Reviewer’s note: The character of Byomkesh Bakshy (originally spelled “Bakshi”) is a creation of Bengali author Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay, who wrote thirty-two stories about the detective between 1932 and 1970. I have never read any of Bandhopadhyay’s stories, so this review will not compare the original literary detective to Banerjee’s updated film version. I am treating Banerjee’s detective as a completely separate entity.
Director Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a visually stunning mystery that’s worth watching for its sumptuous style alone — though it also has much more going for it.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! opens with a brutal drug deal gone bad, before shifting forward in time to Calcutta, 1943. Byomkesh (Sushant Singh Rajput) is an unassuming young man with a reputation for solving mysteries. He’s quick to correct anyone who calls him a detective; he just pursues the truth.
A bespectacled young man, Ajit (Anand Tiwari), asks Byomkesh for help finding his missing father, but Byomkesh is dismissive. The man was most likely murdered for being mixed up in something shady or ran off with a woman, Byomkesh tells Ajit, who punches him before storming out.
When Byomkesh’s girlfriend confesses that she’s marrying a man with better job prospects, he apologizes to Ajit and takes on the case. Clues lead Byomkesh to a boarding house in another part of Calcutta, run by clever Dr. Guha (Neeraj Kabi). The search for clues takes a dangerous turn when Byomkesh finds a connection between Ajit’s missing father an a powerful politician.
The backdrop to Byomkesh’s investigation is a city on edge due to repeated bombings of strategic British targets by the Japanese. My Midwestern American primary education on World War II included no references to the effects of the war on British-controlled India, so I found the the film’s setting fascinating. As soon as the air raid sirens sounded during Byomkesh’s first night in the boarding house, I was hooked.
Banerjee takes the time and place into consideration in his shots. Shadows pervade, since overhead interior lights and bright streetlamps wouldn’t have been common during that era, and particularly not during wartime. The brightest shots in the film take place on the set of a movie starring Anguri Devi (Swastika Mukherjee, who looks every bit the bombshell).
The sound design of the film is equally as effective as the lighting. Urban hubbub stands in for a background score, and the specter of the air raid siren looms. When Byomkesh tentatively approaches a dormant furnace during his investigation, a ghostly mechanical thrum accompanies his steps.
When Banerjee does employ music with lyrics, the songs have a contemporary feel, be it Indian music or thrash metal. The juxtaposition of the period visuals with modern music heightens the emotional impact. Banerjee isn’t going for total authenticity. His representation of Calcutta is highly stylized, and the contemporary music suits it.
The music also makes the film’s graphic violence feel more appropriate. While there isn’t a lot of violence, that which exists is bloody and brutally administered. It’s shocking, and perhaps not for the faint of heart (and it’s especially inappropriate for children).
Yet what also makes it appropriate is Byomkesh’s reaction to this violence. He abhors it and feels responsible for those harmed even indirectly by his investigation. It’s one aspect of Byomkesh’s personality that makes him such a great character. He’s an ordinary guy in a pop culture era when trend demands that Western movie and TV detectives be quirky or socially maladroit. His only quirk is that he can’t let go of a case until he discovers the truth, even when it puts his life in danger.
Rajput is terrific, giving an understated performance that blends with the story rather than drawing attention to itself. During the course of the film, Byomkesh and Ajit develop a nice working friendship, and Tiwari matches Rajput’s style well.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is ripe for a sequel, and it hope it gets several. A great lead character and a stunningly rendered Calcutta make Bakshy’s world one I want to revisit over and over again.