British writer HRF Keating’s acclaimed Inspector Ghote novels will be returning to India, this time in the form of a series. Endemol Shine India has optioned the rights to 25 Ghote books written between 1964 and 2009, Variety reported. “No details are yet available about the series’ development schedule, talent attachments or broadcast partners,” the publication added.
Who will play Ganesh Vinayak Ghote, the most upright and dogged officer to have ever been on the rolls of the Mumbai Police’s Crime Investigation Department? Murder, blackmail, racketeering, espionage, departmental corruption, fraud – no crime was too daunting for Ghote.
“Timid, nervous and deferential, Ghote was neither a detective genius like Sherlock Holmes nor a streetwise tough-guy like Philip Marlowe,” Mike Ripley wrote in his obituary of Keating in The Guardian in 2011. “He was always underestimated by his enemies but his great strength was a combination of integrity, perseverance and an overwhelmingly benevolent interest in people.”
Henry Reymond Fitzwalter Keating introduced Ghote in The Perfect Murder in 1964. While several of the books are set in Mumbai, Ghote also travels to other places for his investigations. Inspector Ghote Hunts The Peacock takes the CID man to London, where he is confronted with a disappearance. In Inspector Ghote Breaks An Egg, he reopens a cold case in a small town outside Mumbai.
The planned series throws up interesting questions about adaptation. The novels were written decades ago, and mirror the times as well as Keating’s own understanding of the ways of Mumbai and Indian society. Famously, Keating created Ghote without having visited India. He chose India because he wanted to deflect criticism that the novels written before the Ghote series were too British.
For Western readers, India “had been in the news quite a lot lately what with the British seeking out mystic Ashrams, to say nothing of the rapture to be found in smoking pot, all part of the swinging 60s, and there was Louis Malle who was in bad odour with the Indian government for his candid portrayal of the sub-continent in his documentary films, and this had been much publicised the world over”, Keating’s wife, actor Sheila Mitchell, wrote in H.R.F. Keating A Life of Crime, her biography of her husband.
Keating’s research included reading Indian newspapers and books, watching mainstream and arthouse Indian films, and talking to Indians in the United Kingdom. A journalist friend who had been born in Mumbai told Keating about the city, but the author had to first look it up in a world atlas, Mitchell wrote.
There is a less flattering reason for the Indian setting, as Keating explained in an introduction to the short story collection Inspector Ghote, His Life and Crimes. The books were “a commentary on the problems of perfectionism, and one of the few notions I had about India was that things were apt to be rather imperfect”.
The inspector was initially called Ghosh until a friend suggested the more appropriate Maharashtrian surname Ghote.
Might the planned series be set in Ghote’s most fruitful years, the 1970s and the ’80s? How will Mumbai be depicted? After all, Ghote was a creature of Bombay, rather than Mumbai.
Will the makers update the material in the mould of the British series Sherlock, which relocates Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional nineteenth-century detective to the 2010s? Will Keating’s droll humour and rich characterisation, which reflect his research, observational skills and unfettered imagination, survive the exigencies of adaptation?
The writers of the series will be crucial to the project’s success. They will, at the very least, have the opportunity to ensure that Ghote’s name is correctly pronounced. The Wikipedia page on the character erroneously spells his name out as “GO-tay”. Everybody in India knows that it should actually be “Gho-tay”.
Even more critical will be the casting. British actor Sam Dastor, who is of Indian extraction, played Ghote in a pilot episode for a television series that never got made. In 1984, Dastor voiced the character in a radio play based on Inspector Ghote Hunts The Peacock. Here too, the name is pronounced wrong, while the accent sounds like Peter Sellers in The Party.
The first actor to have played Ghote on the big screen got the pronunciation, accent and character absolutely right. Naseeruddin Shah was perfectly cast as Ghote in Merchant-Ivory Productions’ The Perfect Murder (1988). Shah nailed Ghote’s unassuming but determined personality. He delivered the “Anglo-English” dialogue, as Mitchell called it, without ever letting Ghote become a caricature. Shah mangled his tenses and bungled half the case before finally hitting upon the solution, but his Ghote was unmistakably the movie’s hero.
Ismail Merchant, one half of Merchant Ivory Productions, had bought the rights to the novel soon after it was published, Sheila Mitchell wrote. Merchant commissioned Jonathan Miller to write the screenplay, while Anthony Shaffer was recruited as director. Shaffer visited Mumbai for locations, but the Indian government wasn’t helpful, “raising seventy-three objections”, Mitchell wrote.
Several years after he started writing the Ghote books, Keating had finally travelled to India sometime in the 1970s, at the invitation of Air India. The government airline generously offered this by-now reputed chronicler of Mumbai’s crime scene a return flight and a three-week stay at the luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel. Keating was nervous about visiting a city that existed only in his head: “What if the Bombay he had inhabited and loved was a fantasy?”
Keating found that Mumbai wasn’t very far removed from his imagination. He also gathered enough details for subsequent novels, including Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote (1979) and The Sheriff of Bombay (1984), according to Mitchell.
By the ’80s, Merchant had revived the project, this time with Zafar Hai as director. Keating travelled to Mumbai for the shoot of The Perfect Murder. He appeared in a scene set at the international airport.
The movie plot revolves around a semantic joke. Ghote is summoned to the mansion of the wealthy builder Heeralal (Amjad Khan), where, he is told, Heeralal’s secretary Perfect has been killed. It turns out that Perfect has survived the murder attempt. (Besides, The Perfect Attempted Murder isn’t quite as catchy.)
Ghote has his hands full – alongside identifying Perfect’s attacker, he must chaperone visiting Swedish detective Axel (Stellan Skarsgard), bust a diamond smuggling racket, and find out who has stolen a minister’s ring. There are times when Ghote appears to be the Mumbai CID’s only employee.
Meanwhile, a touching bromance develops between the Indian and the Swede – further proof of Ghote’s innate humanity and irresistible charm.
The movie has fine performances, including by Madhur Jaffrey as Heeralal’s terrifying wife. The cast includes Dalip Tahil, Johnny Walker and Annu Kapoor. Yet, The Perfect Murder is too imperfectly plotted and paced to be effective. Its main legacy is its depiction of Mumbai in the 1980s – the last decade in which the megapolis could be called truly beautiful.
The film was shot by legendary cinematographer Walter Lassally across prominent locations, including Colaba, Walkeshwar and Mazagaon. Many of these neighbourhoods have now changed beyond recognition, making The Perfect Murder a perfect time capsule of Mumbai in the ’80s.
“Because Zafar had previously directed documentary rather than feature films, Walter was able to suggest ways in which the script or the particular shots envisaged could be tweaked to keep the story moving,” Sheila Mitchell wrote. “His unerring eye for creating memorable pictures gave the finished product its visual success. The camera in Walter’s hands depicted that same vivid picture of Indian life in all its simultaneous colour and squalor that readers found so compelling in the books.”
Mitchell was also full of praise for Naseeruddin Shah, as was Keating (whom she called Harry): “In Naseer, Harry felt secure that Ghote was going to be the character that he had invented…”
Shah’s interpretation of Ghote hit the sweet spot between self-deprecating humour and steadfast resolve, Mitchell observed. “There were a number of attempts over the years to make further films, as well as several options on TV series, both Indian and UK based, and it is very sad that none of them came to fruition when Naseer was still young enough to play the part,” she said.
Who will step into Naseeruddin Shah’s giant shoes? Will the new series include Shah, as a throwback to one of his earliest crossover films? The Endemol Shine India adaptation has the challenge, but also the potential, to reclaim Inspector Ghote for Indian viewers. Everything hinges on the tone. A Bollywoodised take will do Ghote and Keating injustice. An Anglicised approach will miss the point. This halfway character between England and India, and imagination and reality, will need a skilled set of interpreters to be rediscovered by a new set of audiences.