An unusually spry and intrepid boy detective with a nose for adventure: although this sounds a great deal like Tintin, the young journalist in Belgian cartoonist Herge’s stories, it is also an accurate description of Faster Fene, popular Marathi author BR Bhagwat’s most endearing character.
Clad in a striped half-sleeved shirt and shorts, Bhagwat’s lanky Baneesh “Banya” Fene is the inspiration for Aditya Sarpotdar’s Marathi film Faster Fene, scheduled release on October 27. In the movie, an adolescent Banya comes to Pune to attend college, only to get wrapped up in a complicated murder mystery. Produced by Riteish and Genelia Deshmukh’s Mumbai Film Company, with Ameya Wagh playing the titular detective, Faster Fene hopes to bring the essence of the iconic Marathi character created in the 1950s to contemporary Pune.
Sarpotdar, who has earlier directed Narobachi Wadi (2013), a Marathi adaptation of Manoj Mitra’s Bengali play Shajjano Bagan, and Classmates (2015), a remake of the eponymous Malayalam film, said the secret of crafting a successful adaptation is to tear the basic concept of any creation down to its “bare minimum” and build it from there.
“Before trying to find a new story for Faster Fene, we tried to find the psyche of the person who created it,” Sarpotdar said. “When you understand the logic behind something that excites you, there’s a greater chance that you will create something worthwhile.”
Since BR Bhagwat died in 2001, the director’s quest to understand the essence of Faster Fene took him to the author’s son, Ravi. “He was always a great one for adventure and science fiction,” said 74-year-old Ravi Bhagwat about his father. “He was very particular about the accuracy of what he wrote, about getting the science of it right. One could not say that it was merely a flight of imagination. There was a lot of mathematics and predictability in what he wrote.”
The boy from Fursungi
Influenced by Jules Verne and HG Wells, BR Bhagwat hoped to create a boy detective whom Indians could relate to. After he conceptualised Faster Fene, the author crafted the look of the character with artist Ram Wairkar in Mumbai, who illustrated the covers of the Faster Fene books.
BR Bhagwat begins his character’s first adventure Fursungicha Faster Fene (Faster Fene of Fursungi, an area in Pune) by describing the protagonist as a boy who is active and energetic as a storm. Over the course of 19 other books and several short stories, Bhagwat took Banya Fene to various destinations, from the Pratapgad Fort in Satara to Kashmir.
Although the series was a late addition to BR Bhagwat’s repertoire, who had translated almost all of Verne’s books by then, he churned out Faster Fene adventures at an “amazing speed”, his son recalls.
“Faster Fene was a secular, non-religious character,” Ravi Bhagwat said. “My father was also not a religious person, per se.” He has been clear that no adaptation of Faster Fene must contain any religious element, black magic or superstition.
Although Ravi Bhagwat recalled that Faster Fene was included as a minor character a few stories illustrated by cartoonist Anant Pai, a Doordarshan serial titled Faster Fene was the first screen adaptation of the character. Directed by Marathi thespian Sulabha Deshpande and Madhura Jasraj, the 26-episode series aired on DD National on Sundays at 11 pm in the 1980s.
Sumeet Raghavan (best known for playing Sahil Sarabhai in Sarabhai vs Sarabhai) made his screen debut as the titular lead in the television series. He was offered the role of Banya Fene by Sulabha Deshpande and her husband Arvind after he participated in the theatre workshops that they conducted for children.
“I started reading the books after the role came to me,” said Raghavan. “I didn’t prepare anything for the role, but the plus point was that I looked like him. My hair was exactly like his, and I had this lanky frame. I used to look like character that appeared on the covers of those books.”
“Even today, when people speak of Faster Fene, they speak of me, and that makes me feel extremely grateful,” Raghavan said. “It feels like a tribute to Sulabha and Arvind Deshpande,” The cast of the serial included Madhura Deo, and Dileep Prabhawalkar, who also plays BR Bhagwat in Sarpotadar’s film.
Where there’s a will
Unlike the 2017 film Faster Fene, which uses Bhagwat’s character to craft an entirely new story, the serial was a direct adaptation of the author’s work. It’s title track, composed by Madhura Jasraj, reflected Banya’s world view: Iraade nek ho toh sapne saakar hote hain, agar sachhi lagan ho toh raaste aasan hote hain. Good intentions can make dreams come true, true dedication can make the journey easier.
It is this spirit that Sarpotdar hopes his film will embody. “It should inspire audiences and make them feel like they should do something about the world around them,” he said. “It should make them want to get up and voice their opinion: that was the purpose of Fene then and even is now.”
Sarpotdar and Raghavan both believe that the simplicity and rootedness of Faster Fene makes him an iconic character in Marathi literature. “He was a reflection of the fact that if you have the will to go find or uncover something, you could do it,” Sarpotdar said. “Bhagwat told us that a lot of kids used to go into their colonies and double up as detectives to find little things. They could believe that they are also Faster Fene.”
The director was inspired to create a modern version of the boy detective when he saw an English version of one of Bhagwat’s books, Faster Fene at Fort Pratapgad, translated and illustrated by Tejas Modak.
“We thought that it was an evolved version of Fene, and I thought why not make him an evolved character who would fit today’s times,” he said.
With Faster Fene, Sarpotdar also hopes to pay homage to the television series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories set in contemporary London. Instead of the slingshot that Bhagwat’s 10-year old Fene carried, Ameya Wagh’s modern-day and slightly older Banya Fene is armed with a mobile phone, much like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. But he retains the language and attitude that Bhagwat crafted for Banya.
Faster Fene the movie includes BR Bhagwat in the story because the makers wanted audiences to go back and read the author’s work. “We wanted to immortalise him through the film, and find a way for the creator to meet his creation,” Sarpotdar said. “There was a mentor required for the character, and we thought who better than his creator.”
The director believes that the power of Marathi cinema lies in its ability to be relatable to audiences. While creating his version of Banya Fene, he wanted to ensure that he retained the regional flavour of the character, so that Faster Fene wouldn’t appear like a “downgraded Hindi film.”
“It’s a huge plus that the film is in Marathi,” Raghavan said. “The television series did its job and garnered the eyeballs it was meant to, but many people never really understood the concept of Faster Fene since it was in Hindi.”
Although Ravi Bhagwat has not seen the entire movie, he appears to approve of its handling of the character his father created. “Faster Fene stories are very captivating, and it’s difficult to translate them into a visual medium,” he said. “But the way it’s being done, I think it’ll help the books reach a wider audience.”