Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi, Niharika Singh, Ananya Chatterjee, Makrand Brahme, Sohini Paul
Director: Buddhadeb Dasgupta
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
When director Buddhadeb Dasgupta is at his best in Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa, his fourth Hindi narrative feature, he captures life's broken rhythms beautifully and touchingly even as he celebrates the resilience of a little man.
Streaming on Eros Now, the film, which alternates between the brooding and the lively, and the wistful and the sardonic, is shot through with Dasgupta's distinctive, often deadpan poetic flourishes and enlivened by a scintillatingly pitch-perfect Nawazuddin Siddiqui performance.
The melancholic tone of Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa is leavened with nostalgia for the receding light; the pessimistic air is tempered with lingering hope of regeneration; the hard, meditative edge is softened by sustained humanism. The treat is redoubled by the lead actor, perfectly cast as a private investigator who is more lost than the prodigals he is tasked to find.
Dasgupta suspends the titular figure, the man's tale, and its spatial parameters somewhere between acute realism and genteel, tactile fancy. The eponymous protagonist is a faltering, unassuming detective unlike any we have encountered in Hindi cinema before. His job is to find answers. He poses questions instead.
Mohammad Anwar isn't the cocky, tough-talking type either. He recalls with fondness his rural postman-father and his "hazaar khat, hazaar kahaniyan". He breaks into a gentle jig as he sings a number inspired by a Sukumar Ray nonsense rhyme (Hattima Timtim...). He creates a dreamy world for himself and repeatedly retreats into it.
Anwar, sporting a black hat and dark glasses, carrying a backpack and a still camera for the purposed of gathering photographic evidence, and exuding a detached demeanour that belies his firm commitment to his job, works for a detective agency that sends him on assignments pertaining primarily to missing persons.
Be it in the field or in the confines of his modest home in a rundown building, the protagonist grapples with crushing loneliness. Siddiqui fleshes Anwar out with intuition and empathy, conjuring up an individual whose pluck is as intriguing as his plight is sympathy-inducing.
Pankaj Tripathi - he was cast in the film before Masaan catapulted him into the collective consciousness of lovers of independent Hindi cinema - has a single-sequence cameo as one of the missing men Anwar is hired to find. Tripathi makes an instant impact - and leaves a lasting imprint.
Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa, lensed by Spanish cinematographer Diego Romero and embellished with a musical score by Alokananda Dasgupta, has the feel of a freewheeling ballad, a composite of multiple chronicles of loss and longing. While Anwar strives to alleviate the humdrum by hitting a bottle of rum every night and indulging in incessant chatter with a loyal Labrador, his clients are no less in the doldrums. Each one of them is confronted with emotional deprivation of one kind or another.
A family man disappears without a trace and Anwar's investigation leads him to a startling secret. Anwar commiserates with the missing person's wife and grown-up daughter but isn't averse to giving the 'suspect' a compassionate hearing.
An old farmer's 11-year-old son, working in the city to supplement the family's meagre income, goes missing. He feeds the distraught peasant in a restaurant - the man eats to his heart's content - before he ventures forth in search of the child. The adventure doesn't end well for him.
A well-off executive abandons his wife (Ananya Chatterjee) and son and vanishes into oblivion. Anwar tends to dig deep into the lives of the individuals whose disappearance he probes; sometimes, he goes way too deep for his own good. One assignment takes him back to his rustic roots and to Ayesha (Niharika Singh), the love of his life who he has never been able to forget.
Dasgupta's meticulous script is strewn with unexplained absurdist diversions. As he walks his dog one night in a drunken state, Anwar meets an old woman who wails that she hasn't slept a wink for ten years. He rubs his eyes, not sure if he can believe what he has just seen and heard. During a foray into a rural outpost in the line of duty, he runs into a wizened man who asks every passer-by what time of day it is.
Anwar helps a woman (Farrukh Jaffar in a luminous cameo) cross a street, befriends her in the bargain and is treated to tales of her probably imaginary travels, which, in turn, trigger wanderlust in him and take his mind back to his boyhood years. A young girl (Amrita Chatterjee), a neighbour, sneaks up to his door every now and then and eavesdrops on Anwar as he converses with his pet.
These flashes of whimsy elevate the struggles of an insignificant outsider who pursues people and seeks the truth all in a day's work but is barely able to fathom the purpose - and meaning - of his own life to the level of one man's epic quest for happiness. Anwar is lost in a city that barely tolerates the likes of him. The assignments that he lands draw him out of his self and reveal key facets of his character, one layer at a time, but closure rarely comes his way.
The only true friend he has is the dog he rescued when the original owner abandoned the canine because it had scabies. The animal is his drinking mate, too - it has a fondness for the rum that the master drinks every evening in a home where both drinking and pets are forbidden.
There is much that the self-effacing Anwar has lost in life, including his childhood, the village of his growing-up years, his maternal grandmother's imposing parental home, and the woman he loved. It is understandable why he is so attached to the dog - it is the only living creature he has found and retained in a lifetime of joys that have slipped out of his grasp.
The big city lets the people on its fringes hide themselves and their true feelings but offers them no solace. But Anwar isn't one to give up on his hopes and principles. One case establishes Anwar's broadmindedness, another brings to the fore his generous spirit, and a third helps him get in touch with his innermost urges.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui is absolutely brilliant in this parable of pain and pining. The actor's captivating, acutely angular interpretation of a man who darts seamlessly back and forth between earnestness and resignation and Dasgupta's mastery over the medium make Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa a must watch.