Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh isn’t a sequel to Kahaani, but it may as well be. I’m not talking about the shared setting (West Bengal) or lead actor (Vidya Balan, playing Vidyas in both) or genre (urban thriller). Instead, the films are inextricably linked because the narrative tricks of the first colour the viewing experience of the second. The 2012 film hinged on a lying flashback: protagonist Vidya Baghchi’s memories turned out to be deliberately—and significantly—misleading. The film was a success, but from point on, Ghosh had been put on notice: he’d cried wolf once.
If someone has lied to you before – and a false flashback, no matter how clever, is a cinematic lie – it’s difficult to put the thought out of your mind that they might do it again. This, at least, was how I made my way through Kahaani 2: two hours and ten minutes of second-guessing and waiting for the other shoe to drop. I actually spent the intermission trying to convince my friends that Jugal Hansraj’s blatantly obvious villainy was a smokescreen, that his hamming was a subtle hint that we were dealing with an unreliable narrator. I won’t tell you if my guess was right, but if one of Ghosh’s goals as an artist is to mess with his viewer’s heads, then he’s totally succeeded with me.
In a film that’s essentially one twist after another, it’s difficult to separate the spoilers from the bare bones of the plot. Here is my attempt at parsing. Vidya Sinha (Balan) is living with her wheelchair-bound daughter, Mini (Tunisha Sharma), in the small West Bengal town of Chandannagar. They’re almost set to leave for the US, where Mini has been slotted for an operation that could restore the use of her legs. But the girl is kidnapped and Vidya, running frantically to reach the address texted to her by the abductor, is hit by a car.
Things become even knottier when Inderjit (Arjun Rampal), the cop assigned to Vidya’s case, recognises her as someone he knew named Durga; fitting, considering Balan was a figurative Durga by the end of Kahaani. Soon, we’re in a flashback derived from Vidya’s diary entries— a perfectly reasonable storytelling device, but one that set off a series of unreliable narrator alarm bells in my mind. The film cuts between the two storylines, adding characters along the way: Inderjit’s comical boss (Kharaj Mukherjee), Jugal Hansraj and Amba Sanyal as Mini’s relatives, and a female assassin who isn’t a patch on Bob Biswas, the sad sack killer of Kahaani.
At times, Kahaani 2 is a little too reminiscent of Kahaani for its own good. It’s almost as if Ghosh is convinced that these films (and perhaps Te3n, which he produced, and which has plenty in common with Kahaani 2) constitute a franchise, and that he has to live up to the expectations of fans who’d be disappointed if the new film didn’t have an assassin, two cops (one straight ace, the other morally compromised), and a moment of high drama that turned out to be visual deception. It’s not that Ghosh doesn’t have a fresh story to tell — some of the subplots in this film could sustain a whole feature by themselves. Still, by the time the (fairly shaky) denouement arrives, you can feel the narrative strain to top Kahaani’s final reveal.
Ghosh’s eye is just as keen as it was four years ago. There’s a wealth of visual detail scattered across the film; one of my favourite throwaway moments is when Inderjit chases a fake-passport supplier through his workplace and we catch a split-second glimpse of art forgeries stacked in a room. You can’t fault the pace either: editor Namrata Rao, a Kahaani alum, hurries the scenes along. You can fault some of the acting: Hansraj is very broad, as is the actor playing the assassin. Balan is convincingly harried, but the spark of a few years ago is somewhat dimmed. Rampal’s low-wattage performance, though, might be his best.
Compared to the vivid Kahaani, this film has a blanched look, perhaps in keeping with its dark subject matter. It’s a frenetic 130 minutes, but I never really felt for Vidya Sinha the way I did for Vidya Bagchi. Perhaps I was just too caught up waiting for Ghosh to fool me twice.