly even a graphic novel on Biswas is planned.8 Examining what makes him a national obsession, Saurav Majumdar says, "What is striking about the man is the duality of his nature — an ordinary face in the crowd by day and a menacing, ruthless hitman when darkness falls. In fact, during the day Biswas is often hassled by his boss and keeps telling him that he is getting calls from clients on his cellphone when in reality it is the sinister assignments that keep his phone busy."
Bob Biswas is chillingly scary not because he comes across as a larger-than-life lethal assassin, but precisely because he does not. He is the boringly ordinary man, nondescript, and prone to being overlooked in any gathering. He could be an insurance agent; he is in fact a Life Insurance Agent. Or he could be a door-to-door salesman; or a clerk on his way to work. Curiously, this makes him more fearsome than the iconic dacoit Gabbar Singh from Sholay (1975) or the madman Lajja Shankar Pandey from Sangharsh (1999). The modus operandi of Bob Biswas' killing is to accost his victim with a polite, self-effacingly apologetic smile and a "Nomoshkar" ("Hello"). Next he says "Ek Minit" ("one minute"), calmly looks into his bag, takes a gun out, and shoots his victim dead. The opposite of a lethal trained assassin, the overweight Bob Biswas starts to pant and sweat profusely when chased by a police officer; he suffers from dizzy spells. Finally, in the paradigm of poetic justice that Kahaani fits itself into, he is fatally run over by a truck.
Bob Biswas plays successfully on the viewer's insecurities at two levels. The more obvious is that there could be a killer lurking anywhere and everywhere. The innocent-looking man going innocently about his work could well be hiding a pistol in his bag. The second, more sinister suggestion is how effortless it is to become a killer. There is evil lurking beneath the surface in all of us, and it is easy to let it out: an idea that acquires cosmic significance in the film's use of myth.
Every year in or around the month of October, Kolkata changes from a throbbingly busy city of the common man and woman into an urbanscape bustling with devotees declaring their love for and adoration of the goddess Durga. The myth of Durga is not restricted to Kolkata or Bengal; she is worshipped in other parts of India as well, but nowhere with the religious fervor and enthusiasm as in Bengal. For nine days, devotees celebrate the "coming to life" of the goddess and her eventual destruction of the demon Mahishasura, usually represented in the form of a buffalo. The goddess is painstakingly adorned with weapons of various sorts, and her ritual killing of the demon — the destruction of evil in the shape of a demon — is followed by her immersion in a river on the tenth day. These nine days are days of great celebration in the city, when Kolkata almost comes to a standstill.
Vidya approximates closely to the Durga symbolism. The love felt by devotees of Durga is asexual, perhaps even filial in nature. As a pregnant woman and a potential mother, Vidya also de-sexes herself, thus making it seemingly impossible for anyone to see her as anything other than a mother-figure, with an admiration bordering on goddess-worship, of the sort that Rana feels for her.9
The inclusion of Durga Puja as a crucial context within which to tie up the strands of the story has multiple outcomes. It facilitates the escape of Vidya Bagchi in the end, by robbing her of a personal identity, as she eventually becomes one of thousands of women all dressed like her. Vidya is transformed into Durga in the voice-over at the end of the film, come to destroy the demon of evil. As the goddess kills Mahishasura, so does Vidya kill the evil Milan Damji.10
In the last few years, Egypt and Syria have seen totalitarian governments toppled and democracy set up; India has seen the government charged with corruption charges over scams worth billions of rupees. There is rising disillusionment and mistrust in the power of the State to check wrongdoing, and Marxism does not seem to be an answer either. Kahaani captures this moment of change in the world. There is no "riding-into-the-sunset" happy ending, for Vidya still remains an unhappy widow at the close of the movie: perhaps an appropriate resolution for these angsty times. In a changing cultural context, Kahaani has also taken the scope of crime right up to the edge of myth, as if to say that crime is not so much a legal matter anymore as one of universal and absolute significance.
1. This is an ironic node in the plot, since Agnes recognizes him not as Arnab Bagchi but as Milan Damji, and the full significance of this recognition strikes the viewer only at the very end. This is perhaps the most crucial link in the detective plot, as this scene holds the key to the solution of the mystery of the missing Arnab Bagchi.
3. If a UK-returned software engineer were revealed to be a gun-toting police officer in disguise, this turn of plot would fit much more convincingly within the urban landscape in which Kahaani is played out, rather than a goddess, particularly after Vidya is shown to throw away her artificial womb.
4. It is noteworthy that before Milan Damji is shot dead, Vidya sticks her sharp pin into his neck, which downs him, the analogy being with Durga thrusting her trident into the demon before killing him.
5. "The Typology of Detective Fiction," in which Todorov also briefly recapitulates the rules of S. S. Van Dine.
6. The words have been translated from Hindi in the film to English by Ravi Bhoraskar.
7. The actor playing Milan Damji also "plays" or represents Arnab in the photo that Vidya shows Agnes. The viewer learns at the end that she had substituted the photo of Arnab with that of Milan. So far the viewer and the detective/police are on par. However, the film also periodically shows Vidya reminiscing over her past life with Arnab, and in these memories as well, Arnab is represented by the actor playing Milan (and to further clarify, the viewer finds at the very end that the "real" "Arnab" and Milan do not resemble each other even remotely). The memory belongs to the domain of the personal, and in this tactic it deploys, Kahaani begs the question of willful deception of the viewer. Arnab Bagchi is in fact a fictitious name that "Vidya Bagchi" selects for her husband, whose real identity the viewer knows not from his name, but only as a man who was killed by Milan Damji.
9. Rana's feelings for Vidya are best described as ambivalent. On the one hand, he has a deep respect for her, bordering on worship, which makes the comparison he draws between her and Durga sound natural. On the other hand, he also admires her as a man does a woman. There is nothing platonic about the way he gazes soulfully at her, or hastens to her help, a fact that does not escape the notice of his fellow policemen or Inspector Khan.
10. One account of the creation of the goddess Durga has it that the demon Mahishasura had obtained a boon that he would be killed only by a woman. His request was prompted by his arrogant belief that a (mere) woman would be unable to kill him, and thus with this boon he could become immortal. For more details, see http://www.durga-puja.org/mythology.html.
Ravi Bhoraskar is B. Tech in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, Mumbai, and is at present a graduate student in the department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle. Sudha Shastri is associate professor of English in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. Her areas of teaching and research interest lie in narratology, intertextual writing, postmodern fiction, Indian Literature in English, and Film Studies.