Film: "Kahaani 2"; Directed by Sujoy Ghosh; Starring: Vidya Balan, Arjun Rampal, Jugal Hansaraj, Tota Roy Choudhury; Rating: **** 1/2 (4 and a half stars)
It's just another ordinary humid laconic night in Chandanagar, a small dusty town on the outskirts of Kolkata where, as one grinning havaldar informs his senior, nothing ever happens.
Well, all that is about to change. Sujoy Ghosh's small-town suspense thriller knocks the bottom of the thriller genre. "Kahaani 2", no relation to the first film in the suspenseful series that Sujoy directed to ever-casting fame (it's Vidya Balan all the way in this franchise) is not only a first-rate action drama with some of the most ingenious action (including one absolutely spellbinding fist-to-fist between the brave Vidya and female khaki-clad assassin), it is also a haunting deeply disturbing mirror of our times when normalcy and decorum often hide grievous disturbances, best left untampered and unrevealed. Until someone dares to tell the truth.
Deviously, Sujoy has selected a hillstation, Kalimpong for the crime location. This is the Satyajit Ray within him. If Ray's "Jai Baba Felunath" was about child abuse, Sujoy's "Kahaani 2" could have easily been a Ray creation.
There is a tempting reservoir of Ray in Sujoy, specially in the way he uses sound. Sujoy takes sound recording far beyond what it entails in 'realistic' cinema. There is always some amount of cogent incidental sounds happening on the soundtrack. I suggest "Kahaani 2" be watched once with the eyes closed just to savour the audio experience of this astonishing creation.
The film opens to the strains of Lata Mangeshkar's "Yeh raatein nayee purani" ("Julie", 1975) as the camera swishes by on a dingy roadway of Chandanpur. Sound designer Anirban Sengupta (in his first non-Bengali film) and cinematographer Tapan Basu have created a world where doom and heartbreak are the residing deities. What follows is nemesis in naked splendour.
The writing (Sujoy Ghosh, Suresh Nair) is sure-handed but never cocky. The screenplay wants us to believe in the reality of the moment. The narrative has no patience with humbug. From the word go, "Kahaani 2" has us in thrall. It engages our senses in a way that no thriller from the Hindi cinema has done in many years.
As Vidya Balan playing Vidya Sinha (a tribute to the "Rajnigandha" actress acknowledged in a scene) unravels a murky secret in a well-to-do aristocratic household where tea is served from silverware, we get trapped into a frenzy of heroic activity by Vidya, not all which is legal or even moral. But our obstinate heroine must carry out a rather outrageous rescue operation that involves an abused child.
The loss of innocence is never reduced a formula in the script. God forbid! Sujoy's consistently remarkable and admirable film never reduces the scourge of child abuse to an applause seeking gimmick. There is no triumph in the rescue of the child, no self-congratulations in the operation to save the child from her abuser.
The film doesn't wear its social conscience on its sleeve. There is nothing obvious in the sordid suggestions that creep up in the narrative. A look, a gesture or an innocent line thrown by the abused child ("He doesn't let me sleep in the night") is enough to escalate upheavals in the narrative as well as in the audiences' conscience.
There is a scene where Vidya finally brings herself to question the little girl about her abuse. The brutal blunt and direct questioning in the actress' eyes and in her words link two abused human beings irrespective of their age differences. The sequence is a masterstroke of conceptual credibility ignited by the performances of the two ladies, one barely old enough to beA aware of her gender.
The casting is beyond reproach. And yet the actors areA not picture "perfect" in the way actors are in the films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali or Karan Johar. These are belching burping hurting wounding human beings. Vidya Balan more than the others. She portrays the surrogate mother on the run with a blend of maternal protectiveness and feminist pride without allowing her character to appear larger than life.
If Vidya is beyond remarkable in her ability to convey the turmoil and anxieties of a mother who is borderline criminal and potentially imbalanced in her mental equilibrium, Arjun Rampal matches paces with the film's female hero and at times outpaces her with his penchant for delivering punchlines without flourish. His role of the investigative cop is neatly fleshed out and fabulously performed. Here is an actor who doesn't try to impress us.
And Jugal Hansraj the Masoom moppet as a child abuser is a heartbreaking reminder that innocence and crime are never independently functional in a society where no one is safe any longer. Creepily, Sujoy Ghosh makes Hansraj hum the favourite children's song "Lakdi ki kathi" from "Masoom" as he uses his fingers to ravage innocence.
We never really see him do the dirty deed. Yet the film leaves us feeling sickened, soiled and guilty. The film is bolstered by ingenious casting. Even the actors in the smallest of roles(for example,veteran Pradip Mukherjee who plays Vidya's befuddled landlord or Gargi Bhardwaj as an assassin cop) add to the feeling of small-town claustrophobia clamping down on the plot with a weight that the film carries with nuanced certainty.
"Kahaani 2" with its steamed-up sense of foreboding and dread is the kind of devastating thriller that leaves us with a sense of tragic satiation. This is a story that needed to be told. It comes at the right time when we've lost the ability to protect vulnerable section of society, busy as we are queuing up at ATM machines.