Bengali detective fiction continues to entertain Kolkata and is set to transcend its regional following with a forthcoming Hindi film. We revisit the Bengali sleuth’s enduring legacy
In its 30 years, the state-owned Nandan multiplex in Kolkata had never seen what it has been seeing now: three newly released Bengali detective films playing back to back.
As detective after detective untangled knotty crimes on screen, the long queues and an auditorium almost filled to capacity on a weekday debunked any notion of whodunnit overkill.
Beginning with the Arindam Sil-directed Ebar Shabor at 1.45pm, Sandip Ray’s Badshahi Angti at 4pm, and ending with Anjan Dutt’s Byomkesh Phire Elo, audiences at Nandan had their fill of crime and closure. Ebar Shabor added another sleuth, Shabor Dasgupta, to the pantheon of Bengali detectives on screen—Feluda (in Badshahi Angti) and Byomkesh Bakshi (in Byomkesh Phire Elo) are among the legendary crime-solvers.
If there is anything in common between the three detectives, other than their talent to investigate, it has to be their leap to the big screen.
In the 123 years since Darogar Daptar, the detective genre has found both form and foothold in Bengal’s literary history, with writers of standing fleshing out their own kind of detective, and a sidekick, bumbling or smart, almost invariably in tow. Following Priyanath Mukhopadhyay, writer Panchkori De presented foreign detectives in a Bengali setting, even allowing Sherlock Holmes to take on a Bengali persona. Dinendra Kumar Ray not only translated Western detective stories but, intriguingly, went on to create a popular, London-bred, Euro-centric detective called Robert Blake for his Bengali readers. Few contemporary characters have been able to scale the same heights of popularity.
Sitting at his south Kolkata residence, 64-year-old Dipankar Mukhopadhyay disses the first few decades of Bengali detective fiction—encompassing the works of Priyanath Mukhopadhyay with his 206-story series Darogar Daptar, Panchkori De’s creation Debendra Bijoy Mitra, Kaliprashanna Chattopadhyay’s Bankaullah and Dinendra Kumar Ray’s Robert Blake—as being derivative and mostly “unreadable”.
Jayanta, the detective that Hemendra Kumar Roy introduced, was among the first to don the traditional attire of dhuti-panjabi, though his investigative methods bore traces of the work of Edgar Allan Poe and, invariably, Conan Doyle.
“The early works like that of Priyanath Mukhopadhyay and Panchkori De can be noted for having given birth to the genre, but today’s readers won’t be interested in stories that had a primitive treatment and cramped style and language,” says Dipankar Mukhopadhyay. While their contributions will be acknowledged in the foreword to the book, the Bengali detectives who have actually made the cut, other than Byomkesh, Feluda and Jayanta (with Manik, his shadow), include Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s stylish Kiriti Roy and Premendra Mitra’s poet-detective Parashar Barma—literary creations that, Dipankar Mukhopadhyay reckons, are both original and ingenious.
Dipankar Mukhopadhyay says Bengal’s fictional detectives have changed considerably over the years—the Westernized Bengali sleuth of the late 19th century made way for the fitness buff and committed bachelor, Jayanta, of the 1920s and then the professional, fee-taking private detectives Kiriti Roy and Byomkesh—given to wearing a kimono and grass slippers at home, in the case of Kiriti Roy, and dhuti-panjabi in the case of Byomkesh, but roundly Bengali and nationalistic in thought.
In comparison, author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, who used Byomkesh not just to solve criminal riddles but also as a social and political register, “cautiously avoided referring to the British colonizers directly if not at all in all the 10 Byomkesh Bakshi stories written before independence and followed the path of ‘cultural collusion’, ambiguity and hybridity, to create a subaltern world that used the technical innovations of the British imperialists but effectively shuts them out,” Pinaki Roy notes in the book.
Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s writing on Byomkesh was spread over a few decades, with the first book written in 1932. According to Dipankar Mukhopadhyay, Byomkesh articulated a typically Bengali “bhaat-daal (rice-lentils) eating, middle-class, married man” ethos; Kiriti Roy brought a sense of suave and scientific rationality to the job (author Nihar Ranjan Gupta was a doctor who had met Agatha Christie in London once); and the poet-sleuth Parashar Barma, “the most brilliant and underrated Bengali detective”, according to Arunava Sinha, introduced an intellectual romanticism to the netherworld. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda, written between the mid-1960s and late-1980s, was penned primarily for children, but for many it epitomized what is widely known as Bangaliana—a Bengali lifestyle that is sensory, intellectual, genteel, intelligent, witty and ethical. Indeed, mogojashtro (the weaponry of the mind) is an oft-repeated word in Feluda novels—the comic-book adaptations have been popular too.
The new actor as Byomkesh, says Anjan Dutt, “would have to learn to carry off the dhuti, has to have a homely disposition, not be too Anglicized or too New-Age, should have a sharp and intelligent face, and have a ready wit other than being a good actor”. It is not very different from linguist and cultural historian Sukumar Sen’s description of Byomkesh in his book Crime Stories Chronology. Sen notes: “He (Byomkesh) is not a scientist, violinist or an addict. He is a typical Bengali gentleman of the 1930s—educated, intelligent, shrewd, reserved and sympathetic”.
If the Bangaliana expected from the new Byomkesh is as unchanging as the Bengaliness Satyajit Ray sought from actor Uttam Kumar in his Byomkesh film Chiriyakhana (1967), or actor Rajit Kapur essayed in Basu Chatterjee’s much liked and eponymously titled Doordarshan television series from 1993, the period backdrop in his forthcoming Byomkesh films too will not change, says Anjan Dutt.
“While my film-making career has often been about youthful, New-Age issues, with the Byomkesh films I have consciously strived to retain the old-world charm of the text,” says Anjan Dutt, who had created his own television detective character, Rudra Sen (played by actor Sabyasachi Chakraborty), for a 19-part series, Rudra Sener Diary. “Though I think he is the best among Bengali detectives, Byomkesh, unlike Holmes or Shakespeare, is not as established a brand or franchise and deconstruction can only happen after we have seen many more of his films,” he adds.
Nonetheless, seven Byomkesh films have already been made, including those by Satyajit Ray and Rituparno Ghosh; five more, from film-makers like Dibakar Banerjee, Saibal Mitra and Anjan Dutt, are awaited. Five television series on Byomkesh have been made, including one currently being shown on the ETV Bangla channel, and Byomkesh has also been part of Bengal’s school curriculum.
Philip Cox, the maker of 2011’s acclaimed documentary film, The Bengali Detective, has talked about the widespread interest in sleuthing in Kolkata. In fact, film-maker Mira Nair has expressed interest in turning The Bengali Detective into a feature film based on the dance-loving, real-life detective, Rajesh.
But all this conceals the fact that there are few contemporary characters that are as popular. In fact, most people I spoke to were at a loss to name any. “I would say Bengali crime fiction evolved till a point and then stopped evolving. What one is seeing now is a retro and nostalgia industry. One can’t just blame the authors, for the publishing industry is also notoriously averse to risk-taking and there are no crime fiction imprints,” says Abhijit Gupta, associate professor of English at Jadavpur University and director at Jadavpur University Press.
It takes Subir Mitra of Ananda Publishers, which publishes dozens of detective titles from the past, including Byomkesh and Feluda, to name Saktipada Chattopadhyay and Saranjit Chakraborty as contemporary crime fiction authors. “It is just the sheer quality of writing that makes Feluda and Byomkesh stand out. Their sale has kept increasing, even without the momentary excitement provided by cinematic adaptations,” says Subir Mitra. “One can’t compare the newer writers with the masters. The situation is different and only the future will tell.”
Suchitra Bhattacharya’s Mitin Mashi, wife, homemaker, mother and “ace criminal-catcher”, has become one of the more established contemporary characters. “I created the character and started writing from 1991. Mitin Mashi is now a 24-year-old character and still active. If this is not an example of success of a detective character in contemporary times then what is?” asks the author.
Though there are some early misgivings about Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (Byomkesh would never refer to himself as a detective but as satyanweshi—the seeker of truth), love of a good whodunnit might see the film through in Kolkata, the home base of fictional detectives in India.
An anecdote from Andrew Robinson’s seminal book, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, perhaps best illustrates the popularity of the well-spun mystery. While shooting in Varanasi for the Feluda film, Joi Baba Felunath, Satyajit Ray had to contend with a problem: Overnight, a man from the local Bengali shop, Rinku Silk House, had plastered the shooting area with posters of his shop, wanting to advertise his shop in a film that went on to become tremendously popular. Next day, the man turned up to enjoy the shoot too.
Nothing could better express the Bengali love for detective fiction, cinema and, somewhat incongruously, enterprise, in this season of the sleuth.
NOT JUST BYOMKESH
Six of the lesser-known Bengali detectives:
The creation of author Samaresh Basu, Gogol is a bespectacled, school-going boy who carries a magnifying glass and compass. He is a karate champ, dreamer and problem-solver. The adventures of Gogol were made into a Bengali film in 2013, ‘Gogol Er Kirti’.
u Kiriti Roy
Over 6ft tall and stoutly built, Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s Kiriti Roy is known for his sartorial statements. Many consider Roy, who often hunts down criminals at night, to be the most Holmes-inspired character in Bengali detective fiction. The fact that he smokes a pipe and carries a magnifying glass underlines the impression.
u Parashar Barma
Parashar Barma, created by Premendra Mitra, would sometimes irritate his assistant, Krittibas, with his easy-going ways. But then, Barma is a poet-detective whose imagination would never discount critical scrutiny. ‘The Growlery’, a books blog run by Deepanjana Pal and Dipankar Mukhopadhyay, describes Barma as decidedly Poirot-esque, depending on his grey cells, intuition, sense of humour and poetry to solve mysteries.
Samaresh Majumdar, who uses the enchanting north Bengal terrain as a backdrop in his novels, bases the young detective Arjun in the same region. It gives his detective fiction a kind of charm that is missing in most city-centric writing. ‘Kalimpong E Sitaharan’, the first Bengali film based on Arjun, was released recently.
u Colonel Niladri Sarkar
A creation of author Syed Mustafa Siraj, Colonel Niladri Sarkar is an ex-serviceman with a keen nose for detection and a kindly eye for nature. A collector of butterflies and an amateur ornithologist, Sarkar brought discipline, intuition and an inquisitive mind to his cases. A film, directed by Raja Sen, is being planned on him.
u Mitin Mashi
Among the newer generation of detectives, Mitin Mashi, aka Pragya Paramita Mukhopadhyay, could have been an ordinary homemaker had author Suchitra Bhattacharya not invested her with great detecting acumen. While some read these novels for a feminist stance, others read them to get a feel of distant places. For in this case, solving crime involves a certain amount of travel. Closer home, her exploits have showcased the lives of Kolkata’s Chinese and Parsi communities.
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