Dadagiri redux

Posted in action, adventure, Bollywood, books, classics, desi fiction, Drama, movies, thriller, TV by jrahman on May 21, 2018

When Shashi Kapoor passed away late last year, my facebook was abuzz (or should I say alight?) with clips of mere paas maa hai.  I wanted to post my favourite Kapoor as my childhood favourite hero.  I was sad to find no clip of Kissa Kathmandu ki — Satyajit Ray’s small screen adaptation of his Feluda caper in Nepal.  Granted it wasn’t Ray’s finest, but all sorts of weird and improbable stuff can be found online, why not this, I wondered.

My mind then wandered to why Ray cast Kapoor and not Amitabh Bachchan, the only tall man in India, for the role of the towering Bengali detective?  Perhaps it was because Bachchan was by then too busy with politics.  But that leads one to wonder why Ray hadn’t made a Hindi Feluda earlier?

For that matter, why did Ray not make more Hindi movies?  It’s not like he was oblivious to Bollywood trends.  He even set one of the Feluda adventures in mid-1970s Bombay, when Bachchan was smashing box office records and the bones of villains.  In the novel, Lalmohan Ganguly is advised by Feluda about the masala that would make a blockbuster:

…. instead of one double role have a pair of double roles.  The first hero is paired against the first villain, and the hero number two and the villain number two make the second pair.  That this second pair exists isn’t revealed at the beginning…..

… need smuggling — gold, iamond, cannabis, opium, whatever; need five musical sequence, one of which should be religious; need two dance numbers; two or three chase sequences are needed, and it would be great if in at least one of which an expensive car is driven off a cliff; need a scene of inferno; need heroines against the heroes and vamps against the villains; need a police officer with integrity; need flashback of the heroes’ backstories; …. need quick changes of scenes…. ; at least couple of times the story need to be on the hills or the seaside…..

…. at the end — and this is a must — need happy ending.  But the ending would work best if it can be preceded by several tearjerkers.

Of course, this is tongue-in-cheek.  Ray wasn’t into making blockbusters.  And he explained in a number of places that he was most comfortable in his mother tongue.  But Ray was so in tune with the zeitgeist that even Enter the Dragon is channeled in that story, and I can’t help but wish he would have made the movie that would have been rishte mein toh baap to Sholay, Don, Qurbani, Tridev or Mohra.

As it happens, Feluda returned to the big screen with Bombaiyer Bombete.  However, I never found Sabyasachi Chakraborty convincing as Feluda — he was just too old!  And over the years, Sandip Ray’s adaptation of the series went from mediocre to inexecrable.  Bars were so low for the new series — check out the trailer — that even though I wasn’t particularly thrilled, I looked forward to watching it.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Obviously this Mr Mitter is heavily inspired by Sherlock, at least superficially. Is the adaptation of the classic tales is as clever as the BBC show?  Perhaps not.  But it’s not far off either.

Now, I have heard a lot of purists grumble about these ‘modern versions’.  Ignore those fuddy duddies, I say, and let a hundred flowers bloom.  If you don’t get goosebumps from this, you likely haven’t read the original stories in a while.  Page-to-screen transition inevitably means changes to the story.  Slavishly following the page doesn’t stop one from producing turkeys like this dark tale.  In comparison, the Bard has been aptly set in Mumbai underworld, Bihari badlands, California ganglands, medieval Japan, and Fascist Europe.

In principle, there is nothing to stop a smartphone using Feluda from being great in Dhaka.  And in practice, Parambrata Chatterjee does a pretty good job looking sharp and observing even more sharply, smoking charminars and quipping wittily.  In the first episode, Dhaka looks better than how Ray Jr managed to show Hong Kong!  And the Mitter family’s backstory is cleverly re-imagined to weave a Bangladesh connection.

All of which raises the question why Ray never sent his hero to Bangladesh!

Adventures took Feluda, Topshe and Lalmohan Babu to all parts of India, from the sands of Jaisalmer to the snows of Simla, and abroad to as far east as Hong Kong and west to London.  But never Dhaka.  Why?  In fact, even though Feluda’s family is meant to be from the erstwhile eastern Bengal — much like Ray himself — the ancestral land plays no part in any Feluda story.

Not just Feluda.  And not just Bangladesh.  Unlike the works of Ritwik Ghatak or Sunil Gangopadhyay, partition and its legacy is completely absent in Ray’s creation.  It’s not that he is oblivious to the history and politics of the region.  The Bengal famine is the backdrop against which his best known work is set. And Ghare Baire is as astute a commentary on the divided Bengal on screen as it is on the page.

One can’t help but wonder what Ray thought after he said this:

I have never read a convincing explanation of Ray’s lack of interest in Bangladesh.  My conjecture is that he saw himself as a liberal Indian — that is, decidedly against the Hindi / Hindu chauvinist nationalism — who was also a Bengali.  But most other such liberals never really accepted partition. I think Ray is exception. He accepted that Bangladesh had made its choice and gone separate ways, and its journey wasn’t something he was interested in.

He may not have been interested in Bangladesh, but his creations were seen as our own to many of us growing up the in the latter decades of the 20th century.  So I can totally relate to where Towheed Feroze is coming from.  But I am quite baffled when he calls Ray ‘an avid socialist’.  Never mind the forest of the masses, to see socialism in the hero’s interactions with his activist friend or the memory game in the forest is to miss the subtlety and nuance of the maestro.  Even the Diamond king’s tyranny is an Orwellian commentary, not socialist polemics.  (Note to self: write about the Calcutta trilogy).

And then there is this howler: Interestingly, Feluda managed to remain popular despite having no major female roles in it and certainly no love interest for the main character. Goes to show, sex is not always on the readers’ mind….

Feroze’s sexism is not worth spending any energy on.  But Ray’s — that’s another matter.

There are perhaps more female drivers in Saudi Arabia than dialogues by female characters in entire Feluda canon.  No, we are not talking about love interest only.  Ray said in a number of interviews that his target audience was tweens, and he wanted to keep things G-rated.  Fair enough.  No romance, no shipping.  But the notion that equates female characters with romance — I believe the word to use for that is sexist.

Yes, I understand that Ray was a 20th century man, and we shouldn’t judge him by the standards of 2017.  Of course, he wasn’t sexist in the sense that he believed women are inferior or subservient.  Quite the contrary.  Whether it is Tagore adaptations or life in the great city — Ray portrayed the trials and tribulations of the women of his social milieu exquisitely.

But that just makes the lack of female characters in Feluda all the more baffling.  Why couldn’t Maganlal Meghraj’s nefarious plans be thwarted by a plucky little girl, for example?

Even in the 19th century adventure yarns, there are female characters — Jim Hawkins’ mother runs the Admiral Benbow Inn, and The Woman isn’t the only woman in London.  Ray’s world may not seem testosterone addled, but the bias is no less insidious.

Couple of my fiercely independent female friends recently noted in facebook that Satyajit Ray was their first love, while another noted Ray was a cooler than any of his characters.  I agree about the creator standing taller than his creation.

And yet, I think it’s a shame.  My kids are getting to that age when I was first thrilled by the camel ride:

I wish Ray created a hero that they too could grow up with.

(This is based on an earlier post, and benefited from interactions with UC, IC, SN, SM and SR).


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