Kahaani 2: Do’s and Don’ts in the art of detective narration

Posted by Kaahon Desk On December 8, 2016

Making an attempt to review Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh, it might be a more fruitful exercise and an interesting idea to draw attention to the film’s screenplay; not because it is flawless or path breaking in any sense. But simply because of the fact that certain observations and resultant discussions about it might lead to a better understanding of the generic nuances and the narrative functioning of a detective story. It might come across as an indulgent and erudite exercise; but often a precise evaluation of a film might call for such an effort instead of the usual broad lined discussion about the plot, performances and a summarized analysis of the technical departments. As a film, Kahaani 2 builds its strength upon certain key aspects of detective narration and when it fails, the failure can be attributed to its inability to understand and execute certain other essential aspects of the same.

The film opens with Vidya Sinha (Vidya Balan), settled in the subaltern town of Chandannagar whose apparent mission in life is the betterment and general well-being of her teenage daughter Mini, whose entire lower body is paralysed. However, the sudden disappearance of the daughter, a mysterious phone call and Vidya’s immediate hit and run accident hint towards a far more complicated network of events. Quick to arrive at the scene of crime is Sub-inspector Inderjit Singh (Arjun Rampal), a meticulous, dedicated, laconic and dapper cop who stumbles upon an old diary carrying details of a series of dark events that happened in the faraway town of Kalimpong eight years ago involving the sexual abuse of a little girl and also possibly the real identity of Vidya, currently lying in coma in a local nursing home.

Few nicely written and well-crafted scenes put things into motion with an easy yet steady pace and within about fifteen minutes of the film, the narrative modes are firmly established. In the present timeline, Inderjit has taken the responsibilities of the investigation into his own hands while the past events chronicled in the diary keeps unfolding from his perspective as he spends all of his free time devouring the pages. The film fares quite well during these moments fulfilling the basic aspects of detective narration such as space, characters and the sense of intrigue. Tapan Basu’s cinematography succeeds in defining the two towns with distinct visual elements. The warm streetlamps of Chandannagar create a familiarity resonating with a sense of acquaintance surrounding Vidya while the cold and murky daylight in Kalimpong hint towards a kind of aloofness and ominous premonition. The editing also complements, by creating a perfect synergy between the two. Even the characters, both central and peripheral, come across as well carved out, earnest and believable, if not complex enough. There are quite a few well-placed moments of intrigue, the most significant being the past identity of Vidya and her chances of being the wanted criminal Durga Rani Singh.

In other words, the film delivers a smart and taut and generic (and it’s not really a bad word!) first half with the narrative modes confidently switching between the third person in present day Chandannagar and the first person of Kalimpong, eight years back. Interval arrives at a tense dramatic moment when the diary entries end all of a sudden leaving Inderjit and hence the audience intrigued and baffled about the events of Kalimpong.

And then the second half of the film opens with a sudden switch over to third person narration of the Kalimpong events. In a really detailed and elaborate sequence, major events unfold involving significant characters which suddenly define their positions in the overall narrative, spelling out things in black and white. This single sequence ended up having multiple ramifications resulting in a clumsy, inconsistent and predictable second half, thus totally undoing the accomplishments of the film in its first half.

To begin with, this sequence thoroughly disrupted the carefully achieved balance between the narrative modes adopted for the two timelines. And throughout the rest of the film, there is a constant effort to restore the balance by putting in more weight in the present timeline resulting only in redundant subplots, half-hearted scenarios and incomplete character arcs, adding to the woes. More significantly, detective narration is largely dependent on the dissemination of information and its timing and economy. It is not only about parting information to the audience or the reader, or guarding a probable giveaway, particularly in case of a whodunit mystery, it is equally important to take note of how the information is being distributed among the characters since it results in the hierarchy of the characters within the narrative which in turn enables the audience or the reader to find a suitable position, typically that of the detective, to rearrange the fragments of plotlines and form a sequential flow of events following the logic of cause and effect, unlocking the mystery and understanding the why’s and how’s of the crime.

Having said that, it is not a cardinal sin to switch between narrative modes, even while narrating a detective story. However, it is crucial that it should be a conscious move and the body of text should be aware of the switch and accommodate it accordingly. An ideal and recent example of the above would be Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015). The film involves an ensemble of characters trapped in a Saloon waiting out a blizzard. But certain words and actions suggest some kind of foul play suspected by the character played by Samuel L Jackson and the narrative builds up to a point where he assumes a detective like position and the film unfolds largely from his perspective. Then suddenly a voice over narration, narrated by Tarantino himself, more or less solves the mystery and in a conscious switch over in the narrative mode, turns Jackson into an object of the narrative as opposed to his hierarchical position.

With the beginning of the second half of Kahaani 2, the position of the detective is disrupted and the audience gains an upper hand in terms of information. Besides an obvious giveaway to the core mystery, it results in a pointless pursuit with the detective trying to catch up with the facts which the audience is already aware of. And that is indeed a cardinal sin in the art of narrating detective fiction. A detective plot cannot survive with the mystery revealed and then solely depending on mildly curious subplots or the chance of cathartic pleasure on witnessing justice being delivered.

Incidentally, the film features quite an evident nod to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003) including an entire scene of an assassination attempt. However, it seems that it’d have benefitted the film more if the writer director focused less on such frivolities and paid more attention to Tarantino’s writing skill and narrative flair.

Arup Ratan Samajdar

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