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Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a postmodernist, though violent, reinterpretation of the exploits of a pre-Independence “satyanweshi (truth-seeker)”, created by Sharadindu Banerjee in 1932 to demonstrate the multifaceted intelligence lurking within the quintessentially Indian (Bengali) gentleman. Though the sprightly, athletic, dhoti-clad physique of Sushant Singh Rajput (playing the part of Byomkesh Bakshy) and the tad-too-sophisticated Satyabati (played by Divya Menon) have failed to convince the thinking audience, the release of the ninth film on Bakshy only attests to the unmatchable popularity the postcolonial sleuth enjoys in India 83 years after he first appeared at a dilapidated Kolkata boardinghouse in Satyanweshi. In his film, Dibakar has expanded the scope of Bakshy’s investigation by linking a Bosepukur murder to Japanese plans of seizing Kolkata from the British during WW II, the Imperial Japanese Air Force’s bombing of the Kolkata dockyard in December 1943 and drug peddling by Chinese agents in the colonial metropolis. Strictly speaking, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is a crude combination of at least four stories by Sharadindu: Satyanweshi (1932, in which Bakshy and his accomplice, Ajit Banerjee, are introduced to each other), Pother Kanta (1932, in which poisonous betel leaves are used), Arthamanartham (1933, where Satyabati is introduced) and Chiriyakhana (1953, where readers encounter the murderous physician, Bhujangadhar, and his disguised wife, Nityakalee, whose mysterious, erotic presence comes close to that of Anguri Devi, played by Swastika Mukherjee in Dibakar’s film).
While accounting for Bakshy’s popularity — despite his obtrusive commonness and palpably middle-class status — one should recall Sharadindu’s conscious effort to create a postcolonial investigator whose appearance and modus operandi would be identifiably different from Eurocentric sleuths such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. If European, or rather imperial, detective fiction matured during the so-called golden age of the genre in the early 20th century, Indian sleuth narratives, mostly written in Bengali by writers settled in the Indian capital (until 1911), began as insipid imitations of Western detective fiction and later developed into powerful anti-colonial narratives. Interestingly, tales of investigation in other Indian languages only started being published or dramatised as late as the end of the 20th century, though Ibne Saifi created the fictional Imran and Captain Vinod before 1947. Detective Karamchand was another popular character in Hindi but his presence was confined to television. If Bakshy shares a problematically symbiotic relationship with the British-Indian policemen, at least the creators of Imran and Karamchand have not shown any inclination to typecast their sleuths as active anti-imperialists.
It may be recalled that the history of Indian (Bengali) detective fiction began in April 1886, with the publication of Nagendranath Gupta’s Theft or an Act of Bravado? in the Kolkata-based periodical, Bharati. Six years later, Priyanath Mukherjee, a former employee of Calcutta Police, published The Police Inspector’s Office, recounting his experiences of chasing criminals. Girish Narayan Basu published Detective Tales From Yesteryears in Nabajeeban in 1893. This was followed by tales of police investigation by Kaliprasanna Chatterjee’s Inspector Bankaullah. Harisadhan Mukherjee’s Murderer Who?, published in Bharati in April 1890, initiated the trend of adult detective fiction, which matured in Sarat Sarkar’s Goyenda Kahini series (1894-98). If Sharadindu, writing 34 years later, had insisted on presenting the sleuth as a family man, he might have been influenced by the investigators Debendra Bijay Mitra and Arindam Basu, created by Panchkari Dey.
If Saralabala Dashi Sarkar earned the distinction of being the first Indian woman detective-fiction writer, the Nandan Kanan Magazine, published from Calcutta from 1902 onwards, was the first Indian crime-writing periodical. In it were published episodes of adventures of the anglicised Robert Blake, created by Dinendra Kumar Roy, and the investigations of Jayanta and Manik, and Hemanta and Robin, conceived by Hemendra Kumar Roy. Shashadhar Dutta, through his humane highwayman Mohon, explored the concept of the criminal as sleuth, while Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s Kiriti Roy and his accomplice Subrata were not very different from the palpably Eurocentric Blake, Jayanta and Samarendranath Pandey’s Deepak Chatterjee — the omnipotent and omnipresent suit-and-hat-clad detective. But not a single one of these fictional private investigators could match the extraordinary charisma of the exceptionally ordinary Bakshy. Perhaps, subaltern Indian readers did not want to be represented by individuals who closely resembled the English colonisers or imitated them. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda — Prodosh Chandra Mitra — appeared in 35 stories between 1965 and 1996 and has generated seven films but his adventures have failed to find favour with general readers and audiences.
What makes Dibakar’s film notable is his attempt to Indianise and universalise an investigator who has been generally viewed as quintessentially Bengali. Sharadindu admittedly tried to project his truth-seeker as an exceptionally brilliant Indian who lived in colonial times but helped British-Indian policemen apprehend criminals rather than seeking help from them — a supposition explored and justified in numerous Western detective stories. In postmodern India, imperialism might be a thing of the past, but the irresistible appeal of an extraordinarily ordinary investigator has made the film an immediate hit.
The writer, assistant professor of English at Cooch Behar Panchanan Barma University, is author of ‘The Manichean Investigators: A Postcolonial And Cultural Rereading Of The Sherlock Holmes And Byomkesh Bakshi Stories’.