A thriller, be it in literature or in a play or film, works mainly to evoke feelings of suspense, fright, mystery, exhilaration, excitement, speed and movement states Martin Rubin in The Thrillers (1999). Does Ribhu Dasgupta’s Te3n fulfill these feelings? Dasgupta’s directorial debut Michael, also shot in Kolkata starred Naseeruddin Shah but was never released. His 20-episode serial Yudh starring Bachchan was a massive disaster. Therefore, he treads on fragile ground with a thriller produced by Sujoy Ghosh with three big stars underwriting the title Te3n.

Te3n evokes feelings of suspense, some speed and movement but no mystery, not much excitement or exhilaration in the climax that takes a rather long and winding way to arrive. A thriller is expected to emphasize visceral, gut-level feelings instead of cerebral or emotionally heavy feelings evoked by tragedy, pathos, pity, love and nostalgia. Ribhu reverses this ‘rule’ by investing the film with more of the emotional and cerebral than the gut-level sand the visceral. He could not possibly have avoided it as the script focusses on a kidnapping and murder that happened eight years ago and the first significant clue is hit on by an indirect victim of the tragedy – the victim’s grandfather. Nothing wrong in that as the director pours the great Amitabh Bachchan into a mould he has never been poured into before in a career spanning 47 years.

As a result, the confused audience is constantly vacillating between the amazing performance of Amitabh Bachchan as John Biswas, the dead girl’s grandfather and other areas such as relationships, past and present, the police investigation, the final chase scene that marks the interval and so on. The other two main performers, Nawazuddin Sheikh as Father Martin, the cop who failed to catch the culprit eight years ago and escaped guilt by entering the church and Vidya Balan as Sarita, the current police officer at the local police station match the Big B scene for scene and are incredibly natural. Yet, Te3n fumbles and stumbles and stutters with a very weak, long-winded and loose script that goes haywire from time to time, threatening often to go out of control. This goes against the thriller that demands a very tight-knit script with tricky editing and demanding cinematography.

What does the phrase “edge-of-the-seat” mean? It means that the film you are watching has a story so enthralling and intense that you get caught up in it as if you are living the moment in the story and you literally sit on the edge of your seat as if you are prepared to get up quickly and jump right into the action (or run away if it's too scary). Despite the marketing and publicity hype that promoted the film as a thriller with the extra edge of Amitabh Bachchan as John Biswas, an Anglo- Bengali Christian who lives in Kolkata with his paraplegic wife, Te3n is not edge-of-the-seat or nail-biting. You are never sucked into the happenings within the film. You remain a passive observer wondering why things are so very slow.

The opening scenes of a weary old man riding his dilapidated old scooter to go to the local police station everyday does set the tone for a nail-biting thriller but this does not happen because Bachchan’s brilliant but dominant performance slows the pace so much that it takes the razor-edge off the unsolved kidnapping and murder of a small girl away. One cannot expect a mid-70s old man to walk briskly like his co-actor Nawazuddin Siddique, the policeman-turned-priest Martin does or the police officer Sarita (Vidya Balan) does. But this age-factor that Bachchan fleshes out so convincingly chips away the pace, the speed and the dynamism expected of a thriller. One is automatically drawn back to Sujoy Ghosh’s two films, Kahani and Ahalya to understand how watered down in terms of electric suspense Te3n is in comparison and how wonderful thrillers they were/are.

The multi-channeled focus a thriller must have is there is Te3n. It is Bachchan’s John Biswas that kills these channels along with the twist in the tale that reveals the culprit who finally confesses to his crime that writes a rather tame end to an old man’s eight-year-long crusade to find the truth and the culprit. He does and feels slightly proud about it as he tells Martin.

However, one must grant it to Dasgupta for setting the backdrop and the scenario of the chases, the thrills, the old man riding on his dilapidated scooter he is forced to sell as his funds have depleted over time, in a Kolkata and its outskirts we are not familiar with. Dasgupta, along with his art director and cinematographer transform the city from a modern, high-tech city of shopping malls and limousines and flashy restaurants and small cafeterias to a labyrinth. Kolkata becomes a labyrinth broken up into smaller labyrinths. Biswas’ cluttered home filled with old pictures, an old recorded film running, an antique cassette recorder, Biswas’ wife on a wheelchair, through the police station, the graveyard, the church, the orphanage, the fish market, the confined space where a suspect is held captive, the Imambara, the railway station and the tracks and the wall, the old bungalow, the land development office, the roads and the bylanes and the darkened gullies with strange-looking vans are labyrinths within the larger labyrinth Kolkata is presented as. This consciously designed labyrinth in the screenplay defines the biggest strength of the film and invests it with the sparse dynamism it has. It also reflects the unique perspective of the director.

The browns and the rusts and the yellows in the cinematography that dominate many of the scenes gives the texture not only an ageing look but also a sense of the past receding steadily from the present to make way for the here and the now. The background score is okay but could have been more subtle and low key while the songs really do not belong except the opening scenes where you can hear lines floating in from the very significantly imagined and placed Tagore number Amar Bela Je Jaaye that sets the tone of the film focussing on the borrowed time Biswas has at his disposal.

The script leaves us with too many unanswered questions. Can a member of the clergy suddenly decide to take leave and join the police officer in a ‘cold’ case they are determined to solve without the written permission of the church and the police? Why does Biswas’ dialogue sound slurry at some places and lucid at others? How does the mother of the second kidnapped boy appear healthy at times and very sick after a heart surgery at other times? The clues unwittingly often turn into red herrings leaving the audience perplexed. Te3n is above average mainly because of the sterling performances of the three main actors and a glimpse into a different Kolkata. It could/should have been much better. A thriller cannot afford to leave loose ends but Te3n is practically overflowing with them. At best, one can call it a ‘washed down’ thriller that is exciting in parts but the staggering pace bites into the piercing point of the ‘thrill.’