The Many Byomkeshes On Screen
- Satyajit Ray’s Chiriyakhana (1967) with Uttam Kumar as Byomkesh
- Manju Dey’s Shajarur Kanta (1974) with Satindra Bhattacharya
- Basu Chatterjee’s 1993 Hindi TV series with Rajit Kapur playing the detective
- Swapan Ghoshal Mogno Mainak (2009) with Subhrajit Dutta in the lead role
- Anjan Dutt’s trilogy with Abir Chatterjee: Byomkesh Bakshi (2010), Abar Byomkesh (2012) and Byomkesh Phire Elo (2014)
- Rituparno Ghosh’s Satyanweshi (2013) with Sujoy Ghosh
It was a script Dibakar Banerjee had in mind right after his debut film Khosla Ka Ghosla. As a fan of detective fiction, he grew up reading Sherlock Holmes in Bengali and, of course, every Bengali kid’s sleuthing primer, the Feluda stories. However, the one to really tantalise his 12-year-old self the most was the forbidden Byomkesh Bakshi. It was seen as a plunge into the murky, often perverse recesses of the adult mind, not for adolescents and hence out of bounds. Years later, it’s precisely this ‘mature’ quality that grabbed Dibakar the filmmaker—lurking danger, an imminent sense of doom, understated violence and the ‘sexual allure of women’.
The genteel investigator has been wildly popular amongst Bengali readers. But, for long, his only significant appearance on film had been in Satyajit Ray’s Chiriyakhana (1967) with the inimitable Uttam Kumar playing Byomkesh, and Basu Chatterjee’s popular Hindi TV series in the ’90s, with Rajit Kapur in the lead. Byomkesh piqued cinematic interest from 2009 onwards (see graphic), which reached its peak at the turn of 2014, with Anjan Dutta’s third film of a trilogy, Byomkesh Phire Elo, out in the theatres and Saibal Mitra’s Shajarur Kanta and Dibakar’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy set to roll early this year. “Byomkesh mania was unleashed with the interest shown in him by both Anjan Dutta and Rituparno Ghosh,” says Saibal. Interestingly, the couple of times that Byomkesh has ventured out of Bengali on to Hindi, he has been helmed by Bengali directors.
Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay wrote 32 Byomkesh stories between 1932 and 1970, with one story remaining incomplete at the time of his death. Dibakar has read and bought the rights to all the stories in all the languages other than Bengali. His Detective Byomkesh Bakshy distils the character, his world-view, ethos and values as he evolved through 38 years. What he wouldn’t reveal is which specific books the film is based on. “That’s the mystery the viewer will have to solve on viewing the film,” he says. What he does tell you, however, is that his Byomkesh is a callow 24-year-old—on his first case, vulnerable, inexperienced and prone to making mistakes. “It’s about his origin. Why he became a detective instead of a clerk or a professor. Why he jumped into the unknown than play safe. It’s a detective you would feel for,” he says. The reason why he picked the “understated, low-key” young star Sushant Singh Rajput. In shockingly stark contrast is Saibal’s 60-year-old Byomkesh, played by the seasoned Dhritiman Chatterjee. “Others have always perceived him as a young man. Dhritiman is the way I see Byomkesh,” he says.
There is yet another count on which the two films stand poles apart. Shajarur Kanta is set in today’s Calcutta while Dibakar places his tale in 1943, in the blacked out, panic-ridden city cowering under the threat of Japanese bombs. For Dibakar, it’s the atmosphere and the sense of time and space in the Byomkesh books that is unparalleled. “He subtly weaves in time and place into the plot, organically connects them without making it seem like a history lesson,” he says. Something he wanted to attempt as a filmmaker. He sets the film in war-time Calcutta when, as he puts it, “it was a far more exciting and interesting, thriving and kickass, heterogenous and cosmopolitan city than it is today; when Chinatown was more widespread; when it was a huge shipping port and a flourishing business centre. All kinds of exciting adventures were happening. It was the conduit for the Burma opium. There were the African drug gangs called Kafri”. The people, however, were as slick, smart, vicious and diabolical then as they are today. “The period and historical context might change but people don’t,” says Dibakar.
Whatever be the individual interpretations, there’s unanimity on the intellectual depth of Sharadindu’s work. “He is socially oriented. The division of Bengal, riots, political disturbances all lurk in the background of the sleuthing,” says Saibal. He calls Byomkesh a “thinking man’s detective and social scientist”. According to actor-director Kaushik Sen, who plays one of the prime suspects in Anjan Dutta’s latest Byomkesh film, Sharadindu’s stories are not just about a private detective. “They reflect the social, political and economic climate of the times,” he says.
For Dibakar, making the film has been about reliving his teen years. “It’s a yarn I have enjoyed telling the audience. It’s also me telling a story to myself,” he says. As a filmmaker, Dibakar admits to always having had problems going back to watching his own films because of the mistakes that leap out of the screen. Not so with this one. “It’s a film that makes me forget I made it,” he says.
One mystery still gnaws at our minds: why the Bakshi with a ‘y’? For typographical balance, says the NID-trained graphic designer. “The ‘i’ at the end feels too thin, ‘y’ is a stronger alphabet,” he says. One that captures the film’s grainy, time-trapped feel and the audacity of its sleuth.
A Line Of Investigators Who Have Fought Crime On Indian Screens
By Namrata Joshi With Dola Mitra in Calcutta