The stellar run of Hindi cinema in 2012 was kicked off by two March releases: the highly anticipated Paan Singh Tomar and a less heralded film, Kahaani. The latter was a thriller set in Kolkata, directed by Sujoy Ghosh and starring Vidya Balan and a largely unknown actor named Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The film turned out to be twisty, beautifully paced and in perfect sync with its Kolkata setting. It became a deserved sleeper hit.

Four years later, Balan and Siddiqui return for the awkwardly titled Te3n. Ghosh is a producer this time, having handed over the directorial duties to Ribhu Dasgupta (of Michael fame). There’s a lot in the film that’s reminiscent of Kahaani. The setting is still Kolkata, Tushar Kanti Ray’s camera finding visual rhymes in the gnarled branches of a banyan tree and a thicket of electrical wires. The narrative still revolves around themes of family, memory and revenge. And the almost pathological need to stay one step ahead of the audience persists, to the extent that Te3n—like Kahaani—has scenes that deliberately mislead the viewer.

Angela, the school-going granddaughter of John (Amitabh Bachchan), was kidnapped eight years ago. What happened to her is revealed over the course of the film, in instalments, but what we do know is this: She died on a rainy night when a ransom meeting was taking place, and both John—who handled the negotiations without informing the girl’s father—and the detective on the case, Martin (Siddiqui), blame themselves for this. Martin quits the force and becomes a priest, while John haunts the police station and obsessively goes over the details of Angela’s abduction in the hope of discovering who did it.

Then, eight years later, it all starts to happen again. A little boy is kidnapped, in exactly the same manner as Angela. Detective Sarita (Balan) asks Father Martin—who, it must be said, needs very little persuading—to help out. As they work with the abductee’s grandfather, Manohar (Sabyasachi Chakraborty), John carries on with his lonely plod towards the truth. It’s an unusually inward performance by Bachchan, lacking both the assertiveness and the flair one associates with the actor. Instead, his drained, unmoored manner seems to suggest that after Angela disappeared, John too became something of a ghost.

To its credit, Te3n, an official remake of the 2013 Korean film Montage, has surprises at regular enough intervals, not all of which are easy to predict. Whether all these twists make sense, or are entirely fair, is another matter. Without giving anything away, I would say that at least a couple of the revelations skirt the boundaries of directorial “cheating". For instance, for one extended sequence, scenes occurring in two different locations are cut together. What we aren’t told is that they also belong to different timelines. Because the viewer thinks these are happening at roughly the same time, the sequence is suspenseful. How do Dasgupta and the writers (Suresh Nair, Ritesh Shah, Bijesh Jayarajan) think the audience will feel when it realizes this isn’t the case?

Kahaani had its own tryst with misdirection, but there’s one important difference between the two films, and it isn’t even that Ghosh’s film hummed like a well-oiled machine while Te3n occasionally has problems bringing scenes to a crisp end. In Kahaani, Kolkata was more than a setting—it was believable as the world the characters inhabited. Te3n, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like it needed to be set in Kolkata at all. Besides the token presence of Durga idols and football, the action could really be unfolding in any crowded metro. None of the actors apart from Chakraborty are Bengali, and the number of sentences in Bangla or in local accents can be counted on fewer than 10 fingers.

It’s no great sin to use a city as an exotic backdrop instead of as a fully realized setting. Still, this points to a certain lack of ambition in Te3n, as does the wholesale transfer of details, large and small, from Montage. It is, however, heartening to see young directors continue to look for ways to tweak the Bachchan persona, even if the results in this case are less than satisfactory.

Te3n released in theatres on Friday.

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