The Many Faces of Byomkesh Bakshi
Indian cinema and television has by now presented almost a dozen Byomkesh Bakshis. Filmmakers from Basu Chatterjee to Satyajit Ray, Manju Dey to Swapan Ghosal, Rituparno Ghosh to Anjan Dutt have made celluloid and television versions of some Byomkesh story or another. The latest in this bunch who find the charisma of Byomkesh irresistible are Bengali filmmaker Saibal Mitra and Bollywood filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee. National award winning critic and film scholar Shoma A Chatterjee travels through the various celluloid and small screen versions of Bengal’s most loved detective, exploring their highlights and pitfalls.
Byomkesh Bakshi was ‘born’ in 1932. He was around 24 at the time. He remains as young, as sharp and as shrewd as he was then 83 years later. That makes him around 107 years old. But his charm does not fade. In Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, set in 1943 during the fag end of World War II, we find in Sushant Singh Rajput a fast-paced, action-oriented and charming Byomkesh different from the sedate, reticent, caustic-tongued, intellectual and acutely observant Byomkesh we were first introduced to by Basu Chatterji in his television series Byomkesh Bakshi in Hindi on Doordarshan in 1993 and again in 1997.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is a stylised, lavishly mounted, fast-paced period piece constructed like a collage of different Byomkesh Bakshi stories telescoping into one another returning to the one that created the legend – Satyanweshi. This is more an effective recreation of the ‘period’ than a reconstruction of Byomkesh Bakshi. Satyawati is as shocking as only Dibakar can make her while Anguri adds the sizzle. For those who have not read Byomkesh Bakshi, the film is packaged ‘entertainment’. For those who know Byomkesh, the film does not work after a point of time. It is more a Dibakar Banerjee film than a film on the famous detective. The film is larger than the character and this blurs the uniqueness of Byomkesh, a character who reappears in one story after another, never ageing, never fading or jading, ready to take on cases more out of passion than for money. Right now, a serial, Byomkesh Bakshi is being telecast on weekends on a Bengali satellite channel featuring Gaurav Chakraborty as Byomkesh. He presents a very young, handsome and fresh Byomkesh but the actor who plays Ajit fails him completely though Satyavati is charming. It is picking up TRPs every week.
Byomkesh Bakshi is a legend. He is a fictional private detective created by Saradindu Bandopadhyay. Byomkesh solves crimes with his mind-reading skills combined with sharp intelligence and skills of observation. The first Byomkesh Bakshi work, Pather Kanta appeared in 1932 but Byomkesh was first introduced to Ajit in Satyanweshi, a friendship that remained till the last novel. Though Bandopadhyay stopped writing Byomkesh stories after writing ten by 1936, the popularity of Byomkesh forced him to write 22 more detective stories after a gap of 15 years. Byomkesh hated the word ‘detective’ attached to his name and created his own title ‘Satyanweshi’ to explain his main function – a seeker of truth. Byomkesh Bakshi is probably the best detective in Bengali literature till date.
His popularity spans three generations of Bengalis across the world and two generations of Doordarshan viewers in India. Filmmakers from Basu Chatterji to Satyajit Ray, Manju Dey to Swapan Ghosal, Rituparno Ghosh to Anjan Dutt have made celluloid and television versions of some Byomkesh story or another. The latest in this bunch who find the charisma of Byomkesh irresistible are Bengali filmmaker Saibal Mitra and Bollywood filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee.
Indian cinema and television has by now presented almost a dozen Byomkesh Bakshis. Which one have we liked the most and which we did not? Thanks to Basu Chatterji, the non-Bengalis who saw Chatterjee’s series, which had numerous repeat telecasts on DD till recently, know Byomkesh Bakshi quite well. So, it is surprising that Bollywood took so long to wake up to the brilliant plotlines and timeless value of this universal detective rooted so completely and so seamlessly in the Bengali ethos, culture and lifestyle. Whether he travels to Pune or to Patna, he prides in his Bengali identity and this sets him apart.
The Unconvincing Byomkesh
The first Byomkesh Bakshi to grace the Bengali screen was Uttam Kumar picked by Satyajit Ray to play the detective in Chiriakhana (1967). Byomkesh Bakshi’s appeal as the self-styled inquisitor, a detective not by profession but by passion, has found him a dedicated following among generations of readers. Chiriakhana, with a group of excellent veteran performers was a huge success with Uttam Kumar as Byomkesh bagging his first National Award and Ray received the National Award for best direction. But Chiriakhana will be remembered as Ray’s bad film. Uttam Kumar made a very unconvincing Byomkesh Bakshi. His star image came in the way of making him believable as Byomkesh. From his ‘distanced’ performance, it seemed that he lost interest in the role and the film halfway through. Uttam Kumar was as brilliant an actor as he was popular as a star. But he looks absurd disguised as the Japanese horticulturist Okakura.
Byomkesh is tailored and styled to fit into the star image of Uttam Kumar who comes across as a dashing, street-smart private detective, a bachelor while Ajit, unlike in the story, is married. Byomkesh’s bachelor pad is stuffed with scientific instruments, a skeleton and even a baby python, miles away from the married Byomkesh Bakshi living a normal family life with wife Satyavati, friend Ajit and little Khoka who is kept away from the stories. This ‘mainstreaming’ makes it easy for readers and audience to identify with him than with Uttam Kumar, the super star. Ray turned Byomkesh into a footloose and fancy-free man who is more Uttam Kumar than Byomkesh. But he ends up being neither because Uttam Kumar can hardly be accepted without at least a hint of romance written into the script. Uttam Kumar as Byomkesh is perhaps the biggest piece of miscasting by Ray in his entire career.
A Failed Experiment
Rituparno Ghosh’s Satyanweshi (2013), an adaptation not of Satyanweshi but of another novel Chorabali (Quicksand) also failed for different reasons. The original story is a nail-biting suspense happening away from Calcutta in a small ‘kingdom’ where Byomkesh and Ajit are invited to solve the mystery of a missing accountant. Bollywood filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh is cast as Byomkesh Bakshi with Anindyo Chatterjee playing Ajit. Perhaps Ghosh’s choice of Sujoy was a deliberate act of moulding Byomkesh against the grain and making him a bit effeminate. The experiment failed. One can play around with plots and storylines, with sub-plots and cameos but playing around with the central character who is a legend in the public mind is just not done. Sujoy looks too young as Byomkesh, clean-shaven, clad in Byomkesh’s original dhuti-punjabi with a shawl thrown in. He invests the character with plucky arrogance but minus the dignity Byomkesh is known for. Anindyo’s Ajit complements him very well and is more visible than Ajit in most other films.
The script prioritizes the relationship element over the thriller element, mostly a Rituparno creation not in the original text. This makes it a sad sub-text of the narrative. Rituparno said that he had taken only the core of the original and then wrote a different story. This transforms Byomkesh Bakshi from a detective to a family counsellor to friend Himangshu in his disturbed, barren married life. Satyanweshi could have wallowed in atmosphere, wrapped it around the viewers to enmesh and suspend them within a thick mood of intrigue and mystery. It does not.
The Handsome 6’2” Byomkesh Bakshi Comes To Life
Anjan Dutt made three full-length feature films adapted from Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries. The first, Byomkesh Bakshi, was adapted from Adim Ripu rooted in the tragic story of a young man born of an illicit relationship desperate to be acknowledged by his biological father. The next, Abar Byomkesh was adapted from Chitracbor and the third, released early this year was Byomkesh Phire Elo adapted from Beni Sanhar. Abir Chatterjee plays Byomkesh in all three. Chatterjee is one of the best Byomkesh Bakshis we have seen on screen except Rajit Kapoor’s portrayal that practically identifies him with Saradindu’s Byomkesh. Dressed in spotless white kurta-pyjamas or dhoti-kurta, Abir has been given a pair of black-framed spectacles which adds to the dignity of his character. His performance brings a handsome, 6’2” Byomkesh Bakshi to life. He tries not to get emotionally involved with the characters he is investigating. But he sometimes becomes judgemental and sometimes sad. The support he gets from Saswata Chatterjee as Ajit is almost perfect in the first two films but not in the last which brings in the skeleton and the small lab into Byomkesh’s flat from Ray’s Chiriakhana.
Ajit is almost always marginalised by Bengali filmmakers. His character is like an afterthought and lacks the element of support and completion he gives Byomkesh in the original stories. Basu Chatterji gave us the best Ajit in the form of K.K. Raina posited beside Rajit Kapoor in the best Byomkesh Bakshi adaptations for television and screen. Chatterjee made around 34 episodes with some stories running into two episodes. They were quintessentially Saradindu with the Basu Chatterji touch of simple story-telling without frills, fiercely loyal to the original in terms of story, characterisation, time, settings and denouements. Both Rajit Kapoor and K. K. Raina along with Sukanya Kulkarni as Satyawati are unforgettable. Besides, this having been the debut of Byomkesh into the audiovisual arena, it has become a frame of reference and a point of comparison with all the Byomkeshes that followed.
Sajarur Kanta was first produced and directed in 1974 with Shyamal Ghoshal as Byomkesh. Forty one years later, Saibal Mitra has made the same story with a running time of 178 minutes with the most shocking interpretations and interpolations one can imagine. Dhritimaan is a 60+ Byomkesh, the mathematics probably done by Mitra himself. Pradip Mukerjee as Ajit is also a dowager reduced to a junior artiste. Mitra makes the heroine Deepa a theatre actress, unthinkable in the tradition-bound family she belonged to. The serial killer who uses a porcupine’s quill to commit the murders with preplanned precision turns out to be committing the murders while he is sleep-walking! The saddest thing is that Byomkesh is forced to age whether he likes to or not.
And the prize goes to…
Banomali Daser Hatya (The Murder of Banomali Das; 1892), the first in the Darogar Daptar (inspector’s office) series is considered the first Bengali detective story, authored by former policeman Priyanath Mukhopadhyay (1855-1947). Academician Pinaki Roy in The Manichean Investigators argues that a lot of early pre-Independence Bengali detective fiction were daroga (police) tales favouring the colonizers, probably influenced by European detective fiction.
But till this day, it is Byomkesh Bakshi who remains the uncrowned king of the detective thriller in Bengal. The prize indisputably belongs to Basu Chatterji, Rajit Kapoor and their team.
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