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An Open Letter to Byomkesh Bakshi

February 6, 2016 | By

There have been a flurry of films on the popular Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi. Are these adaptations losing the essence of the sleuth or they are adding to the rich oeuvre? Noted film critic Shoma A Chatterji, an admirer of the detective stories by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay writes an open letter to the ace sleuth for a proper resurrection of him in the cinematic medium.

Uttam Kumar in Satyajit Ray's Chiriakhana

Uttam Kumar in Satyajit Ray’s Chiriakhana

Respected Byomkesh Bakshi,
I have been a great fan of yours since the time I began reading about your detection skills when I was just into my teens, initiated by my late mother into rich Bengali literature to strip me off my massive ‘attitude’ born of an elite English schooling. I have never been able to shed the crush on you, till I saw you being impersonated by the great Uttam Kumar in the first Byomkesh Bakshi film I saw – Satyajit Ray’s Chiriakhana. I was sorely disappointed. What I witnessed on screen was Uttam Kumar who either consciously or because of his star charisma remained Uttam Kumar and did not come even remotely close to the persona I had almost committed to memory through your creator Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s series. To my mind, against the backdrop of Ray’s entire oeuvre, Chiriakhana is like an ugly scar on a beautiful face.

I feel sorrier for myself than for you because while exercising the filmmaker’s right to choose any literary source for his film and then interpret it in his own way through the language of cinema, has often played havoc with a classic literary character like yours. If the director concerned plays around a bit too much with his ‘artistic freedom’, it can twist, tweak and distort the character beyond recognition. Byomkesh becomes someone else and does not remain Byomkesh anymore!

Jisshu Sengupta in one of the new Byomkesh avatars

Jisshu Sengupta in one of the new Byomkesh avatars

Over the past few years, Bengali directors, noted for their directorial skills, have been jumping on to the Byomkesh Bakshi bandwagon with a fierce and competitive passion in each one to outdo the other. The list is large and reasonably impressive – Swapan Ghoshal who did one film and a couple of television serials; Anjan Dutt created his own Byomkesh character with Abir Chatterjee playing Byomkesh as close to the real Byomkesh as he possibly could minus a few hiccups here and there. The latest version where Jisshu Sengupta portraying Byomkesh is good but he is a bit too handsome to fit into the more-brains-and-less-looks department that Sarandindu slotted you within. Your physical appearance is more in suggestion than with descriptive detailing in your written fleshing out. In this ruthless competition the real Byomkesh Bakshi is almost forgotten.

Sushant Singh Rajput in Dibakar Banerjee's hindi Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

Sushant Singh Rajput in Dibakar Banerjee’s Hindi Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!

Rituparno Ghosh did one of your most complex adventures Chorabali. He changed the title to – Satyanweshi and instead of celebrating the man who is forever in quest of Truth, reduced Byomkesh to a caricature. Sujoy Ghosh is no Byomkesh Bakshi. Besides, though Rituparno passed away soon after the film was shot and the blame was placed on his excellent technicians who did the post-production, the problem lay with the director and the script in terms of his wrong casting and in terms of his personal interpolations into the text which deconstructed Byomkesh Bakshi and turned him into a sad parody of himself – that is you!

Dibakar Banerjee made a hotch-potch of Byomkesh Bakshi by choosing the very young, exuberant and fresh-faced Sushant Singh Rajput and turning him into an action hero which does not jell with the cerebral take you invest your detection skills with. Banerjee decided to weave in other stories into Byomkesh’s first one that introduces him to Ajit. This took the bite away from the cerebral Byomkesh. Sushant Singh Rajput created his own Byomkesh Bakshi designed and constructed by Banerjee but without remote resemblance to you, the original Byomkesh.

Sajarur Kanta is another of your stories that has the touch of your unique maker who excelled in creating imaginative and very original modus operandi for his mystery stories where adultery often played a dominant role as a sub-plot. I have not seen Manju De’s version of Sajarur Kanta but the more recent one by Saibal Mitra surely takes a gold medal for creating and shaping his own 60+ Byomkesh Bakshi and the similarly aged Ajit that takes away the subtle charm and low-key sex appeal you exude in every story.

Har Har Byomkesh, the director Arindam Sil insists, shows Byomkesh Bakshi as a metaphor. Very good argument but had you been able to watch the film, I do not think you would have liked the excessive liberties he has taken to peep into your bedroom having sex with your newly wed Satyavati and reciting lines from the ancient poet Jayadeva known for his love poetry. Jayadeva was one of five great poets adorning the court of the last Hindu ruler in Bengal, Maharaja Laksmanasena (1175-1200). I know you are a very private person and have never cared to make a public show of your private life especially with Satyavati who guards her privacy like a hawk and would have hated to see her bedroom being peeped into by Soumik Halder’s magic camera.

Abir Chatterjee in the latest Har Har Byomkesh

Abir Chatterjee in the latest Har Har Byomkesh

Sil chooses to glamorize the entire story by shifting the setting from Patna to Benares and capturing the historical city in all its glory with the royal bajra sailing on the holy river adding its own shimmer to perhaps, the most lavishly mounted Byomkesh Bakshi in Bengali cinema. The focus is on beautiful music, songs, mehfils with song-and-dance performances by regally costumed courtesans under brightly lit chandeliers. The mansion of the zamindar with its beautiful corridors, paintings and artefacts replete with skeletons that begin to topple out of the cupboard with your cerebral skills draw more attention than the mystery of the murder. In other words, Abir as Byomkesh playing the same character in film after film is projected more sexy than cerebral. One would perhaps have found nothing wrong with this shift if the character was anyone other than Byomkesh Bakshi. Even a deadly and little known poison like curare is rendered secondary to the sensual Shakuntala and to your frequent dalliances with your pretty wife portrayed very well by Sohini Sarkar.

On the one hand, you might feel flattered with the random and abundant celebration of you and your detecting skills years after your creator put a full-stop to your stories and you disappeared from the landscape of Bengali literature. But on the other, one doubts whether the colourful and varied hues and lights you are shone in would have flattered you. Had it been possible for you to resurrect yourself into a real person by lifting yourself off the pages of the classic Byomkesh Bakshi collection, I can guarantee it would be you writing this letter addressed to all filmmakers who are trying to run a losing race in bringing across their own versions of you, urging them to stop this circus!

Your die-hard fan,
Shoma A. Chatterji

More to read

The Many Faces of Byomkesh Bakshi
Why Feluda Works
The Idea of Apu

 

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Dr. Shoma A Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. Her focus of interest lies in Indian cinema, human rights, media, gender and child rights. She has authored 24 books mainly on Indian cinema and on gender and has been jury at several film festivals in India and abroad. She has won two National Awards - for Best Film Critic in 1991 and for Best Book on cinema in 2002. She has also won four fellowships over the past 10 years.
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