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Why Feluda Works

July 5, 2012 | By

When we talk of re-birth of Feluda on screen with Sandip Ray’s adaptations of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories we discuss the populist strategy of old wine in a new bottle largely. But this is not simply a question of old wine and new bottle strategy, because in case of Sandip Ray’s films we are not buying the wine in spite of its old and used status but for this very status.

Royal Bengal Rahasya, a film by Sandip Ray on the Feluda Series

Royal Bengal Rahasya, a film by Sandip Ray on the Feluda Series

“Feluda is back” -the large sized cut out created the hype of an upcoming Feluda flick months before the theatrical release of Royal Bengal Rahasya at the lobby of a posh south Kolkata cinema hall.

And the romance began- the posters, talk shows, star interviews took part in making us well-informed about this would-be-released film.

We waited for it like other yearly ceremonies and like many other Decembers this time too we experienced a new Feluda movie with a package of family entertainment in it. Some of us enjoyed every moment of it and some did not like it.

But Feluda did not suffer for this, as he knew from the very beginning this won’t harm his box office. Thanks to Satyajit Ray’s legendary literary creation and Sandip Ray’s film making talent that combine into this kind of yearly celebration for us, the common viewers of Bengali cinema.

But is it the only reason working behind the success of each of these productions? Is it simple love for this fictitious Bengali detective, (Sandip) Ray’s packaging technique or mere coincidences that each of his Feluda flicks became a super hit?

I think the reason lies beyond these filmic texts and more with the idea of filming and viewing a Feluda film. I think this is a question that works beyond any liking/ disliking.

I’m not denying that Feluda cult and his characterization acts as an obvious USP besides each of the plots and its whodunit mystery. But I feel that Feluda as a character and its cultic status perhaps generates its pleasure beyond its filmic appeal.

The word ‘cult’ in popular usage refers to system of ritual practices and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. From ancient literature to modernist cinema, from avant garde art to trendy computer gaming – the term ‘cult’, has multiple overlapping and contradictory meanings in both scholarly and popular usage.

Umberto Eco defines ‘cult’ as something that would provide a private world to its fans so that they can quote characters and episodes from it, can make up quizzes, play games and have pleasures in sharing each others’ knowledge and expertise. Does Feluda really provide that world or corresponds to that kind of eccentric obsessive fan following that a cult text is generally associated with? I doubt this.

Let us look back a bit earlier towards the birth of ‘Feluda cult’ in Bengal’s cultural history. Feluda first appeared in Sandesh in 1965 in Satyajit Ray’s novel Feludar Goyendagiri followed by a series of Feluda stories in next two decades.

Satyajit Ray's Sonar Kella, the first of the two films he made on the Feluda series

Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella, the first of the two films he made on the Feluda series

And later Ray himself extends the fantasy in its filmic avatar with Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath in the 1980s. That was more of corresponding to a popular literary character in a different medium.

But we also need to be aware of the 1980s’ scenario in the Bengali film history. The 1980s is an interesting juncture in the Bengali film history when the film practice in general responded with multiple generic formulations and their popularity. The 1980s offers a gamut of trial and error methods across the Bengali film industry when a diverse range of Bengali films released with their makers and producers coming from different backgrounds, and dissimilar perspectives.

Children’s film became an important film genre with Feluda and some other works mainly because of the use of colour film technology that became the dominant mode of Bengali film making practice in the 1980s.

But along with that these films also provided an easy solution of the crisis of bhadralok literary filmic practice. In this period the popular mode of bhadralok Bengali cinema neither finds a shelter in a Dakhal or a Grihajuddha of the Bengali New Wave filmmakers nor could claim Anjan Chowdhury’s films as its own.

Beyond cinema and cinematic practice this is also a period when the bhadra elite class of Bengal was facing a crisis of their literary selves and the newspapers and journals in this period largely discussed this crisis. Midst of this crisis of Bengali literary self of the bhadralok class, Feluda and some other literary adaptations started responding.

In the 1990s, when the global aspiration led the Bombay cinema towards a brand name Bollywood and its branding strategies, the domain of Bengali cinema increasingly confined itself in a binary of southern film remakes and an alternative ‘arty’ variety of some bhadralok relationship films (in popular parlance “samparker chhobi”).

In this decade the crisis with the literary self continued and it functioned as a nostalgia for a self lost in contemporary reality. This nostalgic desire led to an attempt to reclaim that ‘lost’ glory of bhadralok literary culture and its literary cinema. In media discourses this memorializing gesture and the idea of a ‘glorious past’ became an important factor to construct and highlight the idea of bhadralok self.

In case of bhadralok cinema discourses of the 1990s the narrative that got constructed took the form that ‘our’ (Bengali literary) cinema that was ‘lost’ from film viewing practice for more than a decade started getting reclaimed through the ‘parallel’ circuit’s conscious alignment to a past cinematic practice, through directorial position, film aesthetics and the pleasure generated through film texts.

Some Bengali film makers who started their film making career in the mid-late 1990s experienced an industrial set up where those “good (read literary) old Bengali films” had ceased to exist. In their films they therefore revisited their cinematic upbringing and their experience of growing up in those ‘glorious’ days of Bengali cinema.

So the ‘memory’ of a cinematic upbringing of not only some of the filmmakers, but also that of producers, part of the industry crew, and newspaper journalists contributed to a discourse of this cinematic practice being in its very essence a continuation of the ‘glorious’ past of ‘meaningful’ Bengali films.

This discourse exceeded the personal memories of some individuals related to film making, production, marketing and the press circuit, and worked within and beyond to an ‘illusion’ of a common public memory that belonged to the imagination of the cinema of a particular class and its taste discourse. Feluda as an icon and also as an idea became crucial in that practice.

When we talk of re-birth of Feluda on screen with Sandip Ray’s adaptations of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories we discuss the populist strategy of old wine in a new bottle largely. But this is not simply a question of old wine and new bottle strategy, because in case of Sandip Ray’s films we are not buying the wine in spite of its old and used status but for this very status.

Feluda series

The pleasure of watching the latest Feluda film comes from its nostalgic appeal.

Feluda generates that nostalgic pleasure of the Anandamela generation who has grown up with Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay novels and Tintin comics.

But the pleasure also works beyond this nostalgia mode and acts as an aspiration. The aspirational pleasure of Feluda films functions on an intersecting plane of Bengali literary world, Satyajit Ray and our desire for that literaryness.

The Feluda posters, publicity hypes and even the review columns of popular daily speak of a Bengali adolescence immersed in reading Feluda stories, and novels in pujabarshiki (Durga Puja Special) issues of Sharodiya Desh and Anandamela.

Satyajit Ray with Soumitra Chatteji during the shooting of Joy Baba Felunath at the Kedar Ghat in Benaras (Pic: From Internet)

Satyajit Ray with Soumitra Chatterjee during the shooting of Joy Baba Felunath at the Kedar Ghat in Benaras
(Pic: From Internet)

Perhaps this regeneration of lost childhood pleasure in popular public sphere is less of re-generation and more of re-creation of a reality. What I mean is that here the nostalgia not only works as a desire for an unchanged lost reality of some of us that we want to rediscover but also as a text to be constructed for some other viewers. Recent memory studies have demonstrated how memory has taken part in contemporary times in shaping our cultural imagination and individual desires and theorists like Andreas Huyssen relates memory’s contemporary resurgence in the post modern context to a ‘crisis’ in the ideologies of progress and the idea of modernization and the loss of faith in technological advancement.

Memory simply seen as the recording of ‘what happened’ has been further problematized and the general belief regarding memory that it is unchanging and only its value changes in different periods has been questioned in memory studies.

Nicola King’s account shows how memory can work as a ‘text to be deciphered’ and not always an (unchanged) ‘lost reality to be rediscovered’. Hence our the nostalgic drive always is not in built in our past realities but longed in our desires to construct a memory.

Similarly the nostalgic appeal of Feluda films might partly comes from an attempt to regain some of its viewers’ lost childhood days, but largely corresponds to a constructed memory. That desired childhood and adolescence days few of us might have spent but most of us are just motivated to desire.

It’s more like an aspiration of having and losing a literary self of us that we never had actually. It’s nostalgia for a make belief world of past that we did not have but what we would love to reclaim. Perhaps the popularity of Feluda films is a story more about a response to this cultural crisis of a class and less of its own journey.

It is not only a Feluda film that offers this dual model of aspiration and nostalgia. The occasions of many other films’ release offer similar opportunities to bhadralok Bengali self to recreate nostalgia for its literary base and the aspiration for it.

But Feluda is a special case indeed. We just love to be in this make-belief world that we as Bengalis are still spontaneously more inclined towards our literature and carry a literary base in our daily existence, to that extreme that even a nostalgia or past experience we are not part of appeared to be our very own.

With Feluda we even can create a new childhood of us lost in reality TV shows and video game narratives. The Feluda cut out that I referred in the beginning promises that aspirational journey in every Decembers and we know from our experiences that it can never be a false promise.

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Spandan Bhattacharya is a M.Phil final year student in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He Completed his M.A in film Studies from Jadavpur University in 2009. Spandan is at present working on Post Liberalization Bengali Cinema for his M.Phil dissertation.
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