The May 24 release Durgeshgorer Guptodhon represents the umpteenth effort by a group of Bengalis to seek lost treasure. The hero of Dhrubo Banerjee’s Bengali movie is Subarna Sen (Abir Chatterjee), a history professor at University of Oxford who turns Indiana Jones during summer vacations.
Unlike other Bengali detective-adventure films, treasure hunter Subarna Sen or Sona-da is not a literary creation. He is a composite of Indiana Jones and fictional sleuths Feluda, Kakababu and Arjun. The adventures of Sona-da, first introduced in Guptodhoner Sandhane (2018), share elements with his inspirations. He has two teenage assistants who are spunky and erudite (but never more than Sona-da).
In the first film, Sona-da has to locate three centuries-old Mughal-era treasure before a sinister political leader grabs it. The only clue to the location is in the diary of a man who dies suspiciously. The 2019 sequel promises more murder, more treasure, more secrets, and more moustache-twirling villains.
The globe-trotting Bengali treasure hunt film got an uptick in the 2010s after the box office success of the Chander Pahar franchise (2013-2017), based on the 1937 novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. Also a catalyst was Sayantan Ghoshal’s films, the first of which was Jawker Dhan (2017), based on Hemendra Kumar Roy’s story of the same name and featuring adventurer duo Bimal and Kumar.
Kamaleshwar Mukherjee’s big-budget Chander Pahar (2013) follows thrill-seeker Shankar (Dev) into the dense jungles of South Africa in search of diamond mines. CGI monster Bunyip, an Australian mythical creature imported by Bandhopadhyay into Africa’s wilderness, proves to be the main obstacle.
The fictional city will draw treasure-obsessed Bengalis again this December, with the release of Sandip Ray’s science-fiction film Professor Shonku O El Dorado, adapted from Satyajit Ray’s story of the same name. Dhritiman Chatterjee will be playing the genius scientist Professor Shonku, Satyajit Ray’s second-most popular literary creation after Feluda.
In 2017, the scene shifted back to Bengal with the success of Sayantan Ghoshal’s Jawker Dhan. This film had all the staples of the sub-genre: the hunter as a professor, accompanied by a friend or a relative who doubles up as an assistant; the adventure triggered by the mysterious death or disappearance of a family member; a ruthless antagonist who has his sights set on the booty.
Sayantan Ghoshal’s follow-up, Alinagarer Golokdhadha (2018) made Kolkata the base of the gold rush. (Kolkata was briefly called Alinagar under the rule of 18th-century ruler Siraj ud-Daulah). Clues to the treasure are locked in riddles referencing arcane histories of Kolkata – an idea borrowed from Hemendra Kumar Roy, whose story Ghoshal had previously adapted.
Ghoshal’s successful treasure hunt films came on the heels of similar works in the 2010s. Souvik Mitra’s Curzoner Kalom (2017), set in Kolkata, made Indian viceroy George Curzon’s diamond-encrusted golden pen the target for its amateur detective heroine, her boyfriend-cum-assistant, and a group of villains.
Bulan Bhattacharjee’s Sangabora (2016) took its characters to a remote Indian village to find the source of a stone bearing primeval inscriptions, which is later revealed to be a treasure map. In Srijit Mukherji’s Mishawr Rahasya (2013), the treasure is a MacGuffin that locks the heroes and villains in battle under Egypt’s pyramids.
Haranath Chakraborty’s Chhayamoy (2013), based on the Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay novel of the same name, combined a traditional treasure-hunt story with supernatural elements. Here, the scholar hero comes from England to India, finds treasure in a village, and is helped by a benevolent ghost when he runs into trouble.
The pursuit of treasure moves the plot in these films from the get-go. This wasn’t the case with some movies in which the object of desire was introduced late in the story or be a minor piece of a larger puzzle.
This is the case with Premendra Mitra’s Hanabari (1952). Two-thirds of the story revolves around the eponymous haunted house terrorised by a monster. Much later, it is revealed that the monster is a lore created by the villain to get hold of the treasure in the house.
The low-budget sleeper hit Rainbow Jelly (2018) was a similar case. Soukarya Ghoshal’s fantasy film is about Ghoton (Mahabrata Basu), a mentally challenged orphan living with his abusive uncle Gondaria (Kaushik Sen). Their roommate is an antique robot that holds the secrets to untold riches left behind by Ghoton’s scientist father. Gondaria wants the haul, but he does not know the password.
The film is less about the treasure and more about the uncle, his nephew, and the fantastical Pori-pishi, a maternal angel who joins the fun. The character is a reference to Leela Majumdar’s treasure-related children’s novel Pori Pishir Barmi Baksha. The novel was adapted as a film in 1972 by Arundhati Devi.
Hanabari and Pori Pishir Barmi Baksha are some of the Bengali treasure hunt films from the 1970s and ’80s. Marjina Abdulla (1973) is an adaptation of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, with Rabi Ghosh playing Ali Baba and Utpal Dutt as the leader of the thieves.
Tapan Sinha’s Baidurya Rahasya (1985) is a mystery set on an island where a precious emerald is stolen from a Krishna temple. The 1990s saw the release of Rituparno Ghosh’s directorial debut Hirer Angti (1992) and Sinha’s Ajab Gayer Ajab Katha (1998), both based on Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s works and both family-friendly yarns woven around the pursuit of treasure.
The Sona-das of the world wouldn’t exist without the success of Satyajit Ray’s’s adaptations of his Feluda stories, Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979).
A golden fort seen in a boy’s dream sets off the chase in Sonar Kella, while a golden Ganesha statuette causes murder and mayhem in Joi Baba Felunath.
In both films, the hero is a scholarly detective who discharges a weapon only when necessary. A new region outside of Bengal is explored. The villain is comical when not sinister. And history is woven into the thrills, since the stories were written for a young adult readership.