Vidya (Vidya Balan) moves slowly in the world of men. Her large pregnant belly requires she take up space they don’t want to cede. Taxi drivers and police tell her she should be at home, resting. One wonders, the few women seen on the margins: were they told, or allowed, to rest like this middle class woman? Or did they slowly make their way through the streets, the metro, the businesses, too.
“No one doubts a pregnant woman,” a man tells her, but “no one fears a pregnant woman.”
Kolkata is hot, the neon lights muted, the camera work chaotic. Vidya constantly takes swigs from bottles of water. She dusts her hotel room, never able to completely keep the grime at bay. She is often the only woman in the frame, even as the city prepares for Durga Puja, celebrating the goddess Durga’s triumph over evil. The city will celebrate the divine woman, even as real women are ignored, pushed aside, and killed.
As the city prepares to celebrate the goddess, it ignores Vidya’s efforts to find her missing husband, her efforts to fight evil on a small scale. While she is largely assisted by men, other women play a key role. And yet their efforts are downplayed; one is killed for her help and seemingly unmourned (and she is humiliated in death, as we learn she wears a wig), the other seemingly forgotten as the movie draws to a close. At least one can assume she lives.
She must move through the world as a woman, a wife, a mother; she is searching as a wife, but the world perceives her belly and only cares for that. She jokes with kids and is told “what a good mother you will be.” She is Vidya, but is constantly called Bidya (V and B are the same, she is told, though she tries to assert herself over and over) or Mrs. Bagchi. Her identity is not her own, but that which others place upon her.
Her friend and confidant, Officer Sinha (Parambrata Chatterjee) explains that in this part of India, everyone has two names, their “real” name and their “pet” name. Everyone seemingly has two identities, though Vidya has more.
Officer Sinha helps Vidya through Kolkata, falling in love with her. He is kind, helpful, dogged. Many of the men in Vidya’s life are such. And the enemies are banal, not over-the-top evil doers like a Shahrukh Khan character, but men who wear flannel and become winded during a chase. “We are the same,” an Intelligence Bureau officer explains, “but I serve the law.” Yet despite any mediocrity, because they are men, they are superior and so Vidya must push and rely on the help of men like Sinha.
At the movie’s climax, Vidya finds what she has been searching for. She has fooled all of the men, used them even as they tried to use her. They underestimated her and she used that to her advantage. Yet for all the layers of the twists and betrayals, the truth remains that Vidya is driven by love for her husband and child. Her search, her violence, feel at times like a masculine story (how often is a man compelled to act because of a dead or missing family?) but her motivations, her experiences are female. No matter what the men around her think or now or think they know, they cannot understand her experiences as a woman, wife, or mother.
Kahaani is terrific, a beautiful melding of camera work, music, story, and performance. I had seen the poster many times over the years and totally misunderstood the plot and thus misjudged it. The film is simultaneously a big thriller and an intimate look at being a woman in the world.