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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Detective Returns

Byomkesh Bakshi is back on the screen. But he is not the only iconic Bengali sleuth in action

Written by Premankur Biswas | Published: August 25, 2013 4:45:58 am

A rickety old tram makes its way through Kolkata’s rainswept Maidan. People,grazing cattle and buildings amble through,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. In a press meet as thoughtfully executed as his films,director Dibakar Banerjee introduced us to his Byomkesh Bakshi. He dressed him in a staid kurta,strategically placed him in a tram and let Kolkata’s vintage charm do the rest. That his Byomkesh Bakshi is current Bollywood heartthrob Sushant Singh Rajput is almost incidental. The hero of the enterprise is clearly Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s iconic detective. “I am aware of the various interpretations of this character. I know that everyone,from Satyajit Ray to Rituparno Ghosh,have created their own Byomkeshs. My Byomkesh is young,straight out of college and on the throes of something that he doesn’t even have the vocabulary to describe. That’s why he calls himself ‘satyanveshi (the truth seeker)’,” says Banerjee,who is directing the film under the Yash Raj Films banner.

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? Chakrabarti feels that it is the identification factor. Since Byomkesh is not a scientist,addict or a violinist,but just an average Bengali youth,it makes it much easier for the common man to identify with him. “From Kiriti Roy to Jayanta and daroga (inspector) Banka-ullah to Feluda,Bengali fictional detectives have succeeded in creating a dedicated universe of readership,which is incrementally ahead of similar figures in other Indian languages,” says Chakrabarti.

When it came to his own celebrated creation,Feluda or Pradosh Mitter,not many could fault Satyajit Ray. Feluda first came into being in 1965 in the Bengali children’s magazine Sandesh (which was edited and produced by Ray himself). By this time,Ray was already a renowned filmmaker. “My father created Feluda primarily for children. He would invest a lot of time in writing these stories. Since there were children’s stories,he had to do without two integral parts of any crime fiction,sexual intrigue and violence,” says filmmaker Sandip Ray,Ray’s son. That didn’t stop Feluda from being one of the most enduring fictional figures of Bengali literature. Ray’s two masterful adaptations of Feluda novels,Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress,1974) and Joy Baba Felunath (The Elephant God,1979),in which Feluda was played by acclaimed Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee,contributed to the icon-making process. Subsequently,Sandip Ray adapted many Feluda novels for television and cinema.

“When I was growing up,I gorged on Feluda and Kakababu stories,” says director Srijit Mukherji,who is busy with the post-production of Mishawr Rahashya based on another iconic Bengali fictional character,Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Kakababu. As a playwright,Mukherji has already worked with Feluda (Feluda Ferot,2008) and Byomkesh (Checkmate,2009). In both these plays,he took the characters to places they hadn’t been before. In a brave step,he penned original stories based on these two characters. He made Feluda an aged armchair journalist in Feluda Ferot and explored the crumbling of Byomkesh’s marriage in Checkmate. “These figures are such revered icons for most Bengalis that we don’t want to mess with them. I desperately wanted to make films on them,but couldn’t because of copyright issues,” says Mukherji. Kakababu was a different challenge. Primarily because Gangopadhyay always distinguished his protagonist as an adventurer and not a detective. “Though clubbed with the rest of Bengali detective fiction,Kakababu stories are more of thrillers,” says Mukherji. His Kakababu will be played by Prosenjit,a matinee idol who is willing to experiment with things. “Kakababu is a middle-aged physically challenged adventurer and it’s not easy to play such a character. Given his stature and talent,Prosenjit was just the person for this role,” says Mukherji.

But it is Byomkesh Bakshi who has yet again found his way into most Bengali drawing rooms,thanks to the buzz created by Rituparno Ghosh’s last offering Satyanveshi which releases later this month. Ghosh described it as “a crime thriller in the molten glow of the pensive falling afternoon”. Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh,who was surprised to find out that Rituparno Ghosh wanted to cast him as Byomkesh,has been promoting the film after Ghosh’s death. “I have read a lot of Byomkesh Bakshi novels,but I have never really thought about adapting them. This is entirely Rituda’s vision,” he says.

What makes Bengali directors revisit the detectives over and over again? Explains Mukherji,“Bengalis are essentially an inquisitive race. When we read detective fiction,it becomes a sort of wish-fulfillment. That’s why Byomkesh and Feluda will never go out of fashion. When Basu Chatterjee adapted Byomkesh for DD in Hindi in the 1990s,he proved the same stands true for the rest of India too.”

Premankur Biswas is a freelance writer

based in Kolkata

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