Feluda and his avatars: The detectives of Bengali cinema

With ‘Shantilal O Projapoti Rohoshyo’, a new detective has been added to the glittering ranks of Charminar-smoking, dhoti-wearing sleuths

In one of the most iconic character introductions in Indian cinema, Jatayu (Santosh Dutta) tells Feluda (Soumitra Chatterjee) that he looks a lot like Prakhar Rudra, the fictional hero of the wildly successful detective stories Jatayu writes.

While the lean Feluda may not have quite fit the part, this marvellously composed scene from Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella (1974) shows that not only does Jatayu write detective stories that people, especially teenagers like Feluda’s cousin Topshe (Siddartha Chatterjee), devour but also that Jatayu longs to see a character he has loved and lived with for so long come to life.

Bengali cinema’s detectives have almost all grown out of novels and short stories that caught the imagination of generations of readers, who yearned, like Jatayu, to see them emerge from the page.

Screenwriter and film director Pratim D. Gupta admits that it’s “the love for literature” that explains the genre’s enduring popularity. “People come to compare the film with the story they have read as children,” he says. They come to “watch the book.”

Still from ‘Sonar Kella’

Still from ‘Sonar Kella’
 

A new franchise

In his new film Shantilal O Projapoti Rohoshyo, however, Gupta’s truth-seeker Shantilal has had no prior literary life. He has been created for the screen. Shantilal (Ritwick Chakraborty) is a weary weather reporter who accidentally stumbles upon a lead that could potentially change his life. As Gupta puts it, “it is like a prequel to a can-be detective film”.

Shantilal’s famous fictional predecessors are mostly established, reputed investigators with a steady clientele. In contrast, Shantilal is stuck in a thankless role, unhappy, uncertain and undervalued. The film puts him on a path that brings him success and a sense of self-worth, while offering the possibility of an alternative career. It is an origin story in a possible new franchise.

And so a new detective is added to the glittering ranks of Bengali cinema’s Charminar-smoking, dhoti-wearing sleuths. The butterfly mystery that Shantilal becomes obsessed with takes him on a trail that goes from Kolkata to Singapore. This theme of travel-adventure has been one of the cornerstones of the genre, starting with Ray’s Feluda and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Kakababu stories where the mystery binds organically with the place the characters are visiting.

Hot pursuit

In the Feluda stories that Ray adapted for the screen, we see the trio intercepting criminals in the forts of Rajasthan and along the ghats of Varanasi; later television and screen versions, directed by Sandip Ray, starring Shashi Kapoor, Sabyasachi Chakrabarty and Abir Chatterjee, take them to Kathmandu, Lucknow, Shimla, Mumbai and the Ellora caves in pursuit of crime.

Kakababu, played by actors like Samit Bhanja, Sabyasachi Chakrabarty and Prasenjit Chatterjee, has consistently resisted the label of detective, but has nonetheless become entangled in mysteries in places as varied as the Andamans (Sabuj Dwiper Raja, 1979) and the Egyptian desert (Mishawr Rawhoshyo, 2013).

But apart from this nod to the educative boys’ adventure genre, Shantilal also lays claim to the darker urban narratives built around adult themes and crimes that belong more to the world of Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi, adapted prolifically in recent years for television, cinema and a web series.

In her essay ‘Engendering the detective: of love, longing and feminine follies’, Madhuja Mukherjee writes that while the Feluda stories unravel in picturesque locations, Byomkesh’s are mostly set in the realm of the dark city. His cases frequently lead him down Calcutta’s ill-famed streets, to people existing on its fringes, and lust, promiscuity and adultery abound, in films like Byomkesh Bakshi (2015), Har Har Byomkesh (2015) and Byomkesh Gotro (2018).

ACP Shabor Dasgupta’s domain is murkier. Played by the versatile Saswata Chatterjee in films such as Ebar Shabor (2015), Eagoler Chokh (2016) and Aschhe Abar Shabor (2018), this no-nonsense officer of the Kolkata police department navigates intricate plots of sexual and psychological intrigue and almost exclusively investigates cases of a deeply disturbing and convoluted nature.

The somewhat uneven Kiriti Roy films, featuring actors Indraneil Sengupta and Priyanshu Chatterjee as the stylish, slick-haired investigator, are also set in spaces that seem to have borrowed from this dark, urban aesthetic. Ideas of crime and detection are treacherously connected with the nocturnal cityscape, in Kiriti O Kalo Bhromor (2016), for instance, but the films rely heavily on overused tropes offering little that’s new.

Still from Shantilal O Projapoti Rohoshyo

Still from Shantilal O Projapoti Rohoshyo
 

Only for teens

Sagnik Chatterjee’s National Award winning documentary Feluda: 50 Years of Ray’s Detective (2019) includes a delightful recording where Ray is heard discussing how he had to limit the crimes in his stories to thefts and robberies, and distance them from adult themes since he wrote primarily for teenagers, a fact that accounts also for the peculiar absence of women.

Women have no doubt featured in the other films but it took the ingenuity of Rituparno Ghosh to create a female detective who was not forged from the same mould.

His Shubho Mahurat (2003), dedicated to the silent, unseen Miss Marples of the world, where an older, unassuming, home-bound woman (Rakhee Gulzar) single-handedly solves a complex case, became a refreshing revision of the agile, worldly, well-read and condescending male detective. Ghosh, commenting on the dissimilar process at work, said that while the male mode of detection is more theoretical, the woman chose to rely on her intuitions, common sense, native intelligence and ability to observe.

Mukherjee’s essay talks of Ghosh’s two other detective films — Hirer Angti (1992) and Satyanweshi (2013) — and explores how they domesticate the genre, how instead of a celebration of the exteriors, they go inwards, focusing on the lived spaces of middle- and upper-middle-class homes and on the interiority of the characters.

Bengali detective fiction carved the space for a rich tradition of movie detectives, and chances are the new entrant too will thrive here in the manner of his forebears.

Cinema, coffee and canines are the three great loves of this Mumbai-based film writer. @cinememsaab

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