Some of us go to a period drama (alright, a mystery-thriller) for the plot, sure. But when it’s a Dibakar Banerjee film, just as many of us go to feast on the visual delights of the costumes, and on that score Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! left this writer cranky.
Okay, maybe not cranky as much as confused. Perhaps this is because there are three costume designers credited, not including the “Special thanks to Sabyasachi Mukherjee” (presumably the Kolkata-based couture designer and not the director of CSMVS in Mumbai). Manoshi Nath, Rushi Sharma and Manish Malhotra are responsible for Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!‘s sartorial landscape and it feels as though they were never in a room together.
The complaint is not that there is period inaccuracy, but the absence of glamour and take-back.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is set in the 1940s, in Calcutta — a visually rich period with art deco jewellery, colonial dandies, a seductive nightlife and a cultural stew of Indians, Europeans, Anglo-indians, Baghdadi Jews, Chinese and Japanese inhabitants. A time which can be represented in swag and sass without seeming mythological or a fantasy.
Yet the streets and colleges of Dibakar Banerjee’s Calcutta show nothing but the Bengali middle-class, dressed in well-worn dhotis and brown or grey home-knit sweater vests. There are no Anglicised brown sahibs, no bhadralok with starched dhotis and its fan in one hand (how they’ve always been resented on celluloid otherwise); no nuns from the city’s famous convent-run schools, no Anglo-Indian memsa’abs. There’s no cultural or socio-economic variation in the crowd. We understand that Byomkesh was a fresh-out-of-college middle class boy, but did his surroundings have to mirror him so completely?
Even Byomkesh’s brief cameo as a dandy in pinstripe, double-breasted suit is limp. Makeovers are supposed to pack va va voom; this one did not. Mr Manish Malhotra, you fairy godmother of real-life make-overs (Sridevi in Chandni, Karisma Kapoor in Raja Hindustani and Dil to Pagal Hai), someone is impersonating you at work.
The real disappointment was Anguri devi and her lamé saris and pearls. Bollywood vamps are trendsetters because they wear success and excess like the good girls can’t. Without them, we only have fashion magazines to tell us what to wear.
And Anguri devi is a singer! A woman who is economically independent, sexually unattached, morally unfettered and moves in creative circles. There’s so much missed potential in her wardrobe.
She starts out well, with the grey swimsuit, curvaceous figure, bow lips and arched eyebrow, but it all fizzles out quickly. Where are the delicious reptile skin handbags that snap shut; the diamonds set in art-deco style, worn in the hair or as a brooch; no wingtips or block heels or naughty sari blouses. She comes out of the river with candy pink lips and touches them up (inexplicably) with a wine-coloured lipstick that she wears through the rest of the movie.
In contrast, Satyavati (Divya Menon) is very interested in her sari blouses for a khadi-wearing freedom fighter. Not that freedom fighters were not interested in clothes, but her muted (and lovely) saris with their creative blouse patterns are less in keeping with her severe onscreen personality and more so with her real-life background of being Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s assistant.
Similarly misfit is the grey kimono Byomkesh suddenly starts wearing as a dressing gown after his tryst with heroin in his room. It looks like it belongs to Dao, but there is no explanation as to how Byomkesh gets it and why he favours it.
The only interesting transitions are in Dr Anukul Guha’s (Neeraj Kabi) hair. It’s messy and ignored when he’s an ayurvedic doctor; neatly combed to channel a young Rabindranath Tagore when he’s gurudev to revolutionaries, and crazily spiked as he becomes the deranged Yun Gong.
Wherever small islands of cultural variety appear, you clamp on them hungrily. It could be Kanai Dao (Meiyang Chang) with his hair upswept like Tintin, wearing suspenders and pleated trousers. It is the glimpse of curved heels we get on Anguri Devi’s (Swastika Mukherjee) Girl Friday. Deputy Commissioner Wilkie dresses as a Afghani drug peddler and a period-correct Mickey Mouse costume at the ball. Yet the others at that party are dressed out of the extras closet from a forgotten Subash Ghai movie. Ladies in wilted lace hats to denote foreigners; an Arab representative and royalty impersonators. This was a time of tailored perfection and clothes that have become vintage now. If YRF’s deep pockets could not be enlisted to achieve this production level, what’s the use?