Filmmaker Basu Chatterjee, who died in Mumbai on Thursday, is celebrated for his slice-of-life comedies. He also directed the acclaimed serials Rajni and Darpan, but his most noteworthy late-career contribution to television falls in the crime detective genre: the Doordarshan series Byomkesh Bakshi, based on the Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay character of the same name.
Rajit Kapur starred as Byomkesh, the early-20th century Bengali sleuth who preferred to call himself a “truth seeker” rather than a “detective”. His Watson, Ajit, was played by KK Raina. Chatterjee adapted all 32 stories across two seasons between 1993 and 1997.
Chatterjee’s films between the 1960s and ’80s captured urban middle-class lives. Byomkesh Bakshi’s bhadrolok character was a Bengali middle-class man too, this time operating out of Kolkata.
Chatterjee shot the interior shots that formed the majority of the series in Mumbai before moving to Kolkata for the exterior shots. In an interview to Hindustan Times in 2016, Kapur explained: “I would take notes on my script, because we were jumping scenes and costumes. I was doing episode one and then a scene from episode 12.”
The marvellous casting held the series together. Kapur played Byomkesh with calm confidence and the occasional spark of daredevilry that marked the character. As the series progressed into season two, and Byomkesh grew older and his hair began to gray, Kapur slowed down his gait and movements, looking every bit the legend his character had become by then in the series.
KK Raina’s Ajit was the perfect audience stand-in with his constant frown while looking on as Byomkesh articulated the mental gymnastics that went into solving the crimes of colonial-era Kolkata.
The supporting cast was often just as enticing. They included Rabi Ghosh in the episode Amrit ki Maut and Utpal Dutt in Seemant Heera. Then there were young actors who established themselves in the years to follow, such as Aditya Srivastava, Milind Gunaji, Govind Namdeo and Anup Soni.
Ananda Shankar’s opening theme, with his characteristic fusion of Indian classical music and electronics and synth-based score, was another standout feature of the series.
Byomkesh Bakshi offered compact suspenseful stories within a 40-minute timeframe with solid performances and a neat resolution, without any technical fussiness or narrative flourishes.
The unhurried pace and rootedness in a specific milieu made Byomkesh Bakshi closer to BBC’s Sherlock Homes television series of the 1960s rather than American pulp fiction, which strongly influenced DD National’s Karamchand, Tehkikaat, and other similar Indian series. The ongoing lockdown has seen Byomkesh Bakshi being telecast yet again on DD National, introducing Basu Chatterjee to a whole new audience.