The sudden disappearance of an IT contractor in Kolkata triggers a riveting, labyrinthine puzzle, replete with duplicitous spy shenanigans, in “Kahaani.” Versatile thesping powerhouse Vidya Balan follows up her daring vamp in “The Dirty Picture” with a dazzling portrait of a determined London-based woman traveling to the subcontinent in search of her missing husband. Buttressed by compelling perfs, this adroit thriller makes the occasional misstep but maintains momentum and credibility. Forgoing Bollywood’s standard musical numbers, the pic could potentially cross over to wider auds with an appetite for thrillers.
After introducing a scientific test that uses a lethal gas to kill test mice, the pic quickly cuts to a terrorist attack on a crowded Kolkata subway train whose passengers are subjected to the same fate. Two years later, heavily pregnant Vidya Bagchi (Balan) arrives from London in Kolkata and, enduring frequent comical mispronunciations of her name, heads straight for a small police station in the city’s ancient Kalighat district. There, she complains that her trustworthy IT-expert husband has gone missing ever since he took on a contract at a secretive government agency known as the National Data Center.
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Vidya lays out her tale of her woe for a disinterested police chief, but uses her own IT skills to win over a well-meaning junior cop, Rana (Parambrata Chattopadhyay). With Rana as her guardian, Vidya establishes that her husband never arrived at his hotel, and in fact no one at the NDC has heard of him. As she starts to dig deeper, she learns that her husband resembles Milan Damji (Indraneil Sengupta), a former NDC employee who also mysteriously vanished. In response to her unwanted enquiries, the upper echelons of the NDC start to cover their tracks by engaging a nerdy assassin named Bob (Saswata Chatterjee) to clean up the mess.
While the script cheats some of the details, the tension never slackens. Even the usual Bollywood intermission, often deployed with forced melodrama, here arrives on a genuinely gasp-inducing cliffhanger, and many of the plot’s apparent loose ends are tied up with precision by the startling denouement.
Hindi films often portray a fantasy India that doesn’t really exist, and foreign directors from Louis Malle (“Phantom India”) to John Madden (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) have struggled to overcome an outsider’s view of the subcontinent. By contrast, director Sujoy Ghosh’s vivid, unromanticized thriller feels entirely like the work of someone who knows the country from the inside out, making particularly excellent, atmospheric use of Kolkata’s famed Durga Puja religious celebrations to heighten the drama as well as to supply authenticity.
Aside from Balan’s pivotal perf, kudos are due to Chattopadhyay for his endearing gentility as the junior policeman beguiled by the feisty, pregnant visitor. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is bureaucratic ruthlessness personified as the federal agent who takes charge when the NDC’s operation threatens to spin out of control, and Saswata Chatterjee is a creepy delight as the Peter Lorre-like assassin.
Ghosh overdoes the wobblecam but never loses his command of the story’s complexities.
Lensing by Kolkata native Setu (aka Satyajit Pande) heightens the prominence of red in the Durga Puja festival’s colorful celebrations, but maintains a strong sense of realism. Editing is astute, and Hindi pop tunes are mostly kept to the background, while Clinton Cerejo’s effective score veers from jazzy to electronic pulses without missing a beat. Title translates as “story.”