Movie Review: ‘Bob Biswas’ Doesn’t Know What Kind of Film it Wants to Be

Bob Biswas (Abhishek Bachchan) doesn’t remember anything – nothing clicks, nothing stays. Like a cinephile dropped into a theatre an hour into the runtime. The only difference is, Bob is watching his own biopic. Recently discharged from a hospital, he navigates his city, his house, his church, like a total stranger. Like a reader betrayed by his own story. Bob has a family, two kids and a wife (Chitrangada Singh). He doesn’t remember them, either.

But we remember Bob. We first saw him a decade ago in a guest appearance (Saswata Chatterjee) in Kahaani. Bob is dark humour doused in fermented poison: a mousey life insurance agent who moonlights as a… serial killer. Diya Annapurna Ghosh’s Bob Biswas, streaming on Zee5, starts like a ticking bomb. The inherent contradictions – between Bob’s present and past, the thriller’s present and future, our doubts and dread – build near-constant intrigue. We know that Bob will lose it, the only questions are when, how and at whom?

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The most impressive thing about Bob Biswas’s beginning is that it simmers and stews. We get four subplots — an illicit drug enterprise centred on a pill named Blue, two corrupt cops, a young woman preparing for a medical entrance exam, and of course Bob – which, we know, will intersect at some point but are unsure how or when. Bob, on the other hand, continues to live like a stranger. Since we don’t know much about him, besides his ‘profession’, Bob and we discover things at the same time: a beautiful terrace in his house, a noisy neighbour, a compassionate priest. The film doesn’t rush through these portions. At the start, I was invested enough to note, “Should this have been a series?”

But Bob Biswas is a two-hour-long thriller. So, around the 40-minute mark, it gets down to business: Bob shoots someone. It is that one moment that will shape much, if not all, of your viewing experience. If you buy that scene, then I presume the film will welcome you more. But if you’re unconvinced, then the going will be tough. That scene is pivotal because it reveals Bob’s character or, in his words, crystallises his confusion: “Am I a good man or bad?” The film seems reluctant to go beyond a point. The murder almost looks instinctive, as if Bob couldn’t stop himself. Maybe he doesn’t need to remember because murder for him is muscle memory.

Bob, an old rusty snake, will bite when the time is right. Because it is difficult to betray your fundamental nature. That’s the only thing he knows, the only thing he’s been. This is an intense philosophical conceit, but the writing isn’t hardy or committed to do the heavy lifting. Even basic questions are left hanging: What did Bob feel? How did the cops, or other neighbours, not find out? How does memory shape self?

His maddening contradictions soon amplify beyond recognition. The cops direct him to murder – don’t worry, not a spoiler – and murder he does. First one, then another, then one more, and so on. The film spends little time with him: again, does he feel guilty? Should he feel guilty? How does a squeaky-clean family man resolve this insane paradox?

Like most mediocre Bollywood thrillers, Bob Biswas doesn’t think murder is a big deal. It just happens, you know, like sipping chai on a rainy evening. The film could have come out of this bog had it cared to answer these simple questions: Who is Bob? How does an insurance agent become a contract killer? And yet, we get nothing. A small flashback, depicting his past, does show one murder, but it is so random – solely played for empty shock value – that it doesn’t open, but closes, him further.

It is one thing for a movie to be intentionally vague – making the audiences active participants – but it is quite the other for it to be clueless about that vagueness. Bob Biswas lacks self-awareness, and it hasn’t made up its mind about the kind of film it wants to be. What do you call a thriller where, amid several unconvincing plot turns, the protagonist says, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Should I be doing this?” It is also predictable. A story marked by tiered escalations, Bob Biswas is not a step ahead but behind you. When motivations are flimsy, the victims are easy to spot. You know he’ll murder the neighbour; you know he’ll strangle the rabbit; you know he’ll…

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By the time the film tries to regain control, it is way too late. It has given up, in fact. Bob verbalises his feelings, his conundrums – then repeats them later – leaving no impact. The subplot featuring the local police is ludicrous. The movie doesn’t feel like a seamless whole – blending stories, motifs, characters – but distinct blocks of narrative and thematic chunks. Its final segment, though, is an incoherent silly mess, making the film almost forgettable. Bachchan shines in parts where Bob is sincere and timid, but this isn’t an exceptional performance that can elevate an undefined character. Like Bob, Bob Biswas is marked by an unfortunate schism: One doesn’t remember, the other can’t forget – you want to unravel the former, forget the latter.

This article was first published on The Wire.

Featured image: A still from ‘Bob Biswas’.