Father-daughter relationships are at the core of Deb Medhekar’s Bioscopewala, an update on Rabindranath Tagore’s popular short story Kabuliwala. The original tale is about a migrant Afghan dry fruit seller who forms a bond with a young Bengali girl because she reminds him of his daughter. Walnuts and almonds have been swapped for a cranked-up bioscope in this latest film adaptation, which takes the original story in new, and sometimes interesting, directions.
Danny Denzongpa plays Rehmat Khan, the bioscope operator who warms to Minnie because she is the same age as the five-year-old daughter he has left behind in Afghanistan. Rehmat has fled his country because it has been overrun by the fundamentalist Taliban, who burn down his cinema and force him into an itinerant life.
Years later, Minnie (Geetanjali Thapa) is a film student in Paris, far away from her Kolkata life and her fashion photographer father, Robi (Adil Hussain), and finally ready to investigate Rehmat’s whereabouts and the fate of his beloved daughter.
Deb Medhekar’s film, based on a story idea and screenplay by Sunil Doshi, has some smart ideas and some unexplored ones. Chief among the better concepts is the dance between remembering and forgetting – Minnie needs to both remember her past, which includes a frayed relationship with her father, as well as prevent the aging Rehmat from entirely losing his memories.
There is also the subtle connection made between local filmmaking traditions and Afghanistan, where Indian movies have been hugely popular. Danny Denzongpa’s casting is hardly a coincidence: he has played Afghan characters in the past, and he serves as a totemic presence to remind viewers of gentler, more tolerant times.
Minnie’s quest to unravel the Rehmat mystery includes several cliche-ridden moments – pulling old files from drawers, meeting other Afghans in Kolkata (including a character played by Tisca Chopra), and furrowing her brow at periodic intervals. Minnie’s amateur detective work isn’t actually as interesting as Rehmat’s back story, which could have been an attempt to excavate the history of Afghans in Kolkata. There are traces of how the Afghans get by in the Bengali city – the women participate in underground boxing matches, for one thing. But the movie doesn’t explore this subculture with any curiosity or depth, and barely manages to provide a working portrait of how Afghans actually operate in Kolkata.
The restrained emotional saga wraps in a crisp 95 minutes, with a bit too much about Minnie, and not enough about the beloved figure from her (and our) childhood. Afghanistan, to which Minnie travels to find the last piece of the Rehmat puzzle, is deftly recreated in Ladakh. Medhekar gets solid performances out of his ensemble cast, which includes a sweet cameo by Brijendra Kala as Rabi’s loyal domestic worker.