The afterlife of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories continues apace: After film, television, translation and radio, we have the comic book version of Kolkata’s most celebrated private eye. This is as it should be, for Ray started life as a graphic designer and illustrator, and continued to practise both arts in a variety of media. One is, in fact, surprised not to see the comic book among the staggering oeuvre of Ray’s achievements—one feels the graphic novel would have come to India much earlier had Ray turned his hand to the form.
Satyajit Ray’s Feluda Mysteries: Puffin, Rs99 each.
Ray’s influence is certainly visible in both Beware in the Graveyard and A Bagful of Mystery, the two comic books under review, notably in the portrayal of Lalmohan Ganguli aka Jatayu, Feluda’s sidekick and purveyor of best-selling thrillers. Ray’s drawings of Jatayu have become iconic, more so because of their resemblance to the legendary Santosh Datta, the actor who played Jatayu in the two Feluda films directed by Ray senior (later cinematic Jatayus have been depressingly bad). Happily, Tapas Guha’s drawing of Jatayu is also faithful to that ideal.
The same, however, cannot be said about Feluda and Topshe. To begin with, not once do we see Feluda in his trademark kurta with trousers. Likewise, Topshe, who tends to copy Feluda in matters sartorial, is seen wearing rather preppy cargo pants and sweatshirts.
Some purists might be shocked at the poster of Angelina Jolie tacked on to his bedroom wall. What is more troubling is the anachronism perpetrated, for a few pages later, the three are shown going to Blue Fox restaurant with a live band playing, something which last happened in the 1970s. The use of a photo in lieu of an illustration also indicates a larger problem with the art in general: All too often, Guha seems to have taken the easy way out by photographing a city landmark and then photoshopping it all too visibly. Within the same frame, therefore, we have realistic bookshelves or monuments but line drawings of the characters themselves. The other noticeable feature is the all-too-evident influence of Tintin comics, particularly in A Bagful of Mystery, where frames from both Tintin in Tibet and Tintin and the Picaros make guest appearances. Such “quotations” are not uncommon in visual media but some sort of acknowledgment—either direct or indirect—is usually part of the protocol.
Coming to the script, it is hard to go wrong with Ray’s stories, since they are often written like cinematic scripts or storyboards. The relaxed, conversational style of his storytelling lends itself easily to translation and adaptation, and Subhadra Sengupta on the whole does a fairly good job of it. The problem, though, is with Topshe. In the stories, he is the first-person narrator and the organizer of narrative: As a result, we get to hear his voice and thoughts throughout.
Due to the textual limitations of the comic book medium, there is much less space for his voice in it. Sengupta tried to address this lack by giving him a new voice and something of a life: thus the pin-up in the bedroom and a speech peppered with “wows” and “cools” (and somewhat jarringly, “who the hell” when Jatayu’s green Ambassador parps its way down Rajani Sen Road).
Overall, though, both comics are adequate introductions to a readership not familiar with Bengali, and could whet the appetite for reading the full-dress translation. At the same time, one wishes that the series had not been conceived solely for a juvenile readership. The richness of the Feluda stories, especially with reference to locale and setting, calls for a full-fledged graphic novel which takes delight in history, antiquity and art, as well as the shifting perspectives of a modern city. An artist of such a novel would be well advised to view Ray’s city films, to see how his ways of seeing might be applied to the medium of the comic.
Finally, a note of correction and a suggestion: First, Professor Shonku was not an absent-minded scientist, as the thumbnail sketch on Ray at the beginning of the book would have us believe. Second, how about the Shonku stories in comic book form?
Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
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