Bob Biswas - A Powerful, Slow-Burn Thriller
Bob Biswas is a slow-burn thriller which happily breaks two golden rules of a serial killer mystery.
One, it does not offer any sad back-story to the protagonist who is a naturally born killer.
Two, it has a social agenda. Bob Biswas opens with a fortyish, tall and slightly bulky young man released from hospital after being in coma for eight long years. He does not recall his name and appears very confused about his amnesia which he still seems to be reeling under. He is ‘introduced’ to his wife Mary (Chitrangada Singh), step daughter Mini (Samara Tijori) and little son Beni (Ronith Arora). Mini is not interested in reviving her relationship with this man while Mary tries her best to ease his discomfort in coming back to a family he has no memory of.
Little Beni is happy to get back a father who does not remember him. Bob often goes to the terrace to try and recall what he did, he asks Mary whether he is a good man or a bad man, till a couple of strange men abduct him briefly to a god-forsaken place to tell him that he is a serial killer and this time, they need him to work for them.
This touch of amnesia draws audience sympathy for Bob before the audience learns about his expertise in bumping off anyone he feels angry with or is asked to, by the two men who have ‘employed’ him as a contract killer. His go-to man is an old Homeopathic doctor Kali-da (Paran Bandopadhyay) who runs a clinic as a front to supply arms and a secret vault where people can hide the stash that they want to hide.
Kali-da hands him a paper bag containing “Nux Vomica” for sleeplessness though Bob keeps insisting that he is not an insomniac. The packet reveals a gun and some bullets and Bob’s career gets a start-up till he refuses to an assignment because “she is doing some wonderful work against drug addiction” which leads to some serious self-questioning about the life he is leading, killing people on the order of others he does not know and why he cannot differentiate between right and wrong.
There is a parallel plot about a drug nicknamed “Blue” rendered illegal but is still a rage among students suffering from attention deficit disorder not aware that the tablet is extremely addictive. Mini, a nerd preparing for her medical entrance exams, gets addicted. Bob catches on but Mini shoos him away rudely. She now has dark circles under her eyes and is constantly wanting for the drug, going to the extent of getting the drug herself by visiting the shady and seedy Paris Café.
Serial killers are driven by multiple and different reasons and the only common characteristics that some serial killers have is sensation seeking, lack of remorse and/or guilt. Bob Biswas is not sensation-seeking. He keeps a low profile and tries his best to remain invisible in a crowd, gulps down platefuls of roadside Chow Mein from a street food hawker whenever he is under severe stress.
He does not suffer from remorse/guilt but slowly, he begins to question the motives of his action. He visits the local Church first to confess and then to pray to be forgiven for his past deeds and asks God to help him mend his ways. His destiny, however, is written differently.
Kali-da tells him about Krishna, who, after killing the five-headed Kaliya Nag asks Kaliya why it kept killing everyone. Kaliya tells him “That is the only function you gifted me with – to kill.” Much later, Bob points out that framed painting to Kalida to suggest that he is born to kill and that is where the story ends. No questions asked, no answers given. Except Bob’s repeating “kaam phir se shuru karna hai” to himself and to Kali-da.
This street food hawker works for a group of drug traffickers who tempt students but are ever ready to kill them when as pushers, they begin to push more. Kali-da is an important cog in this wheel. Purab Kohli as the ruthless henchman of the ‘chief’ throws up a brilliant cameo. Together, this group lives and works in a small but vicious circle where drug-running, high-level corruption among the police force, contract killing and violence are linked in a single chain. Bob Biswas unwittingly becomes a key operator in this shaky world that does not have an “Exit” door.
Abhishek Bachchan, despite the tremendous negative speculation about his ability to pull off a Bob Biswas after the Kahani character portrayed by Saswata Chatterjee, proves through his magnificently understated performance that he can pull it off if only directors like Diya Annapurna Ghosh, the debutant daughter of Sujoy Ghosh who gave birth to the original “Bob Biswas” place faith in him. He offers a half-smile, and hardly speaks even when he is spoken to. He walks cautiously and kills mercilessly. He thinks he has no money because he cannot remember where he hid it before his accident.
Abhishek has worked hard not only on fleshing out this character but also on his body, his looks as he tries to give a half smile through his glasses and tries his best not to draw attention proving that he can carry a film squarely on his broad shoulders.
Bob discovers that he is a spontaneous and organic killer who knows exactly how to load a gun, to target it exactly on the forehead of the victim and shoot when out of suppressed anger towards a rude neighbour whose terrible riyaaz is disturbing Mini’s concentration, he shoots him down. He does not feel remorse and expertly hides the victim. His only flaw lies in his bad Bangla enunciation.
A strong emotional moment is when an old beggar woman asks for alms and Bob cannot give her any. Puzzled, she asks him, “you too don’t have money?” and he quietly says, “Hai magar yaad nahin.” When he does remember and throws a bundle of notes in her bowl, the script steps into dangerously melodramatic territory which should have been clipped.
A shocking moment is when, trying to scare off a fat boy who bullies Beni, Bob throttles his little rabbit to death, warning him not to bully his boy. The throttling is out of the frame but the sound combined with the smile on Bob’s face spins its own story.
The other actors are good, Ghosh having worked out a happy blend of good actors from Bangla cinema and a few from Bollywood, has shot almost the entire film in Kolkata, spanning middle-class neighbourhoods and offices, lanes and gullies in seedy areas, showing a Calcutta we do not usually get to see. Bhanu Pratap, a very underutilised actor as one of the corrupt policemen is very good while Chitrangada as Bob’s wife looks a bit jaded which fits into the script well as she is struggling to make both ends meet and also trying to get her husband back to his old life. Paran Bandopadhyay provides the frosting on the cake including the cherry on top with his pidgin Hindi mixed with Bengali and his philosophical sayings that shows the warm bonding he shares with Bob-Babu. Sterling actors like Rajatabha Dutta, Kanchan Mullick, Barun Chanda and Koushik Akash Chakraborty. Ditipriya has a blink-and-you-miss-it scene.
Bob’s recollection of his lost memory is very well handled both by the wobbly script and the director. “Wobbly” because it includes that needless sexual harassment of Mary by her boss, or, Mary’s sudden bashing up of her boss, or, that story about Bob having helped the street food hawker to set up his business, or, the sudden shooting down of this man in Paris Cafe, none of which fits.
The cinematography remains low-key, alternating between dull greys and blues and ochres and browns, in keeping with the low-key life of the protagonist as he silently moves in sparsely populated roads and lanes. One can catch the twinkling lights at a fair he visits to shoot down a target but is stopped in time by the pretty cop Indira (Tina Desai) who, quite unknown to her, becomes the prickler of whatever little conscience he has left. There is one theme song which works well but the film could well have done without it.
The editing, given the cuts and more cuts from one scene to the next, cutting to that dramatic scene in which Bob shoots down his target and his guard outside an old lift, then steps over their bodies, gets into the lift and presses the button to go down. Just like that.
Moral of the story: If you ever hire a contract killer, remember, you may well be his victim, any time, without warning.