In Andrew Robinson’s The Inner Eye, Satyajit Ray speaks about his apparent reluctance in taking over the responsibility of Chiriakhana and also his general misgivings about detective films in the classic whodunit format. To quote a certain section from the chapter titled ‘Detective Films’,
‘I accepted willy-nilly’, he said. ‘Whodunits don’t make very good films, because of the very long explanation at the end, where the film becomes very static. This particular story needed that scene, it was obligatory. But as against that, I must say that it had a whole lot of interesting characters, and I could make an interesting casting using very skilled professionals in these parts: people I hadn’t used before. That was rather an attractive aspect.’ Nevertheless, he never regarded Chiriakhana as a true Ray film.
Furthermore, in the context of adapting Feluda on screen for the first time,
…Ray got right away from a conventional whodunit, even though he had used this structure in his own novel Sonar Kella, the third of his stories to feature Feluda. He felt it would be more interesting to let the audience know who the villains were at an early stage, but keep the detective guessing – ‘so it becomes more or less like a Hitchcock story where you know who the killer is.’ Character there takes precedence over plot, although there is plenty happening to hold one’s attention…
The recent parallel release of two detective films, Sandip Ray’s Double Feluda based on two short stories by Satyajit Ray and Arindam Sil’s Byomkesh Pawrbo based on a short story by Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, are just a pair of fresh stones in the pathway of Bengali cinema’s obsession with detective and mystery films over the past few years. But the twin release of these two films featuring the two most cherished Bengali detectives on the same day might just be considered as the zenith of the aforementioned obsession. The demand-supply curve has apparently reached a saturation. But it is also interesting to note that like a number of these detective or mystery films in the recent years, even these two films followed the classic and literary whodunit format of narration, which calls to attention certain aspects of this traditional structure borrowed from literature and quite counter-productive in terms of a cinematic experience that had triggered Ray’s misgivings in the first place.
To follow Ray’s cue on the subject, the whodunit narrative structure reaches its climax with the revelation of the criminal’s identity and the resolution is typically marked by an elaborate denouement or a parlour scene where the detective explains his method, following the logic of observation and conclusion or cause and effect, which eventually led him to unveil the mystery. Depending on the skill and craftsmanship of the author, it becomes an integral part of the literary form in detective fiction. But in cinema which is audio-visual in nature and more significantly the notion of movement is considered to be among the key specificities of the medium, this final act in the narrative becomes difficult to negotiate with. The sense of stasis which suddenly descends upon the narrative interferes with the overall pacing and rhythm of the film, resulting largely from an uneven distribution of time.
Interestingly, just like any other medium or art form, cinema too has its own strengths and limitations. It becomes somewhat pertinent in case of on screen adaptations of detective plots, where information plays a vital role. Unlike the written words, a cinematic shot tends to carry additional information in its image and sound. This tendency can affect the narrative precision and often lead to a giveaway or a sense of predictability. And then there is the prevalent practice of using flashbacks in this kind of films. Detective narratives derive a majority of their strength from the revelations which are arrived by logical and meticulous reconstruction of past events and in cinema, there is an inexorable chance that in such scenarios, the narration switches over to a flashback of such ‘reconstructed’ events narrated by the detective. Now a flashback, especially in the context of such character centric narration, follows a cue from a character and thus the resultant scene is always a point of view or a first-person narration. However, a detective’s speculation of the past cannot be framed within a flashback device precisely because the detective was not physically present during the events and hence the very idea of point-of-view becomes contradictory.
In the light of the above, both Double Feluda and Byomkesh Pawrbo fail in their own respective ways, albeit a few common threads running. The Sandip Ray film, marking the 50th Anniversary of Feluda, is a lacklustre cinematic experience as it almost stubbornly refuses to bring in anything new to the table in terms of both form and content, under the excuse of simplicity. The result is a uniform narration of events under flat lights, largely in mid shots and unfolding in living rooms, reminiscent of Television during the early days of Doordarshan. Mediocrity reaches its peak in every department as the idea of a faithful adaptation finds its extreme in the Feluda double bill. The icing on the cake would be the logical inconsistency of casting a renowned actor like Saswata Chatterjee in the first story where he plays the estranged grandchild turned theatre actor. His face is spread across newspaper cuttings and posters everywhere but nobody recognizes him when he turns up with a moustache posing as a collector of musical instruments. Not only that, when the final revelation is done and identities disclosed, that particular thread is conveniently forgotten since no one raises any question about his sudden appearance and intentions. With the film’s end credits Sandip Ray attempts to canonize himself within the tradition of Feluda and Satyajit Ray and not just biologically but within the Feluda cannon in literature and cinema! The nostalgia trip consisting of interview clips of actors, begins with Senior Ray’s Sonar Kella (1974) and continues right up to Ray Jr.’s Badshahi Angti (2014).
In terms of adaptations, Arindam Sil’s Byomkesh Pawrbo stands on the other extreme where the writer-director has taken sufficient liberties with the source material turning a short story into a two hour long film, not by exploring any inherent tendency in detail, but by merely adding extra scenarios and deferring the climax. Unlike the Feluda film, this one should be credited with a successful first half where the narrative flow has been more or less steady and the film succeeded in holding the technical ground without attempting anything path breaking. With the second half, the source material began drying up and the narration began to dwindle, which by now is quite a familiar story. But this Arindam Sil film is certainly engaging in its content, even in an offensive manner, as opposed to the Sandip Ray sleeping draught. Contrary to the idea of a private detective, Byokesh Bakshi in the film emerges as a full-blown agent of state involved in a searching operation for illegal arms and thus restoring the status quo of the newly formed nation state especially after the Tebhaga Movement. Although Byomkesh always had clear right wing leanings even in the stories, but this film has turned him into an almost James Bond like figure, a relic of a bygone era burdened with a reactionary value system. Unlike the text, the villain in the film is a sympathizer of an unnamed resistance movement against the state’s oppression. Both in the wake of the Tebhaga Movement, which was a campaign initiated by the Kisan Sabha (peasants front of Communist Party of India) in 1946–47 against Jotedars, the position of the villain comes across as pro-people as opposed to the detective, whose political position is in tandem with the state machinery, a nationalist figure delivering Independence Day speeches under the tri-colour.
Coming back to the subject of Bengali Cinema’s obsession with detective films in recent times, it leads to certain interesting speculations. An obvious argument would be the existing popularity of detective stories in the Bengali cultural domain providing a corpus of source material for films. But if one considers the very idea of a detective in the Bengali context, it leads to more interesting observations. Detective in the Bengali literary tradition has largely been found in its classical ‘Victorian’ avatar, an embodiment of the post-renaissance modernity and a consciousness thriving on asking the logical questions and pursuing its rational answers. In other words, sleuths like Feluda or Byomkesh Bakshi and their other counterparts in literature and cinema provides the model for a modern rational man. During the golden age/studio era of Bengali cinema this was quite a familiar notion even in the mainstream melodrama narratives, in the star persona of actors like Uttam Kuar, Soumitra Chatterjee, etc. Thus, the imagination of a rational individual with a modern consciousness didn’t call for a certain profession. In the present context where mainstream narratives are inevitably dominated by the family instead of the individual and there is a strong feudal and regressive pull against a modern consciousness, detectives function like a nostalgic reminder of an era, both social and cinematic, when Bengal was considered as a cradle of modern and progressive thinking.
Arup Ratan Samajdar