Midway through the film or thereabouts, there’s an interesting exchange between Bob Biswas (Abhishek Bachchan) – emerging after eight years in a coma, having lost all memory – and an enigmatic old pharmacist Kali-da (veteran Bengali film, TV and theatre actor Paran Bandopadhyay). He is a sort of conduit between Bob and the people pushing him back into his old trade as an assassin. Aware of Bob’s predicament, Kali-da harks back to the tale of Kaliya, the mythological serpent tamed by Lord Krishna. When the Lord asks Kaliya what it is that makes him so destructive, he says, ‘You have given me nothing but poison.’ A little later, now a little more aware of his past and the shadow it casts on the present, Bob confides in an acquaintance Dhonu (Pabitra Rabha), who owns a roadside noodles shop, that old debts are like hotel food, you eat what is already cooked.
Despite the potential these exchanges have for a good spin on the character, they kind of coexist uneasily with what unfolds in Bob Biswas and in the context of a film that fleshes out a cold-blooded assassin who had an irresistible eight-minute cameo in Sujoy Ghosh’s 2012 film, Kahaani, with just three spine-chilling words every time he appeared on screen (‘Namashkar, Bob Biswas’). It is as if they belong to another film altogether. And that lies at the core of the problem with Bob Biswas. There’s a kind of schizophrenia here about the narrative so that it works neither as a thriller (too tepid for one) nor as a character study (too superficial for one).
The film opens at a warehouse/den where dealers, led by one Ustaad (Kaushik Raj Chakraborty), are planning to flood the market with a drug called ‘Blue’ designed to hook young students. (It doesn’t help that the den reminded me of the good old ones of 1970s’ Hindi film potboilers. In fact, the film also climaxes with the hoary cliché of the villain, on the verge of his comeuppance, offering the hero all his wealth and a partnership in his business!)
Parallelly, we have Bob emerging from his coma to find that he has a wife, Mary (Chitrangda Singh), a son Benny (Ronith Arora) and a daughter Mini (debutante Samara Tijori). Before he can settle down to the realisation of the world around him, he is drawn into his old ways and finds himself on the radar of police officer Indira Verma (Tina Desai).
The reason Saswata Chatterjee worked so well as Bob Biswas in Kahaani was because, with his babyface demeanour, he was almost inconspicuous – you could pass him on the street and not pay him any attention. And his cold-blooded killings punctuated a film that was gripping. Here, the killings are equally remorseless (just sample the manner in which Bob snaps a rabbit’s neck to punish the boy bullying his son at school), and the body count is ratcheted up. But the film does not have the energy to sustain the character over two hours.
And though Abhishek Bachchan gives it his best – his paunch, gait, the glasses, the hair-do – one never overcomes the feeling that, unlike Saswata who lived the role, Abhishek’s is a ‘performance’. The original Bob Biswas was a killer without any scruples. The filmmakers here make the fatal mistake of trying to humanise him. This leads to several gawky maudlin moments that prove the film’s undoing.
Then there are the plot contrivances – Bob gets a job as a life insurance agent again (how does he remember what he has to do, given that he has no memory of the past?). He manages to dig a grave to find a diary that details all previous killings and which the baddies want. There’s a key to a trunk full of money. All of them too pat, and none of them wash. The relationship between Bob and his family seldom comes across strongly enough so that we are never invested in his predicament. And the police investigation is, at best, superficial. All of these lead to a tame climax which despite the bullets going off never gets the adrenaline going.
TITLE: Bob Biswas
CAST: Abhishek Bachchan, Chitrangda Singh, Paran Bandopadhyay, Pabitra Rabha
DIRECTOR: Diya Annapurna Ghosh
Streaming on: Zee5
Rating: 2 stars
(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is an award-winning publisher, editor and a film buff)