Goyenda: (colloquial Bengali) detective; gumshoe; private investigator; sleuth; one who collects evidence of crimes and usually finds the perpetrator.
Winter is open season for detective movies in Kolkata. The mandatory Feluda or Byomkesh Christmas flick is now synonymous with a nip in the air, snaking queues outside Flury’s at breakfast and that inexplicable feeling of buoyancy that comes with the advent of Christmas. It is time to believe in fairy tales once again, or in their modern counterpart, the detective story – where we are assured that justice will prevail, if only on celluloid.
As the mercury dips, I spy an array of Bengali thrillers lined up for the holidays – Antarleen, a murder mystery set in Kasauli; Double Feluda by Sandip Ray, a twinning of Ray’s shorter Feluda mysteries Samaddarer Chaabi (The Key) and Golokdham Rahasya (The Mystery at Golokdham) and Arindam Sil’s Byomkesh Pawrbo, an adaptation of Amriter Mrityu (The Death of Amrito).
The Bengali detective is box office manna in Kolkata today. Not surprisingly, producers are snapping up rights for some of the most memorable characters.
The ones who made it to celluloid
Feluda by Satyajit Ray Fifty years since the first stories made an appearance in print, the translations have ensured Feluda’s popularity in the rest of India and the world. Released in 1974, Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella brought to life Rajasthan’s medieval architecture, a six feet-tall handsome young detective with a teenage sidekick, hypnotism and reincarnation in one magical package. In Sonar Kella, as well as in Joi Baba Felunath, Ray introduced the audience to the villains early on, making for a snappier climax and a shorter denouement, which typically slows the genre down in its final stages. Many actors have played Feluda, including Shashi Kapoor in a Doordarshan series, but Soumitra Chatterjee retains an iron grip on everyone’s imagination till this day.
Feluda’s quirks include writing in the Greek alphabet in his notebook and a working knowledge of most trivia that could take surprising twists and turns – from Hindustani classical music to Renaissance art to elliptical curves. His monastic existence in the stories, which do not feature women in pivotal roles, demand a foil in the enchantment of trivia. Ray’s Feluda films are the richer for the way in which he brought in little nuggets of information into the script, seemingly with a careless sleight of hand. Surprisingly, this light touch has been lacking so far in the later adaptations, which choose to focus on telling the story straight – but the plot of Samaddarer Chaabi is nothing but a riff on trivia, and I confess I am looking forward to the film.
Byomkesh Bakshi by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay In spite of making his film debut under Ray’s direction way back in 1967, Byomkesh owes his blockbuster status and universal acceptance in a large part to Basu Chatterjee’s TV adaptation with Rajit Kapur in the lead. Kapur seemed to own the role of Byomkesh Bakshi more than any other actor; there was something in the natural sharpness of his face matched with the familiar middle class appeal of his persona that summed up the professional detective solving cases for a living.
Byomkesh has been played by many actors, notably Uttam Kumar, but none of them have the cult status that Rajit Kapur commands. The Bengali adaptations have got the period details right but have yet to find the perfect Byomkesh, in my opinion.
Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! spiffed up the character and brought a fresh narrative style to the film, Byomkesh on acid, if you will. Many people were uncomfortable with the treatment. I enjoyed it thoroughly and am eagerly waiting for a sequel.
Kakababu and Shontu by Sunil Gangopadhyay Srijit Mukherji’s note perfect casting of Prosenjit Chatterjee as Kakababu is as close to a coup as we will ever get in Bengal. Historian; bachelor; crippled in an accident; ex-director of the Archaeological Survey of India and frequently sought after by Indian intelligence – Kakababu’s real name is Raja Ray Chowdhury. Shontu is his nephew (hence the Kakababu) and the narrator. Refreshingly, the Kakababu series have girls as major characters, both as Shontu’s friends and collaborators.
The first Kakababu adventure to be filmed was Shobuj Dwiper Raja (The King of the Emerald Isle) by Tapan Sinha. There have been a few TV adaptations, but Srijit Mukherji’s recent Kakababu film, Mishawr Rohosyo (The Egyptian Mystery), starring Prosenjit Chatterjee in the lead, is a far superior attempt to bring the crippled adventurer to life. Like Rajit Kapur, Prosenjit owns the role, which is half the battle won in this genre. There are 39 Kakababu adventures in all, so I wish the Srijit Mukherji-Prosenjit Chatterjee duo a long innings.
Kiriti Roy by Nihar Ranjan Gupta Nihar Ranjan Gupta had quite a few film adaptations under his belt – Meri Surat Teri Aankhen, Mamta, Do Anjaane and Uttar Phalguni. Therefore, it comes as a bit of a surprise that his most popular character, the dapper detective Kiriti Roy, debuted only in 2016 on Bengali screens in an adaptation of his book, Kalo Bhromor (The Black Wasp). A second Kiriti film has just been released, based on the story Setarer Sur (The Sitar’s Melody).
Kiriti’s character was etched on Holmesian lines – he smoked a pipe, carried a magnifying glass, preferred a kimono and tatami slippers over the standard pyjama kurta at home – but the plots were often rather simple. His stories remind me of the Fu Manchu series instead – fantastical, enjoyable, fast pulp. I did feel the first film needed more noir and pace in its style to work. Anglophile Kiriti Ray needs to come into his own as a unique character on celluloid and not as a clone of his more popular counterparts on film to succeed.
Shabor Dasgupta by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay Police officer, not a private eye. Honest. Loner. Shabor brings a touch of realism to the genre and is definitely not a detective series for children. The films feature Saswata Chatterjee in the lead. The stories are murkier, the lines between right and wrong can be blurred, but Shabor Dasgupta is a refreshing change. He is a contemporary detective devoid of nostalgia.
Arjun by Samaresh Majumdar A single Arjun film (Kalimpong E Sitaharan) made its unremarkable debut in 2013, but Arjun and his mentor Inspector Amol Shome are distinctly different from many fictional detectives and ripe for a re-imagination. Arjun is a young adult who is the adventurer-detective hero and not a sidekick of the older detective, for one thing. Secondly, he is a small town boy from North Bengal. As the series evolves, Arjun matures, unlike adult detectives who are already evolved. However, as a relatively less known character, especially when compared to Byomkesh and Feluda, Arjun would fare better on television, until he is familiar enough to audiences to take the leap onto the big screen.
Gogol by Samaresh Basu Geeky child detective Gogol dreams of martial arts but uses his brains to solve crimes. Gogol is always to be found with a magnifying glass and compass (which I guess are redundant in the world of smart phones). The stories are charming. Two film adaptations have been made starring young actor Ahijit Ghosh.
Colonel Niladri Sanyal by Syed Mustafa Siraj The Raja Sen-directed Colonel, starring Chiranjeet Chatterjee in the eponymous role, released in 2013. His lazy sidekick, Jayanta, was played by actor Shaheb Chatterjee. The ex-colonel is bearded, jovial, an ornithologist, butterfly collector and sleuth and follows a large fan following among the older generation. But the Colonel might need to be reintroduced to younger audiences via television first – he has yet to reach the wide recognition that Feluda and Byomkesh enjoy. These two series have been filmed since 1974 and 1967 respectively, and have decades of viewing behind their mass appeal.
Prasanna Kumar Basu by Narayan Sanyal Around the time Ray introduced Feluda, there was also Narayan Sanyal’s lawyer detective – PK Basu, an Indian Perry Mason, who debuted on film. The first PK Basu novel, Nagchampa, was published in 1968 and made into a film in 1974 called Jodi Jantem (If Only I Knew) starring Uttam Kumar as PK Basu. The stories were “inspired closely” by Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardener, which is probably why adaptations were not considered a possibility.
The stories that need to be filmed
Bengali detective fiction could be a lonely place if you wanted women, except for a few notable exceptions, who have yet to make their way to the screen. Rituparno Ghosh famously had to reinvent Miss Marple as an inquisitive aunt in Shubho Muhurat (if you haven’t seen it, please do – one of Rakhee’s best performances). But for home-grown talent, I would recommend two – Mitin Mashi series and the Lu Quartet.
Mitin Mashi by Suchitra Bhattacharya Mitin Mashi, aka Pragyaparamita Mukhopadhyay, is a personal favourite. A resident of South Calcutta, Mitin is known by her nickname (which Bengali isn’t?) She is a smart, contemporary Bengali woman, a wife, a mother, an aunt (mashi) to her niece Tupur and also a consulting detective. The series has a view of Calcutta as a multicultural, constantly evolving city and Mitin Mashi navigates her adventures and mysteries in this milieu with great aplomb. There was some talk of a film adaptation with Rituparna Sengupta, but nothing has been announced so far. A TV series would be a fun watch too.
The Lu Quartet by Nalini Das Way back in the ’80s when I was a scrawny schoolgirl, I used to devour Nalini Das’s adventures featuring Kalu, Malu, Bulu and Tulu as middle-school students from the same hostel who would bust gangs and solve mysteries with aplomb. Every time I read a Nancy Drew and felt a pang about there not being enough girls in detective stories, the Lu quartet brought a smile to my face. I cannot recommend the books enough for a screen adaptation, although television would be the best medium, in my opinion. Disney has had its Moana moment; so can our detective films.
Jayanta Manik by Hemendra Kumar Roy Hemendra Kumar Roy’s detective Jayanta and his friend Manik are supported by the comic police inspector, Sundarbabu. Hemendra Kumar Roy’s oeuvre merits an entire article. Suffice it to say that Jayanta-Manik firmly established the very Indian contemporary detective operating in an Indian milieu for the first time in Bengali fiction. They were modern, nationalistic, scientific in temperament and distinct in their indigenousness. It is a great pity that we have not yet had the pleasure of seeing the trio on screen.
Parashar Barma by Premendra Mitra A detective and a poet, most often compared to Hercule Poirot, Parashar Barma is possibly the most underrated of all the goyendas on my list. His methods are lackadaisical, whimsical even, and cause his friend and chronicler, Krittibas, much agony – until they make sense in the end and reveal Parashar’s genius with a flourish. But the beauty of the series is in its writing. The books are a joy for any reader of the language. Perhaps it is just as well that Parashar is still waiting in the wings. A great detective film needs a nuanced treatment of the character and in Barma’s case, also a delicate touch with language. Parashar Barma needs a director who is also a poet.
This was my list for those who would like to dip a toe into the genre. But it comes with a statutory warning: many of the adaptations aren’t great films as such, usually tripping in the second half when they fail to sustain the pace of the plot. Quite a few have shoddy production values. A few shine. But then, if you are obsessive about the genre, as I am, you know you will watch them all, pulp, noir, classic crime, slick or shoddy. You will appreciate a few, long after the film has ended, and some will make you weep with frustration.
But you will watch them all.
Jash Sen writes and thinks about detective fiction whenever she has a moment. She is the author of the young adult fantasy adventures The Wordkeepers and its sequel, Skyserpents. She swears she is working on the third book, Soul Army.