“Sayan Bose, sir. Rimtik police station.” It is one of those trailers that catches your attention right away—not with a bang but with a slow, engaging buzz. The Khoj trailer grows on you and pretty soon it turns out to be a riveting thriller not without all the nuances of a whodunit, howdunit. But, and it is one interesting fact to underline, the trailer did not make a clean breast of who/what Sayan Bose is after. There is a mounting suspicion, there is a throbbing uphill suspense one minute into the promotional trailer and yet you have no idea who/what Sayan Bose is looking for. One could say, it is a fair promo in the right sense of the term. The trailer does what it is supposed to—it teases you, just like a suspense thriller is supposed to.
The movie opens with rows and columns of certificates of proficiency from a number of film festivals, and it does elevate one’s expectations of what Arka Ganguly’s script has to offer. The aerial shots of the hilltop towns pose as montages referring to the passage of time, and therefore it may be safely concluded that Puppet-cinematographer Ripon Chaudhury knows what he is fiddling with. To speak of “montage effect”, one can recognize a hyperlapse or two too towards the ending of the film. Photography, the smoky backdrop of the lush hills, the intermittent rain and muted colours only contribute to the calculative building up of the suspense in the first half of the cinema.
The cinematographer barely uses ultra-wide angle lens in his aerial shots, and at times the aerial shots do not serve the grammar of a telling “Bird’s Eye View”. Moreover, the aerial shots, dreamy and moody as they should have been, have a little bit of jarring in their frame rate either. But the photography in the film does its part religiously in threading the needle of the thriller. It goes without saying, too, frequent background bokeh is used in this film with a pretty adept outlook. It does not slip one’s careful notice in the first twenty minutes into the cinema that Ripon Chaudhury, in a few cases of mounting suspense, uses a manual focus and a pre-focused plane in his framing.
Not to give away the movie plotline (and spoil it for the myriads of Bengali audiences who are requested to consume the thriller to the lees), one cannot but mention the editing and the soundtrack of the movie. Pre-interval plotline makes no mistake in drawing you into the cinema, into the heart of the darkness that is to unfold gradually, slowly, as if stalkingly. The characters and the linked, underlying characters only unfold one by one. Arka Ganguly has maintained the hallowed tradition of a whodunit arthouse film in this respect. Plethora of characters would have ruined the first half of the thriller, and the filmmaker is well-aware of the workings of human brain. We can only follow so much. The soundtrack is not overwhelmingly good but it does what it is meant to—to communicate the rising complication of what the character of Shataf Figar is allegedly hiding. The soundtrack and the editing do not have a lulling effect though it is a gem of a stock arthouse film.
Throwing the background frequently out of focus does half the work for a thriller filmmaker. The editing in the movie was near impeccable: cutting a shot into the next one according to (Walter Murch’s rule of six in editing) emotion, story, rhythm and eye-trace were almost as good as it gets. What is interesting is, the film does its best to capture the rambling way of life in hilltop towns. There is almost no abrupt jerk in the cinema. The central figures in the cinema is seen to be guilt-ridden, wallowing in misery, thriving in captivity and untold suffering but Arka Ganguly’s plot does not hurriedly take hairpin turns breaking the rambling sleepy hills and its atmospheric heaviness. The editing, in this respect, becomes unparalleled. It is a suspense thriller but the editor keeps the film far away from a commercial consumerist adrenalin-rush. The plot is made in a way life is supposed to be. One has to admire the Italian neo-realist in Arka Ganguly and his crew in the ship for being so mindful of the sleepiness and the moodiness of the setting, the locale to which they are true to. This is the French New Wave in Ganguly. The element of the thrill is never dispensed with but then the editing does not ostentatiously make this a jump cut fast-car chase scene in a Ludlumesque suspense plotline.
A “thinking Vikram Chatterjee” has enjoyed a considerable screen time in the first half: a slow zooming medium close up of him having dinner under a lightbulb in a hilltop eatery, a slow dolly closing in on a medium close up of his back in the morning in front of the window-view of the morning hills. His screen time, in hindsight, was pivotal in the building up of the thrill of the plot-turn indeed. Camera framing/movement has crowned Vikram Chatterjee with a standard scope for being the investigator out looking for the truth (as the title indicates). His acting is not overblown ever, nor is Shataf Figar and Lalit Kumar Malla’s acting overripe in any respect in the film.
It makes one wonder how could this film gain in maturity in such a short span: Vikram Chatterjee’s voice-over in the trailer did not sound booming or glaring because he is not supposed to be a super-human attributed with unwarranted sinews of charisma. He is perfect in his role: a police investigator at a sleepy, rainy hill top police station where crime is petty and lives, rambling. Maybe this is why the cinema did not come up with police violence (instead of investigation and/or confession). The writer has done his best to reflect life as it is: a rudimentary feature of a realist arthouse movie.
The film has a fair share of violence, profanity and gore in it (in the form of wrongful captivity, extra marital sexual liaison, a successful attempt at blackmailing, the politics of illegal marijuana in the hills, nuances of a real police investigation, a guilt-ridden suicide, a rattling confession, forced prostitution, burying someone six feet under, bullet hitting the forehead, and even burning the body of someone you just made away with). But it does not make your hair stand on its end, does not give you goose bumps. Rather as the audience you continually converse with the cinema, you engage in a dialogue with the moody turn of events. It is one of the most organic suspense thrillers of our disturbed times. Yes, there is a dearth of humour in the film but untimely humour could have coloured the cinema imperfect to its marrow. Is it a high serious movie? It certainly is, but let us not forget about the muted colours and the self-reflexive tone of the cinema: as if Arka Ganguly’s script is “thinking” in its screen time.
There is one seemingly little eyebrow-raising flaw in the film though. It may sound impertinent but the screenplay needed to maintain its narratology. The levels of narration in the plotline may raise a few fingers at it. Firstly, the pre-interval plot has the character of Vikram Chatterjee as its focalizer. It proved to be a very ripe beginning, drawing towards an expected suspenseful middle. Secondly, the confessions of the guilt-ridden character of Shataf Figar opened up another “narration space” in which partly he and partly his wife became the focalizers in the post-interval plot. Diving into the embedded narrative and then coming out to the frame narrative was expected but then the cinema started to address what was not said in the Shataf Figar’s storyline: the screenwriting made another frame narrative of its own with Figar’s wife as its focalizer. But one may pertinently ask, whose “point of view” was that one? The unravelling of the nexus of the suspense itself happened in an unprecedented manner in which the police procedural has not contributed.
When the audience comes to know about what had happened to Shataf Figar’s wife, the pivot of the “khoj”, “search”, it is not a police procedural. Rather (it would seem like) the screenwriter is blandly narrating the story, filling in the pores of the narrative. It could have done in a vehemently Chuck Palahniuk-vein, in a way David Fincher may have ended the movie. Then again, there is another meeting point of the two parallel frame narratives too. The ending. The ending is an open-ending and yet it may not be one. Therein lies the genius of the cinema. Apparently this open-ended film has actually told the story that we have been “looking for”, that the police inspector was after “seeking”—the screenplay itself has filled in the gaps, the fissures of the narrative that could not have been discovered up until post-ending of the film. Therefore, without the film’s own omniscient narrative voice, one may not justify the title fully.
There was otherwise no way to find out “what has happened” until after the film was well over. Perhaps, in this case, the omniscient narrator telling the audience about the fissures of the storyline is The Film Itself Narrating It to the Audience. Not unlike the inspector of the hilltop police station, we were also “looking for” the missing link in the story, and the film itself told us the story that we have been seeking. It may feel arbitrary but it certainly is not. It is a film in which you are a character yourself: one of the classic Hitchcokian elements in which the filmmaker makes the audience project their own anxieties, angsts. Arka Ganguly wants the audience to run after his intension.
The plotline of the film is not burdened with cultural echoes here and there but the passing references are never overblown—at times, it feels like we are watching a mirage of Sharon Stone-starrer 1996-horror thriller Diabolique, but the plotline knows when to get out of the shadow of Diabolique and be on its own down the road. The film is not about the “other beautiful world” that we seek in silver screens, mellowed with “[t]he singing-dancing world of Bollywood’s permanent pelvic thrusts, of permanently privileged, permanently happy Indians waving the tricolour flag and Feeling Good”, as Arundhati Roy had once put it in “How Deep Shall We Dig?”. Arka Ganguly’s movie has the necessary dynamic of four languages in it, and it shows the faces of the north-eastern actors who have enriched the film with their sincerity and unalloyed modest acting. It is a break from our myth of North Indian ethnic hero/heroine-worship.
But one word more, the film lacks in symbolism—which makes the cinema quite bland when it comes to the genre of an introspective suspense thriller. A thriller shot in contemplative cinematography needed the right dosage of meditative symbolism across the plot. If one watches Denis Villeneuve’s 2013-thriller Enemy, one will underline the paucity of a space for expressionist imagery, leit-motif and recurrent symbols in Khoj. Villeneuve overshadows the film’s ending either. Khoj ends with a note from the ending of Villeneuve’s 2013-thriller Prisoners. The trope of forced captivity is also borrowed from Villeneuve and then the screenwriter has coloured it Bengali. The looming theme of envy and then a sort of sexual rivalry are borrowed from 2015-New York Times Best Seller thriller drama, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. The mind-bending turns in the movie have a heavy influence of Western filmmaking and novels indeed.
But truth be told, Khoj is more than what Bengali audience has bargained for. In a small-town multiplex, the cinema falls flat on the ground if/when you sit surrounded by everyday movie-goers: babies crying from your down left and the mother shushing the whimpering baby is one, two friends sitting in your centre back row trying to figure out the plotline as the movie rolls on is two, a college girl comparing the cinematography with Emmanuel Lubezki’s in The Revenant is three. You cannot miss the whispers of the newly wed demure wife from the back right, “This one is that Vikram Chatterjee I told you about. He is facing a culpable murder charge for drunk driving with Sonika. Poor Sonika!” You cannot let cultural/thingifying interference like this overshadow your experience of the movie. It would be a sin not to re-think every shot in the film: such is its lingering effect, such is Vikram Chatterjee’s telling thoughtful moderate acting.
To conclude, your psychological interpretation of the open-ending (is it?) makes the film what it is. It is a film that paints you that chaos lies just underneath the skin of a sleepy way of life, just down the road. Arka Ganguly knows you are “watching” and your gaze becomes a controlling factor in the suspense of the narrative without a fail. No, the film does not break the action of the plotline into Hitchcockian puzzle pieces but “the shots and scenes are words, the montage assembles phrases” in Khoj. It could be an exercise in fiddling and experimenting with the timeline with fractured flash-forward, flash-backward chronology in the screenwriting. But the film tries its hand at earnestly emphasizing details, building up a sincere tension, revealing the hidden psychological meanings behind what is perceived—trying to bring the audience closer with every scene. If you did not miss the handheld slightly Dutch angle shot when Vikram Chatterjee is seen interrogating Shataf Figar under a yellow bulb (imposing a sandwich of tension and suspense) in the first half of the film, you know it well that Arka Ganguly has made a film with suspense as its core logic: a visual low-budget gem with the “textual erotics” of an unputdownable paperback Larssonian thriller.
Originally Reviewed by : Abhilash Dey Sarkar published via site Author Pratyush Mondal
Image Courtesy : Google