If you have seen the South Korean thriller Montage, then you do not need this cautionary note: Te3n is to be watched with rapt attention. No loo breaks, no glances at your cellphone.
This Amitabh Bachchan-Vidya Balan-Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer is an official remake of the 2013 film by writer-director Chung Keun-Sup, who is acknowledged in the credits here for the story. The narrative of the Hindi film is firmly rooted in Kolkata where events unfold over an eight-year period.
Bachchan plays John Biswas in Te3n, an old man whose eight-year-old granddaughter Angela is kidnapped and killed in 2007. Over the next eight years, Biswas relentlessly pursues police officer Martin Das (Siddiqui) who handled his case, determined to persuade him not to give up on finding the kidnapper whose trail had apparently long gone cold.
Angela’s death had a profound impact on Das too. He handles his trauma – or perhaps tries to escape his sense of guilt – by leaving the force to become a Christian priest. In 2015 when Biswas arrives at his church with a clue to the whereabouts of the kidnapper/s, Fr Martin Das urges him for the nth time to heal rather than rake up an old wound.
Biswas is undeterred, of course. Meanwhile, Fr Das’ curiosity is piqued when another kidnapping takes place and his old friend, police officer Sarita Sharma (Balan), asks for help with the investigation because of the similarities between the two cases.
Central to the effectiveness of Te3n is its pace, which serves to build up a sense of dread and foreboding until the identity of the culprit/s is revealed. There are no high-speed car chases, screeching tyres and high-decibel shootouts anywhere in sight. This is not that kind of film. The simmering treatment is designed to unite viewers with Biswas’ frustration, to help us understand why he takes so many risks to attain closure. It is almost impossible to shake off the fingers of fear that grip the heart as the old man appears to repeatedly endanger himself in his quest for the truth. And when the big oh moment arrives without drumbeats and trumpeters, it is hard not to share his anguish and sense of helplessness.
The star of this film is director Ribhu Dasgupta’s refusal to step on the accelerator. Dasgupta clearly has a deep understanding of the film’s milieu and a firm handle on the solid written material at his disposal.
Suresh Nair and Bijesh Jayrajan’s screenplay favours minimalism over verbosity. So do the dialogues by Ritesh Shah. Both add to the film’s atmospherics and unyielding tension.
Tushar Kanti Ray’s cinematography complements their labours, capturing Kolkata’s chaos and colours sans clichés, lending shades of gray and a pall of detached gloom to the crowded city. It is as if, like John Biswas, for the camera too time has stood still while a bustling city hurries about all around.
The Howrah bridge, those bright yellow taxis, the immersion of Durga idols – all the familiar indicators make an appearance without screaming out that they have been dragged in to remind us that we are in Kolkata. And while none of these visual landmarks is overwhelming, some refreshingly new ones are added: Fr Das’ imposing church and an equally imposing imambara, both of which are crucial to the story.
Equally to the point, it is nice to see the way Ray focuses on the three beautiful faces that are central to the film, without overdoing it as many DoPs have done particularly while working on Bachchan’s post-2000 films.
The detailing in the sound design by Shajith Koyeri and Tanmoy Chakraborty’s production design (especially of Biswas’ home and the interiors of the spaces from which Fr Das and Sharma operate) also play an essential role in Te3n’s very real, dramatic-yet-not-melodramatic quality. So is the action by Sham Kaushal, who is careful not to hark back to Bachchan’s invulnerable Angry Young Man persona of the 1970s and ’80s.
Clinton Cerejo’s music is apt till the big reveal, although it is over-used after that point, which is also when the film carries on a lot longer than it needed to. Still, there is enough humanity, believability and suspense in Te3n to put its flaws in the shade.
Beyond the gripping mystery, are some delightful elements that are unobtrusively woven in, indicating the team’s intimate knowledge of Kolkata, interest in Indian society at large and disinterest in superficiality, for the most part. For instance, minority community members are usually featured in Bollywood stories with a specific purpose: Muslims – secularism; Christians – glamour and exoticism; Sikhs, Parsis and homosexuals – comedy; Dalits – you’ve got to be kidding, they do not exist as far as most of mainstream Bollywood is concerned. In Te3n, a huge deal is not made of the fact that two of the three main characters are Christians, perhaps Sharma is too. And except for the irritating insistence on having them use the English words “god” and “prayer” instead of “bhagwan” and “prarthana”, though they are speaking in Hindi throughout, they do not otherwise conform to the stupid Christian stereotype that dominated Bollywood till the 1990s and has occasionally reared its head since then. A song and dance is not made either of the religion of the kindly gentleman at the imambara.
The backroom team of Te3n is ably fronted by solid acting. Bachchan shrugs off the star persona and trademark mannerisms that have dominated many of his post-2000 films, to deliver a felt performance, drawing us into Biswas’ grief and silent fury. Siddiqui’s subtlety as he switches from priest to policeman to priest to policeman underlines his casual brilliance. And Balan – who is inexplicably cited as a “guest appearance” in the opening credits – is as sturdy as ever, though hers is the least fleshed out character of the trio.
Thankfully too, nobody is trying to ‘do Bengali accents’ here. Seriously, accents are superfluous in such films. After all, it calls for a suspension of disbelief to buy that characters in Kolkata would operate entirely in Hindi. If we are willing to go that far, unless we never ever want a Hindi film to be set anywhere outside the Hindi belt, why would we needlessly burden actors with accents? This is one of many sensible directorial decisions that make up this film.
Te3n is not without weaknesses: it could have done with some snipping at the end, the title does not work and there are a couple of important loose ends that should have been – and easily could have been – tied up. For instance, the actions of a primary character hinge on the extreme cooperation and trust of an individual who is a satellite player in the story, but we never fully understand why and how that trust was won. You will understand that sentence only after you watch the film in its entirety.
It is a measure of Te3n’s strengths that, in the overall analysis, these complaints recede into the background. It is so wonderful to see director Sujoy Ghosh who gave us Kahaani, backing this film as a producer. Ribhu Dasgupta’s Te3n is a strong, entertaining whodunit, so lovely in its sadness and so thoroughly engaging in its observations on old age, escapism, persistence, love and revenge.