Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! has almost nothing to with the original stories, but Dibakar Banerjee has made a fine film
Some fans of Saradindu Bandyopahyaya’s classic Bengali whodunits will surely be disappointed by Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! After all, the film’s story has almost nothing to do with anything Saradindu-babu wrote. From the first Byomkesh tale, Satyanveshi, it takes the drug racket angle (heroin here, cocaine in the original story), and that there is a boarding house run by a doctor called Anukul, and a boarder called Ashwini.
Putiram, who is a silent mainstay in all Byomkesh stories as his domestic help, appears in the film as the cook of the boarding house. Satyavati, whom Byomkesh would meet somewhat later in the original series (and marry), is in the film to provide some love interest. In fact, her brother Sukumar, who features in only one story, the one in which Byomkesh meets Satyavati, as a murder suspect, is also present, as a murder suspect, but for a murder that Saradindu-babu never wrote about.
Yash Raj Films and Dibakar Banerjee have bought the film rights to all the Byomkesh stories for all Indian languages other than Bengali (there is already an ongoing Byomkesh series in Bengali cinema, directed by Anjan Dutta). The idea is obviously to create a long-running Indian franchise, like, say, a James Bond or a Jason Bourne. For this, one needs to create a world in which the stories take place, and Banerjee has gone to great lengths to do so.
A lot of work has gone into portraying the Calcutta of November 1942, about to be bombed by the Japanese who have already captured Burma, but that work has been done cleverly. All reviewers have gushed about the period recreation, but if one watches closely, it occupies very little screen time. Most of the action happens indoor, and when it moves outdoor, rarely does it need to show the city as it was 73 years ago, other than have some vintage cars moving around.
The Byomkesh that we see is certainly Dibakar Banerjee’s Byomkesh, but is it the character Saradindu-babu created? My answer is: No. Byomkesh has been done on big and small screens many times, most notably in the Basu Chatterjee-directed 1993 TV serial, which was determinedly faithful to the original stories. However, a film director has the right to interpret a literary work the way he sees fit. Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes has almost nothing in common with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. I have never imagined that Byomkesh Bakshi (I will stay with the “i" in Bakshi, thank you, rather than Banerjee’s “y") would have a moustache, but Banerjee clearly thinks he should. Well, so be it.
Banerjee has indicated in interviews that as the series progresses, the Byomkesh character—who is 23 in this film—will acquire more depth and grow as a person. When Saradindu-babu’s Byomkesh appeared on the printed page, and he was also 23—but in 1931, not 1942, he was a fully formed person, and he did not change over the next 40 years. He had a brilliant mind, a wry sense of humour, a dislike for the pomposity of wealth and authority, a coda of justice forged from steel, and complete loyalty to his friend Ajit (his Watson).
But interestingly enough, his life changed over the four decades that he captivated Bengalis. He acquired a wife, had a son, started a publishing business (which was run by Ajit), bought a house in South Calcutta. Saradindu-babu was an avid astrologer and plotted Byomkesh’s zodiac charts and moved him on as the signs suggested. Saradindu-babu’s friends petitioned repeatedly that Byomkesh should buy a car, if only for Satyavati (because the nearest good fish-and-vegetable market was not within walking distance from their home), but he steadfastly refused, saying that he could see no car in Byomkesh’s stars.
But let all that be. Dibakar Banerjee has made a film and recreated a beloved character for a national—and perhaps, international—audience. It is obvious that he has read the entire oeuvre and, as we say in India, “applied a lot of thought". All his public statements imply that he has a vision for the character and the series. So, this, his first one—is it a good film? Certainly. It is extremely well-directed and grips the audience from start to finish. For people unlike me—that is, people who do not carry the baggage and pre-conceived notions of Byomkesh from the original stories, the Bengali films and the TV serial -- Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! should be a very satisfying experience.
The plotting is intricate, the twists and turns are many, and the story has been placed in a very strong historical context. A lot of hard work has gone into this film, and it shows, and the hard work has not been wasted.
Of course, the Byomkesh here is not the Byomkesh I knew (or imagined, rather). In fact, Byomkesh detested the term “detective", and called himself “satyanveshi", the seeker of truth (Right at the end of the film, there is a passing reference to the concept. It should also be obvious to all why Saradindu-babu named Byomkesh’s love Satyavati).
This film does not have my Byomkesh; the man up there is Dibakar Banerjee’s Byomkesh, but he surely has the freedom to interpret a literary character in any way he thinks is right. And I would be truly happy if Banerjee manages to create the franchise he has in mind. Byomkesh deserves it more than Bond and Bourne.
Is it the best Hindi whodunit ever made? A very large majority of moviegoers would perhaps say so, or maybe rank it joint first with Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani, also set, coincidentally, in Calcutta (though a very crucial plot device in Kahaani was borrowed from the Angelina Jolie-starrer Taking Lives). But this is because almost no one watched Manorama Six Feet Under, a 2007 film directed by Navdeep Singh (whose second film NH 10 is running in halls currently).
It is generally acknowledged that the best movie whodunit (with an original screenplay, not based on any published work) ever is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Manorama tips its hat to Chinatown, and goes much further. In terms of plot, detailing, creating a world, and everything that comes under the broad term “cinematic technique", Manorama is the most outstanding noir mystery Hindi film I have ever seen (actually, forget the “Hindi" bit, it’s the best noir mystery film I’ve ever seen). It is altogether unfair that it is forgotten; in fact, very few have even heard of it. Those who did watch it—and I personally urged all my friends to do so—emerged with a sense of wow.
Byomkesh Bakshy is quite a few rungs below Manorama Six Feet Under. You get a sense of yes, not wow.
This is not to take anything away from the competence and commitment visible in every frame of Byomkesh. The pacing is perfect, the cinematography brilliant, the editing just right, and all the actors seem to inhabit their characters. It is a very fine film.
Dibakar Banerjee has set a huge task for himself, of taking India’s most popular (and best, if I may say so) sleuth to full sustainable cinematic glory, and I certainly will not miss any of the next Byomkesh films, damn the baggage and pre-conceived notions and all that.