Film: "TE3N"; Director: Ribhu Dasgupta; Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Vidya Balan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sabyasachi Chakraborty; Rating: ****
There is a moment of subdued splendour in this thriller that is both brutal and tender, where a "chaprasi" (peon) in a government office gives our autumnal hero John Biswas (Amitabh Bachchan) some vital information.
Then the "chaprasi" casually asks if there is petrol in John's rickety scooter. As John parts with his only means of transportation he even helps the bureaucratic broker start the ancient vehicle.
Yes, the scooter has seen better days. So has John Biswas. There was a time when he knew joy. His granddaughter Angela, who was left in John's care while her father went abroad, was kidnapped for ransom and killed.
Debutant director Ribhu Dasgputa's shimmering portrait of distant discontent is about John's atonement, his 15-year long quest for justice (not vendetta, he stresses) and his rather unconventional method of seeking and obtaining a closure to his agonising journey of pain, hurt, guilt and loss.
In "TE3N" -- the title refers to the three protagonists of this jagged jigsaw of crime and retribution -- it is his character's wife who is on a wheelchair (how and when she got there, we are not told) while Amitabh tries to find justice for his granddaughter's murder.
The most sincerely done moments in the film show the obdurate protagonist grappling with the law and red tapism. In an early sequence when Vidya Balan, playing a no-nonsense, blessedly non-uniformed cop, gently admonishes John for coming to the police station every day to inquire about his 15-year-old granddaughter's case, John quietly mumbles, "I have nothing else in my life".
"TE3N" captures the rhythms of existential inertia in solidly written scenes and dialogues. The flawed but unvanquished characters often seem to be saying much less than they actually feel. This is a work that recommends reined-in emotions when dealing with the drama of damnation. Except for one brilliantly shot railway chase, the narrative is under no pressure to generate dramatic highs.
The exceptional soundtrack, which includes a sparsely scintillating background score by Clinton Cerejo, captures every day sounds and disruptive disturbances with no drastic shifts in the sound design.
Nawazuddin is an actor who never ceases to surprise. He is interestingly cast as a cop who 'converts' to priesthood after a guilt-ridden incident. He is uncharacteristically quiet, contemplative and calm in his performance.
This is no country for outbursts. And Vidya Balan playing an impatient cop knows it. While dealing with two child kidnappings, she substitutes manifestations of a growing hysteria with a tightly-wound anxiety that is mirrored in her troubled eyes. Vidya's is a performance far more accomplished than it seems.
Apart from Amitabh, Kolkata is the presiding hero of "TE3N". The run-down yet stately and dignified mansions and desperately functional apartment blocks seem to represent the protagonist's ruined innerscape.
Tushar Kanti Ray's cinematography seems to enter spaces normally prohibited to camera lenses.
But then this is the kind of cinema that doggedly and noiselessly ignores the rules and bends the governing sentiments of popular cinema to mesh human emotions with their heightened version without sacrificing a sense of equanimity and poise.
Even when confronting their innermost demons the characters don't scream at one another. Make sure you watch this film in a theatre with solid acoustics. You may miss some of what the whispers and murmurs are trying to say about life's regrets and their ruinous remedies.
"TE3N" grips us from the first frame. It is a thriller with a heart, soul and most exceptionally, a conscience.