If we stay alive long enough, life comes a full circle and begins to repeat itself.
This doesn’t normally happen in cinematic life. Actors don’t usually play in their gray years the characters they portrayed in their prime.
But then, nothing about Amitabh Bachchan is usual or normal.
The man who pursued his parent’s killer in Prakash Mehra’s 1973 Zanjeer on the basis of a haunting dream and one clue — a silver horse dangling from a silver chain — is now, 43 years later, pursuing the man who kidnapped and killed his granddaughter, based again on one clue — a swan motif on a pen — and Angela’s haunting voice calling out to her dadu.
He did it then with the assured, moral swagger of the young and restless, and he does it now with the slouch of a flagging old man without assistance or authority.
He was entitled and demanding then, he is plaintive and pleading now.
But he was determined then, and he is determined now. His eyes didn’t smile then, and they still do not smile.
John Biswas (Amitabh Bachchan), like Vijay of Zanjeer, is a man possessed by the past.
He’s a grandfather obsessed with finding the kidnapper of his granddaughter.
It’s case-closed for the police and everyone else around him. It’s been eight years since Angela disappeared. Yet, he can’t give up.
He must track down the man who kidnapped her and his only possible help is Father Martin (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).
They have an old but strange relationship.
John waits outside the church for Father Martin, and when he arrives, John asks that a clue or a lead he has discovered be pursued. Martin, whose robe is a protection against the guilt he carries for things that happened in the past, chides John, asks him to leave it all to God, to move on.
Every time Martin sees John, he feels his burden grow. So he ignores, dismisses John with a smile.
But John Biswas channels the frustration of a single man’s single-minded pursuit into his own private investigation. Lugging his weary frame on his scooter that won’t start, leaving home alone his wife Nancy in a wheelchair, he pursues every lead.
A knitted cap leads to an orphanage, the orphanage leads to an Imambara, which leads to a graveyard, which leads to…
Seemingly, each clue leads to a dead-end — at times because of bureaucracy of organisations, at times because memories fade. But even when staring at dead-ends, John sees hope. So he keeps returning, to cajole memory and the indifferent.
And then, another kid gets kidnapped.
We now see tantalising vignettes from the past. These flashbacks don’t just piece together what happened to Angela, while shining light at the current case and how uncanny the similarities are between the two cases, but also create contexts for characters — their stories, compulsions.
The two kidnappings are identical. But is it a copycat crime or is Angela’s kidnapper back?
Sarita (Vidya Balan) is now the cop in charge. She’s quite clueless, but dogged.
What follows is a two-track pursuit — the cops chasing one set of clues and suspects, and John Biswas on a completely different track of his own.
Like in the films of Seventies, there’s a lot of religion in Te3n — father in church, maulana in the Imambara, Durga statues being immersed in the Hoogly. But unlike those films, there’s little benediction here.
Te3n, a thrilling whodunit, is shot in two Kolkatas. One is antique and quaint, the other loud and crowded. These conflicting spaces — of huge mansions that are shaded, majestic and quiet and the insanely chaotic world outside — give the kidnapping of a child a touch of routine and John’s pursuit the promise of impossibility.
The film, thankfully, doesn’t dwell on the tragedy and grief. It stays focused on the pursuit to unravel the mystery.
The kidnapping story is cleverly plotted. Though there are holes, it’s an engaging, emotional and suspenseful drama.
The problem is with the acting. Though the film has actors with reputations about their acting skills, none of them bring their A-game. Some not even their E-game.
Though Vidya, carrying throughout a smug pout born out of authority and power, tries hard, the script doesn’t give her much to play with. In fact, it saddles her with a pathetic and predictable love grouse. Worse, Nawazuddin doesn’t want to tango. Not just with her, but anyone.
Writing is the other let-down. Most characters, apart from John Biswas, have been left half-done, perhaps in the severely mistaken belief that leaving characters vague adds intrigue to them. It doesn’t. It just adds to our irritation.
Most of the characters are functional, their existence limited to their ability to recall bits of information, join some dots, turn up at the right place at the right time. These half-formed products of lazy writing are boring.
But writers Suresh Nair and Bijesh Jayarajan and director Ribhu Dasgupta use and exploit to the film’s advantage the intimacy that viewers of a certain vintage have with AB. He is mostly shot in close-up and we are always very close to him.
With age, Bachchan’s screen presence has morphed — from an intense laser-beam that could singe with a glare to a heavy-footed, at times unwieldy remains of the actor he once was.
Yet he’s colossal. He swallows up the screen even now. And that’s why subtlety is imperative. But he doesn’t do subtlety much.
With age, we as viewers have changed as well.
While earlier we simply watched him, now we study him. In those lines on the face, bags under those expressive eyes, that stooping left shoulder, that heavy, awkward walk, we look for the familiar. It’s a strange order — we want to see the Amitabh Bachchan we knew, but we also want him to play a character.
Mostly what we get is the ham — an actor cannibalising and then regurgitating bits of himself in a yucky puke.
But on some rare occasions he gives us a glimpse of the actor he once was, by taking possession of a character like only he can.
Those are the moments for which we keep returning to watch Bachchan. Te3n has some of those moments. Moments when tears well up in John’s eyes and it feels like an era is weeping.