The seeker of the truth
Raj, the Desi guy in the sitcom Big Bang Theory, compliments his friend’s deductions in an episode as ….a regular Byomkesh Bakshi. Another friend quips — What’s that? An Indian Sherlock Holmes?, drawing Raj’s retort — Perhaps Holmes is an English Byomkesh Bakshi!
Of course, Holmes predates Bakshi by decades. And I have no idea how widely known Bakshi is outside of erstwhile Bengal. Or even among the Bengalis for that matter — growing up, I was certainly more familiar with Satyajit Ray’s Feluda than Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s satyanweshi (the seeker of the truth).
Perhaps this has changed with the recent films coming out of Kolkata and Bollywood?
Ray’s Chiriyakhana is from 1967, with the great Uttam Kumar in one of his greatest performances. And there were serials in Indian TV in the 1990s. But with over half a dozen movie adaptations, this decade has seen quite a bit of Bakshi-mania (boom-kesh would be a really bad wordplay). There has been the Anjan Dutt series, starring Abir Chatterjee as the sleuth, until he defected to a rival production and was replaced by Jisshu Sengupta. Then there was the utterly forgettable one by Rituparno Ghosh. And of course, last year we saw the Bollywood treatment.
All these movies have one crucial problem — the whodunnit denouement, which works fine in a TV show, but without any Tarantino-like dialogue, can leave the audience bored in the big screen. This is why Ray considered his Byomkesh as a lesser effort, a mistake he would avoid in the 1971 Feluda classic. The more recent Bengali adaptations, in trying to stay true to the original stories, forget that the screen is different from the page, and that a film has to work on its own accord. Dibakar Banerjee is inspired by the canon, but doesn’t base his big budget period production — 1940s Calcutta does come alive in the screen — on any specific story. Nonetheless, he fails to resist the temptation to gather the key characters in a room for the hero to expose the villain, and this ends up detracting from the climax of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!
The focus on the denouement not only hurts the movies’ pace, they also stop the directors from teasing out aspects of the Bakshi canon which makes this Bengali’s tale a more interesting one than that of Holmes, or James Bond or Bruce Wayne for that matter.
Mr Bakshi of the books is not a super genius social odd ball. Nor is he a sociopath billionaire or a government sanctioned killer. Rather, he is a typical Bengali bhadralok young man in the inter-war Calcutta, who lives in a shared accommodation with other men like him, until he marries a girl from the same sociocultural background to live a life of domesticity while not seeking the truth. That alone marks him apart from the foreign heroes.
And yet, this aspect of the Bakshi stories is not captured in any of the movies. Ray is the worst, turning Bakshi into an eccentric bachelor a la Holmes, while his sidekick Ajit Banerjee — a lifelong bachelor who lives with the Bakshis in the books — is shown to be away from wife temporarily, as Dr Watson often tends to do.
Byomkesh is shown to be married in the Dutt movies, but all we see of their conjugal life is his wife yelling at him for not being an attentive husband. If that’s meant to be a subtle commentary on the patriarchic gender dynamics of a typical mid-20th century Bengali marriage (which sadly holds true for many even today), it fails abysmally.
Banerjee and Arindam Sil could be excused in the sense that theirs are meant to be origin story or series reboot. Staying true to the canon, Banerjee does a reasonably good job showing Byomkesh falling in love with the sister of a key suspect. Sil’s sleuth has already found his Satya, and the newly married couple is portrayed touchingly, with their amorous moments playing a key role in solving the mystery. Should they be made, any sequel by either should tease out the private life of Byomkesh Bakshi in greater detail.
Speaking of the private life, one thing the movies do reasonably well is to expose the prudish hypocrisies of the bhadralok Bengali when it comes to matters involving sex. Illicit affairs reflecting love or lust, sex as a tool of oppression or manipulation, femme fatales and damsel in distress, abortion and the plight of Hindu widow in pre-independence India — Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay took them on, and to their credit so do the movies, giving them a touch of noir that isn’t present in a typical Holmes story.
Another thing that most of the Holmes canon, and all but the best screen adaptations, lack is any appreciation of the broader political context of the time. Not so for the Bengali truth-seeker. The canon begins in the early 1930s, when Calcutta was still the second city of the Empire. The stories set in the mid-1940s don’t shy away from showing a blood-soaked city engulfed in communal civil war. Sardar Patel seeks Mr Bakshi’s assistance in some matter of national urgency facing Free India. Our hero even discovers that a top Indian politician is blackmailed by an East Pakistani Mata Hari!
Except for a few scenes in his Calcutta Trilogy, Ray was never overtly political, and Ciriyakhana is no exception. Dutt for some inexplicable reason sets his series in the 1960s Naxalite era. And it doesn’t work. Sil and Ghosh ignore politics altogether.
But Banerjee takes politics head on. And oh boy what a ride he takes us on.
Indian Bengalis of all political persuasions, and all Indians who bend somewhat to the right, think very highly of Subhas Chandra Bose, who, if one needs reminding, saw it fit to align with the Axis powers to evict the British from India. Even the title he gave himself — Netaji is a Desi version of the Fuhrer / Il Duce. One can’t watch Banerjee’s movie without wondering about that history.
As the movie begins, Banerjee’s narrator tells us that the Calcuttans are caught in a war between the Japanese and the British. Bengali elites waiting for independence abound. Big spoiler alert: the villain is shown to be a criminal mastermind who poses as a nationalist revolutionary who plots with the Japanese to ‘liberate’ the city from the British yoke, so that the resulting Azad Bangal — the revolutionaries shout Jai Bangal, any similarity with Azad Hind and Jai Hind of Mr Bose I’m sure is purely coincidental — governed by Japanese puppets could become the narco capital of the world.
If for no other reason than the audacity to burst the Bose bubble, even if inadvertently, Banerjee’s big budget Bollywood Byomkesh is the best of the lot.
Here’s to the sequel then.