Watching the detectives
8 November 2013
Can Bengal’s enduring love affair with fictional detectives translate from the adda to the Indian big screen?
It’s Sunday afternoon in Kolkata, but the light is dim, much like dawn. I am sitting at a coffee shop. The shiny scarlet doors and windows of the cafe are wet after a heavy downpour. A group of teenagers are animatedly discussing the latest weekend release in Kolkata theatres, Satyanveshi (The Seeker of Truth), Rituparno Ghosh’s last directorial venture based on writer Saradindu Bandyopadhay’s popular Bengali crime fiction series revolving around cult detective Byomkesh Bakshi. Shows have been house-full this weekend, with serpentine queues in front of old cinema halls. Goyendas (detectives) are box office magic in this city.
“Too slow, too much background music, but a good plot” is the general consensus on the film back at the cafe. The final judgment is a thumbs down to director Sujoy Ghosh’s portrayal of Byomkesh Bakshi (in what is his first role in front of the camera). “Sujoy did not get it right”, says a boy in a blue t-shirt who is sitting under a cartoon of a man sporting a wide, cocksure grin, a beige jacket, a gun, and the portrait of a man with a halo tucked under his arm. This figure towers over a bunch of other characters sketched in different poses assembled around his feet. Take a closer look and you will realise the man in the jacket is Feluda, the fictional private investigator beloved to Bengalis around the globe, a creation of award-winning film director and writer Satyajit Ray. The characters are all from Feluda stories, and the portrait under Feluda’s arm is that of Jishu or Jesus Christ – an obvious nudge to the story Tintoreter Jishu involving a famous painting of Christ by Italian painter Tintoretto.
Feludar Paraye Coffeer Thek (“Coffee Shop in Feluda’s Neighbourhood”) is the name of the cafe with a major Feluda hangover. It was started by two Bengali TV serial actors on Rajani Sen Road, the residential area of the famous detective, and the waiter tells me convincingly that his house is just around the corner. House No. 27, where the great detective lived, is of course fictional; I learn later that he hasn’t read any of the Feluda stories, hence the confusion. As well as the clue-ridden drawing at the entrance, the cafe’s menu sports Ray’s sketches of Feluda and gang, there are several Feluda books on one solitary shelf, and some of the dishes are named after characters from the stories, like the ‘Jatayu Special’, a culinary ode to the nom de plume of Feluda’s bumbling companion Lalmohan Ganguly. Kankrar Khutinati, a crabmeat sandwich, is the most popular item on the menu (kankra is crab and khutinati conveys digging around, spying).
It’s the perfect adda (the culture of free-flowing and often heated discussions at neighbourhood corners or tea shacks on anything from Che Guevera to India’s fiscal deficit) setting for a city that is in love with sleuths and has churned out perhaps the largest number of detectives of any in India. An adda about Byomkesh at a coffee shop with a Feluda theme is an idea that is bound to resonate with every Bengali who has ever flipped through the well-worn Feludas and Byomkeshes on the family bookshelves.
Cafes, fanzines, clubs – Bengal has an enduring fascination with goyendas on the trail of rahasyas (mystery). Ray’s Feluda and Bandyopadhay’s Byomkesh lead the pack and their fame reaches beyond the borders of Bengal and India; a 2008 article in The Independent included Feluda’s Kolkata along with Holmes’ London, Maigret’s Paris and Morse’s Oxford in a sleuth-inspired trip around the globe. The list of detectives in Bengali literature is almost endless. Among the most popular are Sunil Gangopadhyay’s 60-plus Kakababu, an ex-director of the Archaeological Survey of India and his young nephew, Santu. Kakababu appeared on screen this September with the release of Mishor Rohoshyo, set in Egypt and directed by Srijit Mukherji. Another young sleuth, Arjun, created by writer Samaresh Basu, was also in a film this year – Kalimpong E Sitaharan (Abduction of Sita in Kalimpong). Many of the Arjun stories are based in Bengal’s hills, where Basu grew up. There is the child sleuth Gogol; Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s Kiriti Roy, and Premendra Mitra’s Ghanada who gets involved in the most bizarre mysteries involving every known secret service outfit, from the CIA, MI5, the KGB and the Chinese, and who, in the end, single-handedly brings about world peace. The more you dig, the longer the list gets.
These books were my window into Kolkata – I left the city aged ten for what I perceived as a largely hostile Delhi, where people spoke a language I couldn’t understand. The Feluda stories were my comfort blanket, my link to Kolkata. Many of Feluda’s exploits were set in and around Kolkata and I would soak up the descriptions of streets, houses and markets. I loved reading about Feluda and Co’s visits to New Market to pick up sundry stuff before a trip outside the city.
My first Bengali goyenda encounter happened at age eight when I read my first Feluda. Since then, I have gone through the entire original Bengali series, the English translations – which I found to be clumsy and stilted – and all of the films. Ray made several that won international awards (the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, the Golden Lion at Venice, and an Oscar in 1992 for Lifetime Achievement), yet in my opinion his most celebrated creation remains detective Pradosh C Mitter, aka Feluda. Incidentally, before Feluda’s outing on celluloid, Ray had presented another literary sleuth – Byomkesh – on screen in Chiriyakhana (The Zoo), a film based on the famous novel of the same name by Saradindu Bandopadhyay. It won the Golden Lotus in 1967 at the National Film Awards for best film and best acting.
My first Ray film was Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), a translation of a good book into a great film with gorgeous colours and signature folk music. A couple of sequences in Sonar Kella were embedded in my memory and recurred in childhood nightmares over the years – a man bandaged up like a mummy; a night scene in a train which involved a lot of characters clad in blankets and a scorpion. Or maybe the elements are getting muddled. The scorpion was in a guest house, I think. Needless to say, I never went back to the film after the first viewing. Not even when I was working as a journalist for a newspaper in Mumbai and one of my colleagues from Kolkata had organised a Sunday Feluda film screening at his house.
The mania for detectives in cinema used to be a very Bengali affectation, something that gave away your age and your milieu. Now, it seems to be affecting the rest of India too. The most visible indicator of this is Yash Raj Films’ upcoming Detective Byomkesh Bakshi! directed by Dibakar Banerjee. YRF, one of the top film production houses in India, have bought the rights to all Byomkesh stories for an amount speculated to be between eight and ten crores. The first film (set in 1942) is expected to be released in December 2014, and Banerjee has cast Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput as a fresh-out-of-college Byomkesh. The director-actor duo visited Kolkata last July to scout for 1940s war-torn Kolkata locations. Meanwhile newspaper reports speculate that Madras Cafe director Shoojit Sircar is planning to remake Ray’s classic Sonar Kella with Aamir Khan as Feluda. It remains to be seen, however, whether Feluda’s very Bengali mogojastro (brain weapon) will become common Indian cinematic lingo.
- Both Byomkesh and Feluda have already enjoyed several afterlives in translations, television serials and movies: Byomkesh in Basu Chatterjee’s popular TV series, Anjan Dutta’s films and now Rituparno Ghosh’s interpretation; Feluda, first in Satyajit Ray’s films and then in a Doordarshan serial where he was played by a rather podgy Shashi Kapoor. Beyond the small and big screen reincarnations, the detectives have been reinvented on the stage, radio (BBC radio dramatised The Golden Fortress with Rahul Bose as the super sleuth and Anupam Kher as his sidekick Jatayu) and as animated features.The great mystery is, why does Bengal have such an enduring love affair with detectives? “These books have good plots, interesting characters and (with Feluda stories) some great locations. These are also the mix best suited to films,” says writer Subhadra Sen, who authored a bestselling series of Feluda graphic novels. “In mystery or detective novels the emphasis is on a complex plot that appeals to readers. The stories that last have good plots and well-rounded characters.”Such films also provide great material for coffee-house addas. A conversation in the coffee shop of Feluda’s ‘neighbourhood’ features a discussion on the best portrayal of Jatayu, Feluda’s trusted sidekick. Everyone is unanimous that Bibhu Bhattacharyya (in Sandip Ray’s latest) just did not fit the bill, that he lacked Jatayu’s ready wit. Punctuating her words with an emphatic slapping motion, a young girl with eyelids painted electric blue says “The – best – has – to – be – Santosh – Dutta.” For sleuth-loving Bengalis the sidekicks are as important as the detectives and are, generally speaking, stand-ins for the audience, asking all the questions the readers/viewers want to know. The most legendary of these sidekicks is Jatayu. The story goes that Ray had cast Santosh Dutta to play Jayatu even before he had zeroed in on Feluda, and that he even re-drew Jatayu in the books to make him look like Dutta. So important is the casting of Jatayu that Sandip Ray has chosen a non-Jatayu story Badshahi Angti (The Emperor’s Ring) as his next after looking around and failing to find someone to step into Jatayu’s shoes.From Holmes to HowrahGoyenda stories have been a part of Bengali literature for years, starting out as bot tolar boi, or cheaply produced pulp fiction. Before Sharodindu Bandyopadyay, there were several authors, like Hemendra Kumar Roy, whose detective duo Jayanta-Manik was very popular. Academic Pinaki Roy, in a book on Bengali detective literature, points out that much of early Bengali detective fiction was derived from its European counterpart. 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, or a Kolkata that was identifiably a British metropolis with gas lamps and people waking up to freshly washed streets and hansom cabs. Many of these stories were influenced by police file cases. Widely considered to be the first Bengali detective story, Banomali Daser Hatya (The Murder of Banomali Das, 1892) was part of the series Darogar Daptar (The Office of the Police Inspector) written by retired police official Priyonath Mukhopadhyay.This growing market of what was largely crime pulp fiction was nurtured by journals such as Nandan Kanon, and writing awards like the Kuntalin Literary Award, started in 1896 by industrialist and crime fiction aficionado Hemendra Mohan Basu. With time, the genre evolved and the pulp fiction and daroga model made way for another popular model, one that Bengal eventually came to be closely associated with – the gentleman private detective and his assistant.A major influence on the goyenda genre was Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes. Ray acknowledged this, even in the books where Feluda – who was in a lot of ways an extension of Ray – is shown as a Holmes admirer. In the story Londoney Feluda, the sleuth visits Baker Street and salutes him as his ‘guru’. Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Kakababu lost one leg in a jeep accident in Afghanistan and walks with the help of a crutch, in seeming parallel to Watson’s injury (though in the story Kakabaubur Prothom Abhijan – Kakababu’s First Expedition – it is revealed that Kakababu lost his leg after a fall from a cliff).However, Holmes and his associations with street urchins, unsavoury elements of society and use of cocaine, did not fit the respectable mould of a bhadralok detective of Bengal. He was a maverick and something of an outsider, a raffish fellow who needed to be repackaged as a bhadralok before he could be palatable to a Bengali readership.From gentleman-detective to truth-seekerIn the opinion of graphic artist Orijit Sen, Bengal was the perfect setting for the bhadralok detective figure because of the incubation of the middle class in Kolkata during the 19th century. “In other parts of India, the middle class was created much later. Calcutta was the first to get a middle class, thanks to some prevailing conditions and circumstances.” Sen says the city’s status as the capital of British India spawned the “so-called Bengali Renaissance” with educated Bengalis – the brown sahibs – embracing Victorian cultural idioms. “It was around this time, that Bengal saw the rise of a bunch of great storytellers in all mediums, from cinema to visual arts. And they helped create this culture which was unique in Calcutta. It wasn’t happening anywhere else.” Storytelling in other parts of the country was largely based on folk or religious roots. In contrast, the new writers and their stories reflected a modern mindset and storytelling methods. “These conditions created this particular kind of detective fiction, where stories were secular and modern. And they took root in Bengal’s society that, due to prevailing circumstances, was ready to accept them.”In The Bhadralok as Truth-Seeker: Towards a Social History of the Bengali Detective (2012), author Gautam Chakrabarti writes, “Against this middle-class Bengali backdrop, Saradindu Bandopadhyay managed to fabricate a new, almost utopian sociocultural project through Byomkesh and Ajit.” Byomkesh was a post-colonial reaction to the endless copies of Western-influenced detectives. Troubled by the lack of originality, Saradindu decided to root his bhadralok protagonist in a Bengali milieu. “Thus,” says Chakrabarti, “the cheroots, teapots, chicken pies and solah topees of the Sahibs were replaced by Bakshi in his white dhoti and panjabi, with a passion for individual justice and a love for the exotic, both local and global.” His search for truth lies in the leisured, old-world charm of the high noon of the Kolkata-based bhadralok, whose lyrical twilight was fast approaching.
- The truth-seeker on the big screenThe post-independence crime literature scene in Bengal featured popular detectives like Ghanada, Kiriti Roy, Colonel Niladri Sarkar (by Mustafa Shiraj), and eventually Gogol, Byomkesh and Feluda. The 1970s even saw a couple of female detectives, such as Monoj Sen’s Damayanti. Interestingly, a rather glaring feature of the Feluda books was the absence of female characters. “I wish I knew why!” says writer Subhadra Sengupta, who authored the English graphic novel series. “I have always wanted to ask Ray why he did this when he had strong women characters in his films. He seemed to be writing only for boys and under the impression that boys wouldn’t like female characters.”Of this long list of detectives that Bengal has produced, only two have been successfully translated onto the screen and acquired cult status outside Bengal – Byomkesh and Feluda. This is perhaps because both Bandyopadhyay (as a scriptwriter for Bombay Talkies) and Ray worked for films and their stories lent themselves easily to filmmaking.For a Bengali based outside of Bengal these stories offered a unique glimpse into the life of post-independence Bengal. In both the Byomkesh and Feluda books, Kolkata and Bengal play a central role. Other popular protagonists such as Kakababu travelled to ‘exotic’ destinations such as Africa and the Andamans. What gave a special appeal to these stories, however, was their rootedness in the Kolkata and Bengal of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘70s, and the descriptions of the city, social mores and customs of a bygone era. In this, the stories and films serve much like historical narratives. Bandyopadhyay once said that these stories can be thought of and read as social novels.Ray even built in Kolkata’s notorious loadshedding phase (in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the city saw severe power shortages, with disruption in the electricity supply running at between eight and twelve hours every day) in Mystery at Golok Lodge where the burglar uses the cover of darkness – predicted by the daily loadshedding schedule printed in newspapers – to escape.Even today, when I catch a goyenda film in Kolkata, I look beyond the actors to catch glimpses of the city, to see how a filmmaker has captured it. Kolkata’s centrality in the Byomkesh stories was made evident by the fact that the first thing director Banerjee did after announcing his project was to get Rajput to the metropolis, and have him walk around the old paaras that still reflect something of 1940s Kolkata. He said in a subsequent interview that they had found it tough to locate an essence, with so many old houses being broken down.The transition to screen of Bengal’s detectives has generally been successful; why then, have they not done so well in translation into other languages? It could be the rootedness in Kolkata, and a certain ‘Bangaliyat’ (exemplified by atypical Bong traits like a fondness for collecting trivia, food, and annotated arguments) that means the translated English versions of the books are unable to inspire the same heated adda debates among fans of detective fiction outside of Kolkata. I once presented a fat volume of Feluda in English to my non-Bengali sis-in-law. She said she just couldn’t understand what the fuss was about.~ Anuradha Sengupta is a journalist/editor currently based in Kolkata. Her body of work includes investigative documentaries, an award-winning newspaper for young adults, and a multimedia citizens’ journalism project in Afghanistan. She has founded Jalebi Ink, a media collective for young adults. A compulsive city-walker, she loves discovering hidden urban subcultures.