A pregnant woman's (Vidya Balan) search for her missing husband takes her from London to Kolkata, but others doubt the man's existence. She slowly realises that nothing is what it seems and becomes determined to unravel the truth.
This fine new Hindi thriller from director Sujoy Ghosh starts off with a grabber: in a high-tech science laboratory in some un-named location a seemingly menacing figure takes a silver pellet and drops it into a cage populated by some healthy white mice. In seconds the rodents are dead.
Ghosh doesn’t waste any screen time; moments later, we’re transported to a crowded compartment on a Kolkata Metro Rail train. There are mothers, kids, workers. We know the gas attack is coming and Ghosh works the suspense brilliantly. Still, when the deadly toxin is unleashed – the same one seen in that prologue – it’s still shocking, terrifying.
At this point, I was prepared for a high-tech procedural thriller, a sort of Hindi Bourne film. Instead, the film pursues a very different narrative line – one that starts off gripping and ends up furiously exciting.
The story jumps to two years after the Metro attack. Pregnant Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan), a London resident, arrives in Kolkata in search of her missing husband. Smart and agile, Vidya is instantly frustrated by the bureaucracy of the place and its customs – like the fact that everyone has two names – and none of her leads of her husband’s whereabouts work out. The hotel where he stayed has never heard of him and the IT company that she believes contracted him has no records.
A helpful young policeman, Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee), becomes an informal escort, guide and guardian for Vidya in her pursuit; in one sad, disturbing scene he takes her to a grubby, decayed mortuary to identify an unclaimed body that fits her husband’s description. Vidya doesn’t know the dead man, but Rana is moved and they form a bond from this traumatic moment.
Just how this plot connects to the Metro terrorist attack evolves carefully and convincingly and since one of the real pleasures of the film lies in its twists and revelations, I’ll avoid too much exposition. It’s enough to say that the film is dense with detail and Hitchcockian-style reversals and classic tropes where characters and plot details cannot quite be completely trusted. Of course, the missing person case links inexorably back to the Metro attack; which is to say secret agents and hi-tech action play a role here.
Ghosh and co-writers Advaita Kala, Suresh Nair and Nikhil Vyas fill the film with suspense movie conventions and set-ups. Rana and Vidya perform all kinds of illegal acts – from break and enter, stealing files to identity theft – in pursuit of truth and justice but none of it feels stale mostly because the characters that fill out the action are idiosyncratic and rich, and the tone is just the right mix of playful energy and earnest emotion.
Ghosh and co. make fun of the suave secret agent cliché; the so-called 'good guys’, the Intel Bureau agents, here personified by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Dhritiman Chatterjee, are grumpy, impatient hard men. Meanwhile, the film’s main bad guy is a model of bland politeness; he commits his extreme acts of violence under the cover of utter servility.
Kahaani’s climax takes place during the festival of Durga Puja, a celebration of the Hindu goddess. It’s a wonderful and ironic riff by Ghosh and co. since the film, with its tough, intelligent femme hero, seems to be a wry rejoinder to the male-centered action of so much Bollywood and Hindi cinema. It’s great fun.