TALKING FILMS

Meet Mitter, the Feluda for our times

The anthology ‘Feluda@50’ is the perfect opportunity to set off the Kolkata sleuth on a new set of adventures.

A couple of weeks ago, I chanced upon a charming and erudite book in a Delhi bookstore: Feluda@50. Curated and edited by sports historian and writer Boria Majumdar, the volume has essays by Feluda fans from different walks of life, people who loved Feluda as teenagers and who now cut through the nostalgia with their sharp Feluda-recommended “magajastro” (the brain as a weapon) to offer fascinating insights (Felu Mittir: Between Bhadralok and Chhotolok, writes novelist and journalist Indrajit Hazra; Modus Operandi: Two or Three Things I Know About Feluda by senior editor Sovan Tarafder; I Want to Be Topshe: Feluda and the Female Reader by academic Rochona Majumdar; Life Lessons from Feluda by human resources guru Abhijit Bhaduri; and Do I Love Him or Hate Him? Dealing with Prodosh C. Mitter and His Future’ by actor-RJ-anchor-singer-television host Mir).

There is a substantial interview with Sandip Ray, the one who is truly responsible for the hugely successful franchise that Feluda is in Bengal right now (Satyajit Ray refused to make a new Feluda film after Santosh Dutta, the original Lalmohan Ganguly, passed away), and it is very interesting to note that in the 1990s, Sandip Ray had great trouble finding backers to even release Bakshya Rahashya, which he had already made, as a tele-serial! There are interviews with the three Bengali actors who have played Feluda on the silver screen, Soumitra Chatterjee, Sabyasachi Chakrabarty and Abir Chatterjee. (Here’s some trivia: Shashi Kapoor had played Feluda in a Hindi adaptation of Jato Kando Kathmandu-te made by Sandip Ray for Doordarshan as Kissa Kathmandu Ka). And finally, the book has rare photographs – especially of sketches – that bear further testament to the genius that was Satyajit Ray.

Courtesy HarperCollins.
Courtesy HarperCollins.

The publication of Feluda@50 is to coincide with the half-centenary celebrations of the first appearance of Bengal’s favourite YA sleuth Prodosh C Mitter, aka Feluda, in the pages of the historic children’s literary magazine Sandesh, which was founded by Satyajit Ray’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray Chaudhuri in 1913 and revived by Ray in 1961 when he and the poet Subhas Mukhopadhyay became its joint editors. Feludar Goendagiri (which can roughly be translated as Feluda’s Detectiveship), the first adventure, was serialised in Sandesh between December 1965 and February 1966, and was set in Darjeeling, one of the regular holiday destinations of the Ray family, as was Puri.

Feluda@50 transported me to my growing up years in Calcutta. To the long still hours, when I existed only between the pages of a book in an adventure that waxed as the hot after-school afternoon waned, blanking out all sounds but the skittering of sparrows in the balcony and a single white rush of traffic outside. Mid-way into Feluda@50, I jumped out of bed and headed straight to Chittaranjan Park where I figured I could buy the complete works of Feluda from the Ananda Bookstore. I was lucky. I got the last of the massive two-volume sets.

Since then, two weeks have gone by and I have relapsed into Feluda-time – which is, in a manner of speaking, divided into three stages: pre-adventure banter, mid-adventure Bharat-darshan (occasional forays abroad), and finally, the climax. And Feluda-space, Rajani Sen Road where Feluda and Topshe live, into which streams different worlds of the city, beginning, most prominently, with Garpar, where Lalmohan Ganguly is from. This is a Calcutta that is intimately familiar to its natives, and yet, it is stitched up neatly so it contains in its belly the trapped monsters of the city. The frame is peaceful – though at night it rocks violently on the wall. This Calcutta is the best version of itself.

I let work pile up and calls go unanswered. Feluda@50 – with its helpful index and its backstage natter – works as the perfect companion volume to this madness of dipping into the original novelettes and stories. And then, finally, I come to the last chapter where Majumdar writes:

“As Feluda turns 50, and as we celebrate the man and his exploits, the question is: what next? How long can he continue not using a smartphone, not having a laptop? How long can he solve mysteries without using Whatsapp, Facebook or Twitter? Can a child who is born twenty year later identify with someone who is a bit of a relic? What will they make of a character who visits Sidhu Jyatha rather than do a Google search? Yes, that is part of the charm, but for how long?”

‘Brand Feluda’: the way forward

I realise now what it is that I have been searching for in my manic re-readings –an unarticulated desire to isolate strands that might build a Sherlock-style reinvented edifice of the Feluda brand. Make no mistake, I love the Feluda adaptations that Sandip Ray executes. Watching those films in the cinema hall is exactly what the doctor ordered – it’s therapy, it’s tonic, it’s my early youth bottled in a magic teapot and served with a patty from Flury’s and iced pink cakes from Nahoum’s. But just as the joy of reading the original Arthur Conan Doyle books with their original illustrations can happily co-exist with the joys of watching Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes and more recently, Benedict Cumberbatch’s histrionics as Sherlock, there is no reason why Prodosh C Mitter cannot exist exactly as he is in the pages of Ray Sr’s text and Ray Jr’s films – and also, as a different entity altogether?

So here’re some ideas that came to me as I was playing around with the idea of a Sherlock-style Feluda re-working. Of course, my dad would disapprove. Who am I kidding? Many people’s dads would disapprove. But nonetheless, as a purely academic project, here goes.

The setting

Naturally, it’s Calcutta. But in keeping with the sensibilities of contemporary young adults, it is not a sanitised space, a nostalgic portrait on the wall, a series of haunting frames for the poet or the artist. (Neither is it the dystopian landscape favoured by the Maze Runner variety of YA fiction-film continuum today.) It is Calcutta of the here and now – there are the towering steel-and-glass structures of New Town and Sector Five, Salt Lake; there are the serpentine lanes of the north and the south where rickshaw-wallahs sleep in the afternoon with gamchhas covering their faces, and jungles of electric cables glisten with rain drops in monsoon; there are the malls; there is Gariahat, New Market, College Street, Bowbazaar – all doing brisk business; there are the poster-marked campuses with the sounds of peaceful classes and violent demonstrations; there is Durga Puja; there is snarling traffic; there are para clubs; there are fancy restaurants. And there is, of course, like in all gargantuan cities stacked with people, a certain plenitude of…

…Crime

From chit funds to terror, the arc is wide and the possibilities are endless. While Ray has gone on record to say that in view of his primary readership, he had to keep the Feluda novels free of certain kinds of sexual crimes or particularly violent episodes, the contemporary reworking can reap the benefits of catering to a generation of young adults who know much more. While Satyajit Ray often had to situate the crime around antiques and heirlooms that go missing, as well as artifacts of national or historical importance, the larger theme, beyond human greed, was invariably the context of smuggling. In Mitter, however, the crimes will correspond to a contemporary narrative arc: cyber crimes leaving trails in distant internet underworlds, global terror, financial crimes conducted through nefarious hawala rackets, poaching and other illegal animal trades, biological warfare, in addition to the smuggling of antiquities and identity fraud. But these are nothing if not grist for the mill for our exceptionally talented, morally upright, brave, cool and I-do-an-hour-of-Yoga-every-day-at-the-crack-of-dawn…

…Hero

Prodosh C Mitter or Felu studied statistics – and Mandarin – for five years at the Indian Statistical Institute. Afterwards, he had no desire to either study further or earn a living – he was planning to spend a year travelling in China and improving his language skills. However, he was 23 when his aunt’s friend offered him a curious position at a bank, and somehow, the job stuck. Every time he wanted to quit, the bank would hysterically start throwing numbers at him – new perks, new salary figures. And he had expensive hobbies (though he considered them strictly part of a self-designed training module that only his cousin Topshe knew about): he learnt Krav Maga in Karmiel, Weiqi in Wuhan, Kalripayattu in Kozhikode, cryptography in Cardiff, and hacking in Hyderabad.

Oh, what was the job he did so well? He looked at loan applications that had been submitted to the bank, of over a 100 crores, and decided from a thorough study of the papers submitted – as well as other self-designated sources (nobody knows what these sources were, but he worked simultaneously on five laptops and his office was open, day and night, to strange people who came and went, including three sadhus belonging to different akharas, four urchins and five professional toughies who are popularly called mastaans in Bengal, six internationally ranked chess players and seven NGO activists) – whether the bank should confer such a loan to such an individual and company, outline the terms of reference, and predict the recovery timelines. In six years, he was wrong only twice. He has a love-hate relationship with…

…The internet

As a pure intellectual, he hates dependence on technology. And yet, such is the nature of his work that he needs to be on Twitter to follow political bickerings, on Facebook to follow human idiocy, on Instagram to fuel his own database hosted by a top-secret server in the North Pole, on several hundred forums to keep a track of criminal activities and on Whatsapp to deal with his scattered family. However, all of these except the last are conducted under multiple aliases. And when it comes to stepping out of the house, Mitter carries only a 1,200-rupee Nokia phone with a basic camera, which is meant only for phone calls. He does not believe in GPS and Google Maps. He does believe in the NSA. But where he is really lucky in matters of the internet, is that his …

…Sidekick – and amanuensis

Topshe– his aunt’s daughter Tapasya – is a genius with gadgets. A seemingly well-behaved teenager who has teachers and parents of friends going gaga at the unique combination of her perfect manners and decent grades, Topshe is an Internet Jedi and a gaming superstar. Except, nobody in schools knows. The only person in the world she deems worthy of respect, in addition to Edward Snowden and Masaya Matsuura, is her cousin Feluda. It was she who came up with the moniker Mitter. She documents his cases on her Twitter feed. Once Feluda quits his boring bank job and becomes a professional ‘Investigation Consultant’, she manages his website and top-secret server. Her mission in life is to educate in technology the rather Luddite-seeming…

…Jatayu

When they are on their way to Jaisalmer to solve a crime involving past life regression and nuclear deterrence, Feluda and Topshe run into an author on his way to the Jaisalmer Literature Festival: Lalmohan Ganguly. His pseudonym is Jatayu and he is the highly affable highly popular writer of historical murder mysteries (100,000 copies or more sold in the sub-continent). Bringing in a gentle comedy to the proceedings, this Calcuttan from Garpar is the perfect foil to Feluda and Topshe. And it is to avenge Jatayu’s humiliation that Feluda comes head to head with the…

…Arch nemesis

Maganlal Meghraj. International Fixer. New York, London, Benaras.

In Joy Baba Felunath, Meghraj represented the traditional crooked businessman with a gaddi in his parlour, a breed of people who, like smugglers, held the imagination of the nation for several decades as the bad guys of choice. Meghraj 2.0 is exactly like a next generation millennial crook – foreign degree, international mergers and acquisitions, choppers and Ukrainian mistress. But beneath all that is plain old evil greed. He has his fingers deep in every manner of iniquity that exists in the shadowy wake of globalisation, from corruption in the health-care sector to land grab and real estate bubbles.He is the perfect arch nemesis and it is Felu Mitter’s job to outwit him and his global organisation, with his magajastro and his…

…Weapon of choice

A Sig Sauer P229 has replaced the famous Colt .32.

(Devapriya Roy is the author of The Vague Woman’s Handbook, The Weight Loss Club and along with Saurav Jha, of The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat.)

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