The film unfolds as a thriller, but is also a drama about ordinary men finding redemption.
Eight years mean nothing to John Biswas (Amitabh Bachchan), for he’s a man for whom time has lost its meaning. Eight years ago, his granddaughter, Angela, was kidnapped. John couldn’t save her. Angela’s been dead for long; she is not coming back. That’s something his wife constantly tells him, but it just doesn’t feel right; it still feels like yesterday. The pain is still raw; it’s still alive. It doesn’t, even after eight long years, allow him to sleep at night. Ribhu Dasgupta’s debut, Te3n, doesn’t tell us what kind of father John was, but watching him turn up at a local police station everyday in a daze, riddled with guilt, hoping to be surprised, we get a feeling that with Angela’s death, he failed both as a father and as a grandfather. This guilt hounds him and keeps him occupied. But John is also a retired man; he isn’t just looking for Angela’s murderer but also for a sense of purpose. When pain becomes unbearable and eternal, it demands distraction. John has found his.
But John isn’t the only man in Te3n who is grappling with guilt. If John failed as a family member, then Martin (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the investigating officer in Angela’s case, failed as a cop. Martin, however, can afford to reinvent his life. He can afford to resign as a cop and become a priest; become Father Martin. But John, with a son who stays abroad and a wife confined to a wheelchair, can’t stop being a grandfather.
What’s wonderful about Te3n is that none of these are emphasised; one scene melds into another, unfolding a tight narrative, while the characters reveal their inner-truths by just reacting to their world. It’s evident in an early scene, when John asks Martin to accompany him to a shrine where a new clue, Angela’s cap at the time of her kidnapping, has surfaced. Martin looks unmoved and advises John to let go, to forget the past and find his closure somewhere else. John, visibly disappointed, leaves. In the next scene, however, Martin meets John, about to kick-start his battered scooter, chats for a while and casually slips in, “How will we go on your old scooter? Let’s go on my bike”. The next scene cuts to John and Martin on a scooter. Dasgupta trusts us; he knows that we’ll understand, with just a few lines of dialogue, the true extent of Martin’s moral ambiguity.
Dasgupta’s a confident storyteller, something that can be seen from the way he directs this thriller. Through a major portion of the film’s first half, he doesn’t overburden us with clues and revelations. In fact, we know very little about Angela’s kidnapping or Martin’s slip-up, but we know enough that we feel invested. As a result, each new clue allows us to participate in this mystery and unravel its knotty threads – not unlike John, an amateur detective himself.
It’s also heartening to note that Dasgupta doesn’t see Te3n solely as a genre piece. The film’s characters, especially John, aren’t caught up with the case all the time. Life, in its own small ways, keeps finding a way to interrupt them. John frequently forgets to buy groceries. He pulls up a stool, and stands on it to fix a fan that has suddenly stopped working. At times, his scooter doesn’t work. These scenes don’t necessarily carry the story forward and aren’t common to Hindi film thrillers, which often try to fit themselves into a template, but they do free the film. Dasgupta seems to have set higher goals for Te3n, which unfolds not only as a thriller but also a drama about ordinary men trying to find redemption.
Te3n, however, emerges a stronger film even while following the tropes of the genre. The film’s second half, centred on another kidnapping, is cleverly crosscut between Martin and John’s points of view, which skilfully sustains tension. Here, Dasgupta keeps throwing one plot point at us after the other, some intentionally misleading, leaving little breathing space, trying his best to outwit and outpace us.
But for a film like Te3n, which is smart and confident for a majority of its runtime, its climactic twists are rather disappointing: you can see one coming at least twenty minutes before the film ends (which is still okay); however, the other is too convenient and lacks a convincing reason. And although that does take some sheen away from an intelligent, empathetic film, Te3n is above its genre pleasures. It finds its own meanings and, for the most part, sincerely attempts to fulfil them.