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'Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!' is an elegant but lifeless tale filled with dead bodies

The director's latest movie, set in 1943, follows the iconic Bengali investigator on his first major case.

Dibakar Banerjee’s adaptation of Bengali crime fiction writer Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s most enduring creation is littered with corpses. Is that why the movie is so inert?

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is set in 1943 in a Kolkata populated by grim Bengalis, Chinese drug-runners, expansionist Japanese and at least one oomphy lady from Rangoon who swims in the Hooghly and gives Byomkesh Bakshy what is probably his first kiss. Actor and rich man’s mistress Anguri Devi (Swastika Mukherjee) is one of several characters who don’t actually leave their mark on Byomkesh, who remains as self-contained on the screen as he is on the page.

Anguri Devi injects a welcome frisson of excitement into an otherwise studious and thrill-free origin tale of Byomkesh’s first major case. Mukherjee’s only brief is to breathe heavily, and she does this with as much aplomb as she can muster.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is baggily based on Bandopadhyay’s first mystery, Satyanweshi, with enough revisions and genre tweaks to indicate that a great deal of thought has gone into differentiating this latest production from the numerous film and television adaptations that have preceded it. Banerjee and co-writer Urmi Juvekar re-imagine Byomkesh (Sushant Singh Rajput) as a student rather than an accomplished sleuth, who learns the tricks of mystery-solving as he goes along. He is so green that he fails to see the answer that is staring at him ‒ and possibly the audience ‒ in the face. The backdrop to the action is provided by World War II, which sees Kolkata under the threat of Japanese bombardment. The musical score is anachronistic to the period, Vandana Kataria’s evocative production design is grungy rather than nostalgic, and cinematographer Nikos Andriatsakis’s smooth tracking shots and mood lighting complete a contemporary spin on the past.

Neither revisionist nor adventurous

In an early sequence, Ajit (Anand Tiwari) meets the detective whom he will follow in awe for the rest of his fictional life over a carrom game. Ajit’s father, a brilliant but uncaring chemist, has disappeared. Byomkesh callously brushes off Ajit’s request for an investigation, and earns a slap in return. The sequence promises to shake up the Byomkesh template, one in which the shadow thinks nothing of its owner. But then, Banerjee and Juvekar allow Ajit’s temerity to pass without further scrutiny.

More characters flit in and out of the picture as Byomkesh investigates the disappearance of Ajit’s father from Anukul Lodge: the homeopath Dr Basu (Neeraj Kabi), lodger Kanai (Meiyang Chang), Byomkesh’s future wife Satyawati (Divya Menon), and actors trying to pass themselves off as Chinese and Japanese people.

Byomkesh appears to be having the time of his young life, and Rajput convincingly portrays his character’s youth and industry while sporting a unibrow and a darkened complexion. The actor has the tough task of transforming himself from a novice into an expert, and under Banerjee’s direction, Rajput slips comfortably into the period even as he retains the attitude of a modern nation-saving hero.

Yet, fun is mostly a bad word in this movie’s universe. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!'s elegant production values and attention to detail sets it apart from previous film and television adaptations. But in its stiffness and dialogue-driven plotting, it is closest to Satyajit Ray’s Chiriakhana, a middling version of one of Bandopadhyay’s best and most complex mysteries. Banerjee turns his back on the lightness, irony and rich characterisation that mark contemporary British adaptations of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures, but it’s not clear what he is heading for instead.

Although Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! works hard on creating a convincing setting for Byomkesh to make his mark, the characters are mostly under-written and the central mystery lacks tension and a sense of imminent danger. The movie is neither a cerebral reworking of an iconic detective’s first brush with evil nor a pulpy joy ride. The 150-minute narrative finally gains steam towards its powerful closing moments, when it all comes together nicely but a bit too late.

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