Babumoshai Bandookbaaz introduces its protagonist, Babu Bihari (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), in a wonderful deceptive fashion. In his first scene, Babu is standing on a construction site amid blue-collar workers. Dressed in formals, Babu could be mistaken for their supervisor. And that is the implication too, for Babu, a contract killer, due to his appearance, can slip in and out of a setting unnoticed. At various points in the film, he disguises himself as a washerman, a constable and a wedding guest. A minute or so after Babu is introduced, he walks into an office adjoining the construction site and shoots the man in it. It’s fitting that Babu’s chameleon-like persona is brought to screen by Siddiqui, an actor who has almost singlehandedly re-written the definition of the vicious everyman in Hindi cinema.
In the film’s opening segment, Babu is a man with no origin or destination. He murders with abandon, beds prostitutes and whiles away time by listening to old Bollywood songs. Babu is floating with no real joy or purpose, until he falls in love with a cobbler called Phulwa (Bidita Bag). Babu murders for Phulwa; she’s impressed and the two move in together. Babu finally finds something he was devoid of: joy. He finds purpose when he meets Banke Bihari (Jatin Goswami), an upstart contract killer, who considers Babu his idol. Both Banke and Babu have been contracted to bump off three men in a sleepy Uttar Pradesh town (which remains unnamed in this movie). Banke and Babu strike a bet: they’ll both try to murder the three men and the one who wins, collects the money for all the killings; the loser, on the other hand, would quit the profession.
It’s a fairly engaging premise, but one that, unfortunately, takes some time to come to the fore. However, the main problem with Babumoshai Bandookbaaz, at least in its pre-interval portion, is that it’s largely thin on plot. That wouldn’t have been a deal breaker in itself, if its central characters – Babu and Banke – were well written. Babu, in particular, the film’s centrepiece, is largely opaque. Given that he’s a killer, his actions, for the most part, do the talking for him, but they are mostly monotonous – a blend of malevolence and superficial swagger – lending limited insight into his psyche. The same goes for Banke. On one hand, the film doesn’t unfold as a character examination of these two rogues and on the other, it doesn’t have a meaty enough plot to keep you hooked.
Having said that, Babumoshai Bandookbaaz’s first half is not without its merits. Goswami, who hasn’t appeared in a lot of mainstream films, shows considerable screen presence. He and Siddiqui share pleasant chemistry, elevating even mundane scenes to an enjoyable concoction of dark humour. The filmmaker, Kushan Nandy, has a keen eye for the absurd, and he uses that to the film’s advantage in quite a few scenes. One bit, in particular, stands out, where Banke is envious of Babu’s earnings per killing, saying he’s been working for five years and his pay has only increased from Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000. Babu, in comparison, earns considerably more: Rs 20,000 per head. (As a freelance writer, I found that scene darkly comic in more ways than one). Besides, the film’s first half ends on an intriguing cliffhanger, introducing a twist that keeps you invested.
It’s mostly downhill, however, right from the first minute of its second half. We soon find out that that twist makes little sense (and what’s worse, no effort is made to clear our confusion about it, or explain the incredible leap of logic at play here). And so, what could have been a quirky crime drama soon regresses to a generic vengeance saga. Siddiqui’s Babu remains opaque as ever, even after undergoing a remarkable transformation, giving us little to care about him. Even the film’s peripheral characters – essayed by assured performers (Divya Dutta, Anil George, Bhagwan Tiwari) – are largely wasted, subservient as they are to its lead (barring a terrific exchange between Dutta and Tiwari in the climax). There are scenes that pander to the audiences, instead of staying true to the story (for instance, it’s hard to believe that a cop would answer his phone during an intense shootout). Based on a familiar motif, the futility of crime, Babumoshai Bandookbaaz does try to rise above its limitations (thematically, its entire second half is a counterpoint to its first), but it’s too inconsistent and jaded for its own good.