The director of the forthcoming film 'Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!' on recreating the Calcutta of 1943 and the Bengali fiction he grew up on
Between 2006 and 2012, Dibakar Banerjee made four feature films—Khosla Ka Ghosla!, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Love, Sex Aur Dhoka and Shanghai. They are intimately presented, cleverly crafted works about city sins—conditional love, greed and ambition. He has no moral lens on his characters, and no rosy view of love and romance. Banerjee’s fifth film, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, to be released in April, is based on the life of the young Byomkesh. His biggest in terms of budget and scale, and Hindi cinema’s first tryst with the popular Bengali detective, it is a dream project for Banerjee, produced by Yash Raj Films. Edited excerpts from an interview:
When did you read ‘Byomkesh Bakshi’ first?
When I was 12. I read specifically because I was told not to read it; it was supposed to be for grown-ups. I read a lot of books, our family had more books than money. My parents, my sister, who was 8 years older than me, they all read a lot. I think Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s writing had, without being graphic at all, a lot of sensuality and went into the psychological depths of crime.
That’s the true mark of detective stories, which are at the level of literature. It is real, it hits you. And whatever is real, you want to shy away from it. When I read it, the visuals opened up in front of me because it was the right mix of detail and what’s left to the imagination to make it atmospheric and cinematic. I read it in sadhu bhasha, the archaic style of Bengali, but it was flint hard, it was dark, it was understated. I was transported.
Why does Bengal have such a wealth of detective fiction?
It was the obvious colonial influence, Bengal being at the centre of it all. The British colonial machine explored Africa, Tibet, Afghanistan and mapped these cultures and geographies. For the middle-class Bengali, reading about them was a window.
Slowly, Bengali writers started writing similar stories. Bengal had a magazine revolution in the late 1800s and early 1900s with magazines such as Probashi, Bharati, Basumati, in which many stories were serialized. This continued till the 1960s, when the colonial hangover waned. I grew up reading stories where everybody used to go to Africa and hunt lions. In Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, Apu is obsessed with geographical stories, and one day he runs into his own yard wearing a fake African jungle dress and screams “Africa! Africa!"
Many Bengali films have been made on Byomkesh. When did you decide to make yours?
I wanted to make it immediately after Khosla Ka Ghosla!. Although I pitched it to studios and producers, thank God I made other films before it because I needed some maturity to get into this.
Recreating 1940s’ Calcutta must have been a mammoth task.
One thing that was clear was that Calcutta was not a very provincial city in 1943, when it is set. It was a very cosmopolitan city. Ships would come right in the middle of the Hooghly river and moor there. It was a big port. It was one of the biggest headquarters of the British colonial system. It was not even regional. If you were walking down the streets, there were as many chances of hearing Hindi as Bengali.
There was the old Chinatown in the Bau Bazar area; there were Armenian and Jewish businessmen. When we did our research on crime in Calcutta at that time, the most active gangs operating were Africans. They were called kafris and the police were scared of them. There was narcotics, and World War-II was on. There would be American GIs on the road, throwing Wrigley’s and Mars bars to children.
Calcutta probably is much more regional today than it was in 1943. It was absolutely in the spotlight of world history because Japan was about to attack. There would be aircraft parked on Red Road, ready to take off—so Red Road was a runway. And then Japan bombed. The politics of Calcutta was the politics of India.
The art direction in most period pieces in Hindi cinema looks overdone, like a museum. How does one bring out the nuances?
It mostly devolved from the script. When you think of period films, what immediately comes to mind is people talking in bombastic language. We didn’t want that. It is a detective noir story. We wanted a gritty, thrilling Calcutta. It is a boyzone adventure. Byomkesh is still a young adventurer, just starting out as detective. Part of it is in Old Chinatown. So we were going for a look that didn’t have the holier-than-thou profundity that the imagined past looks in our movies.
We imagined a city which had all kinds of underworlds flourishing and yet was financially quite strong. And, imagine, we have reached there with our current sensibilities—our current camera and current way of shooting a film. So, in that sense, it is anti-period. You are in 1943, but you shoot the way you would shoot, say, Chicago or Jakarta today. There are no huge wide shots of monuments. There’s not a single shot of Victoria Memorial or Writers’ Building.
It is a city of crime and bustle. We constructed a tram and got two old trams stationed at the Calcutta Tram Depot; actors would come and jump into the moving tram. We shot in the old Tung Fong restaurant, a relic of the Old Chinatown of the 1930s and 1940s. In Coffee House, Presidency College. It’s winter, foggy, and everybody is smoking.
Besides Bengali, there isn’t much detective fiction or literature in India. In movies, far too less. Why are we unduly obsessed with tragedies, mythology and love stories?
Some of us, like you and me, are part of a post-Industrial Revolution society. But a huge part of our society lives in a time period roughly between the 13th and 17th centuries—at least in the mind, a feudal, tribe and caste-based, rural society, even if you are living in a city. One of the ways that feudalism works is repression. Sexual repression leads to an obsession with love stories.
There are no true detective stories before the 1840s or 1850s. From Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin or Émile Gaboriau, it reaches the pinnacle in the late 1800s and early 19th century, and then in the 1920s and 1930s, American pulp crime fiction takes over, with the detective usually fighting organized crime. Now we can write it perhaps and set it in the past, like in The Name Of The Rose. But for our society, with our feudal mindset, we pander to the idea of a man-woman love as it exists between people in the age group of 18-35.
And in the post-industrial revolution society, the detective is a lone fighter.
You come back to an urban mismanaged jungle, and yes, you have to have the lone guy who restores moral order because the police can’t. You repeatedly see this thing in Byomkesh. Sharadindu has written that the police are handling political situations, the political Tories. For crimes the only saviour is the private detective, who is essentially moral and upright. Sherlock Holmes does it, and Hercule Poirot does it.
Sharadindu’s genius is that he took the Western model and completely Indianized it. You repeatedly see horrible crimes committed in a typically middle-class setting. There is no fascination with the trappings of the Western world like, say, a piano. Byomkesh solves dirty middle-class crimes with the same sharpness and brilliance of deduction as a Holmes or Poirot. There are clues inside a paan baksha (paan box) but it is very urban—there is narcotics, there are early independent India’s spy wars with Bangladesh and China. Sardar Patel calls Byomkesh to consult him on matters of internal security.
Does your film have a love story?
Byomkesh is the only detective who fell in love and got married so, yes, there is a love story.
And is it about one case?
I got the rights of all the 30 stories, because I wanted to capture the mythos, the whole canon of the Byomkesh stories, and distil it. Byomkesh has evolved over 30 years in the books. In the film, I condense and crystallize. It is one case, and it is an intimate film. You can get seduced by the scale, so we had to be careful and ensure that everything had to be an essential part of the story. It is from Byomkesh’s point of view, so you go where he goes—Chinatown, not Victoria Memorial. So it is not pretty. Chowringhee in 1943 is just full of smoke. The Chevrolets on the city’s streets looked beaten up.
Did you audition a lot for the lead role?
I auditioned practically everybody and made enemies both in Calcutta and Bombay. I had Sushant Singh Rajput in mind because he became a sensation in afternoon soaps because of his natural style of acting. That is something. And I needed a face that was relatively new because this is Byomkesh’s first case. This is where he begins. He is not known and he is facing a lot of resistance. And I needed the fresh vulnerability of a man who is trying to break in. Sushant was perfect for that. There is a quiet arrogance about him which all actors need to hold on to. And that reflects very well on Sushant.
How much of ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ is about the hero and how much is it about procedure?
It is not procedural at all. There is no process. Byomkesh is following his instinct and native sense of logic. Young Byomkesh is inexperienced and make mistakes. And he is up against his nemesis. So it is more of a coming of age story.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! releases in theatres on 3 April.