In a scene that seems almost illegal in a post lockdown world, a rickety old tram makes its way through Kolkata’s rainswept Maidan. People grazing cattle and buildings pass by, as a young Byomkesh Bakshi leans out of the window and samples the sights absentmindedly. Graver concerns stew in his brilliant mind, the future of humankind amongst one of them. Eight years ago, in a press meet as thoughtfully executed as his films, director Dibakar Banerjee introduced us to his Byomkesh Bakshi. He dressed Sushant Singh Rajput in a staid kurta, strategically placed him in a tram and let Kolkata’s vintage charm do the rest.
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Yet, we were not impressed. The dismal box office returns of the lavishly-mounted Yash Raj production showed that purists, who have devoured the Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay novels, chose to stay away from this sexed-up version of the dhoti-clad Bengali detective. There were inevitable comparisons to the most celebrated interpretation of the character, the 1993-1997 Doordarshan version. Comparisons that unfairly pitted the quaint charms of Basu Chatterjee-directed television series to the neo-noir leanings of the Dibakar Banerjee world. Rajit Kapur, who attacked his role with such ebullient, cocky enthusiasm, was and still is the definitive Byomkesh Bakshi for most Indians. A remarkable feat considering the character has been played on screen by a galaxy of stars including Uttam Kumar, Jisshu Sengupta, Anirban Bhattacharya, Dhritiman Chatterjee and even filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh.
On second and third viewing, Basu Chatterjee’s interpretation seems almost determinedly frugal. It’s shot largely indoors. It repeats its sets and characters. Though Chatterjee remains almost doggedly faithful to the novel, he ensures that the moral ambiguity that Bandyopadhyay at times tried to infuse into his characters is almost always done away with. In the sanitised world of Doordarshan’s Byomkesh Bakshi, characters were almost always one-note.
But why then is this interpretation still the country’s favourite version? More importantly, though we have had the Karamchands (1985) and the Tehkikaats (1994), why is Bymokesh Bakshi our go-to detective thriller?
The answer is manifold. In many ways, Byomkesh Bakshi is a prototypical figure of the eclectic world of Bengali detective fiction. A world that is inhabited by a strapping Charminar-smoking dude (Feluda), and a middle-aged physically challenged kakababu (uncle) who, ironically, hates being called a detective. The history of Bengali detective fiction, however, had a more conventional start in the early 20th century. In his book ,The Bhadralok as Truth-Seeker: Towards a Social History of the Bengali Detective, Gautam Chakrabarti notes how in the early Bengali detective movies such as Hana Badi (The Haunted House, 1952) and Chupi Chupi Ashe (He Comes in Stealth, 1960),the detectives not only dress in pucca sahebi (perfect western) attire, down to their starched waistcoats, patent leather shoes and the pipes, but also mirror the mannerisms of their Anglo-European archetypes.
Byomkesh Bakshi changed the Bengali detective’s persona. This dhoti-clad bourgeois detective made his appearance as Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s protagonist in the 1932 story Pother Kata (Hurdle). He was rooted in his time but was also keenly aware of the societal and political forces that formed his context. It is said that Bandyopadhyay was concerned with the way the Indian and Bengali fictional detectives created between 1890 and 1930 were mere copies of western detectives. The stories of Dinendra Kumar Ray’s Robert Blake, Panchkari Dey’s Debendra Bijoy Mitra or Swapan Kumar’s Deepak Chatterjee were almost always set in London. Byomkesh, though, was a creation of such sociological import that filmmakers down the ages have come back to him over and over again. When Satyajit Ray adapted Bandyopadhyay’s Chiriakhana with the reigning superstar Uttam Kumar as Byomkesh in the late 1960s, he faced a lot of criticism because some Byomkesh loyalists felt that Kumar was miscast.
What is this enduring appeal that makes the common Bengali question his or her most revered icons? How is it that most Bengalis preferred a non-Bengali man over iconic Bengali actors to play the quintessential Bengali detective.
Chakrabarti feels that it is the identification factor. Since Byomkesh is not a scientist, addict or a violinist, but just an average Bengali, or rather Indian youth, it makes it much easier for the common man to identify with him. Which is where a Rajit Kapur succeeded while an Uttam Kumar failed. In Rajit Kapur, we found a Byomkesh who was not a prisoner of his image. Unlike an Uttam Kumar or even a Jisshu Sengupta, Kapur was not burdened by the role. Rather, he was living the role of a young man trying to understand things that are happening around him. Basu Chatterjee’s casting, which included a very effective MK Raina (another non-Bengali) playing Byomkesh’s aide Ajit, was nothing short of a masterstroke. As filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee himself confessed in an earlier interview. “The restlessness, the rawness and the honesty of Rajit Kapur’s Byomkesh is something that will be hard to replicate.”
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