The curious case of Byomkesh Bakshi
Can Byomkesh, the quintessentially Bengali detective, become a James Bond-like franchise?
Byomkesh Bakshi was introduced to a national audience in 1993 through the Doordarshan serial of the same name, directed by Basu Chatterjee. The serial—despite poor production values—was immensely popular and has since been rerun by Doordarshan many times. All the episodes are available on YouTube, and a random check indicates that they get a respectable number of views. Certainly for many people who watched the serial when it was first broadcast, the actor Rajit Kapur has become identified with the fictional Bengali detective for all time to come.
(However, Byomkesh disliked being called a detective. He preferred the term satyanweshi, meaning seeker of truth.)
The teaser-trailer of the film Detective Byomkesh Bakshy was uploaded by its production house Yash Raj Films on YouTube about a month ago, and it’s already been viewed more than two million times. The film is slated for release in February 2015 (but more about Bakshy later).
Byomkesh first appeared in the short story Satyanveshi in 1932. Over the next 38 years, Saradindu Bandopadhyay wrote 32 more stories—including several novellas—featuring his hero. Unfortunately, he died before he could complete the last one, Bishupal Badh (The Killing of Bishupal), and so perfect seems the murder described in that story that I know no one who has come up with a plausible solution. Saradindu-babu took that secret with him.
For 80 years, Byomkesh has been Bengal’s favourite literary character, his only competition coming from Satyajit Ray’s Feluda, who made his debut in 1965. However, there is a crucial difference between the two. The Feluda stories were written for teenagers; so Ray had to work within a set bandwidth—no crime could have a sexual angle to it (Ray even complained that this significantly restricted his freedom to plot the stories). Saradindu-babu wrote for adults. The mysteries that confront Byomkesh quite often hinge around lust, adultery, promiscuity, even incest.
So, the annals of Byomkesh should be viewed in the context of the works of the international masters of mature detective fiction, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler. Having read all of Byomkesh, all of Sherlock Holmes and all Philip Marlowe novels by Chandler (and all of them several times), I can confidently assert that at his best, Saradindu-babu was as good as anyone in the world working this genre.
Now, sorry, an aside I’m unable to avoid—like Conan Doyle, Saradindu-babu also wrote historical novels. I do not know how many of them are available in translation for a broader non-Bengali audience, but they are truly stunning achievements in storytelling, and certainly much better than Doyle’s tomes.
Like Conan Doyle, he wanted at some point of time to retire his sleuth. Doyle tried it the nasty way—by killing off Sherlock Holmes in the story The Final Problem. Public outrage forced him to bring Holmes back to life.
Saradindu-babu, as he revealed in a 1969 interview, was a much kinder man. He married Byomkesh off (an almost unheard-of thing for detectives across the world) in only his tenth outing, and thought that was the end of it. He did not write another Byomkesh story for 16 years, and settled in Bombay as a writer for Himanshu Roy’s Bombay Talkies. But on a visit to Calcutta, he discovered that Bengalis still hankered for his hero; graciously, he returned to Byomkesh and stayed with him till the end of his life.
In the same interview, he worried about Byomkesh—he was now 60 years old (10 years younger than his creator); and though still mentally and physically fit, he would like to retire, but was helpless as long as a vast number of Bengali readers kept wanting more of him. And Saradindu-babu could not let them down.
This is the other interesting aspect of the Byomkesh stories. Unlike many other fictional detectives—Hercule Poirot, for example, would have been at least 110 years old by the time he handled his last case in Curtain—Byomkesh ages, marries, has a son, starts a publishing firm with his assistant and chronicler Ajit (he makes a more stable income from this than from his seeking of the truth), buys a house in South Calcutta, and ponders buying a car for his wife Satyabati (note that ‘satya’ occurs here again).
He is very clearly situated historically. For instance, Adim Ripu (a loose—and not very accurate—translation would be The Primal Lust), certainly one of the best detective novels I have ever read—irrespective of country of origin, is set in the days just before and after India’s Independence and records the situation in Calcutta at that time.
Other than Basu Chatterjee’s endearing TV serial—which was extremely loyal to the source material, several Byomkesh stories have been made into films in Bengali, though most seem to have disappointed the audience (including Satyanweshi, the last film the highly talented Rituparno Ghosh directed before his untimely death). Exceptions are two films made by the multi-faceted Anjan Dutta, and the third one is releasing in two weeks time (I have seen only the first one, based on Adim Ripu, but both films were big hits).
It was the great Ray who first brought Byomkesh to the screen, in Chiriakhana (The Zoo, 1967). However, it was a film Ray made reluctantly. His assistants had bought the rights to the Byomkesh novella, but lost their confidence at the last minute, and pleaded with Ray to take charge. Ray was at a bit of a loose end at that time, trying to raise funds for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, so he agreed with what now seems to be a ‘all right, what the hell’ attitude. To his biographer Andrew Robinson, he said: “I accepted willy-nilly.”
Chiriakhana has its moments—there are two murder sequences which are master classes in editing and suspense-building, but it is certainly Ray’s worst film. He knew it, and refused to put it on the international circuit. He told Robinson: “Whodunits don’t make very good films, because of the very long explanation at the end, where the film becomes very static.” He said he does not regard Chiriakhana as a “true Ray film”.
He also may not have been well-acquainted with the Byomkesh stories, since in the film, it is Ajit who is married, and Byomkesh is a bachelor (In the very second paragraph of the first Byomkesh story, Ajit tells the reader that he has determined to stay a lifelong bachelor—which he does, and as we know, Byomkesh was a family man). Saradindu-babu was apparently outraged when he watched Chiriakhana.
There’s a twist to this tale. To Ray’s great surprise (and, I think, hilarity), he won the President’s Award for Best Director that year. “There seems to be a great dearth of prizeworthy directors in India!” he wrote to his friend, film critic Marie Seton. “You’ll be tickled to know that I won the State award for Best Director—for Chiriakhana!”
A couple of nights ago, surfing TV channels randomly, I landed on a serial called Byomkesh which is currently airing on a Bengali entertainment channel. The story was known to me—the second one in the series and one of the most celebrated—but I was horrified to see this quintessentially Bengali detective dressed in a bowtie and some dim costume designer’s idea of a tuxedo! Even Ajit sported a tie and a zari-spotted shirt that no one in the world in the 1930s would have been caught dead wearing.
Obviously trying to ape the original BBC Holmes TV serial of the 1980s (not the recent one starring Benedict Cumberbatch), some ignorami have put Byomkesh and Ajit in a study with a big table with some faux-antique stuff on it. Evoking the period! Well, good for them, if it gets the TRPs, and I suspect that anything on Bengali television with Byomkesh in its title will get a large viewership. Anyway, literary works being mauled by their cinematic interpreters is nothing new.
Which brings me to Detective Byomkesh Bakshy. Yash Raj Films (with, I presume, Dibakar Banerjee, who is a co-producer) has bought the rights to all the Byomkesh stories for all Indian languages except Bengali. Byomkesh’s surname has a ‘y’ instead of the traditionally unquestioned ‘i’, because, as Banerjee has explained, Saradindu-babu never indicated how it should be spelt in English, and ‘y’ stands for ‘youth and action’.
The teaser-trailer indicates that Banerjee is intent on making a lavish period film that recreates 1943 Calcutta, including the Japanese bombing of its port. The Japanese attack, as far as I can recall, finds no mention in the Byomkesh stories, but one cannot have any objections to this—a film maker’s vision. Obviously, Banerjee has moved Byomkesh’s debut 12 years forward, from 1931 to 1943, but that’s again his prerogative, he’s paid for that right.
The trailer also appears to indicate that Chinese residents of Calcutta play a crucial part in the film. This seems to have nothing to do with the original stories. YouTube also has a “long kissing scene” from the film. This is an astonishing departure from what we know of the Byomkesh of the printed word, but we should accept that too. Someone has put a hell of a lot of money behind this character, so I suppose we should be happy.
The IMDb.com page on the film gives this one-line description provided by Yash Raj Films: “The first adventure of Byomkesh, fresh out of college, as he pits himself against an evil genius who is out to destroy the world.” Given that there are so many Chinese people visible (killing and getting killed) in the one-minute teaser, I can only assume…Fu Manchu.
I wonder what Saradindu-babu would have thought of that, but if our Byomkesh becomes a Bond-like franchise, I have no problems. Interestingly, the teaser has the hero introducing himself as: “Bakshi, Byomkesh Bakshi.” That sounds rather like Bond, doesn’t it?
(The actor, Sushant Singh Rajput, also pronounces his name stressing the ‘y’, something that no Byomkesh has ever done before, in Bengali or in Hindi.)
While Ray was making Chiriakhana, he wrote to Seton that he wanted to create something fresh with “a total avoidance of occidental thriller cliches…it’s certainly not one for the Bond addicts!” But then, it was his lousiest film.
If Yash Raj and Banerjee can turn Byomkesh into a global (or at the very least, a national multi-lingual) franchise, we should rejoice. To put it very simply, at least people will know about a Bengali called Byomkesh.