Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sherlock Holmes and Feluda

Sherlock Holmes and the tragedy of Feluda

The contrast in the fates of Arthur Conan Doyle's and Satyajit Ray's super sleuths is a study in despair, says Sumit Bhattacharya.  (

Sherlock Holmes is an Internet phenomenon -- thanks to a blog Dr John Watson, a British army doctor back from Afghanistan, writes on his adventures with his flatmate. Holmes plays the violin, can differentiate between 243 kinds of cigarette ash, is addicted to text messaging on his mobile phone. And everyone -- from the police to the palace -- runs to him to solve crimes that vex all.

I'm sure you've caught on that this Sherlock is the BBC's latest television phenomenon, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the manic mastersleuth and Martin Freeman as his lackey, which will air the last episode of its hugely successful second season on January 15.

And I'm sure you'll agree that it is miles ahead of the movie series (Sherlock Holmes - 2009, Sherlock Holmes - A Game of Shadows - 2011) helmed by Guy Ritchie, though the British director has stamped his signature style of slow-motion mayhem all over the movie franchise. Robert Downey Jr  and Jude Law (Holmes and Watson in the movies), too, have got many women suddenly interested in a sociopathic private detective from early 20th century London.

To be fair, Game Of Shadows was good, maybe even resembling Sherlock Holmes. But the BBC series stands out, with its wicked mix of 21st century savvy with Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock's timeless traits. Its season opener for season two, Scandal In Belgravia (from Doyle's Scandal in Bohemia), for instance, had Irene Adler storing scandalous photographs and terrorist secrets in her locked camera phone that Holmes had to crack. The Hounds of Baskerville episode last week was pretty scary albeit a bit far-fetched, and involved biological warfare. And millions across the world -- it is aired on PBS in the US -- are waiting for the season finale this Sunday, Reichenbach Falls, in which Holmes will fall with his archenemy Jim Moriarty. To see what twists writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis come up with this time.

Compare all that buzzing excitement to the screen fate of Satyajit Ray's inspired, Indianised take on Sherlock Holmes, Pradosh Chandra Mitter aka Feluda, and you feel like banging your head against a wall. Ray, India's only Oscar-winning director (for Lifetime Achievement), made a living writing spectacularly successful children's books and stories in Bengali. 'The world knows me as a filmmaker, but it is my writing that brings home the bread,' he once said.

He wrote a series of books about the adventures of Feluda. And he made two of those books into successful films: Sonar Kella (!974) and Joy Baba Felunath (1979).

Like the books, the films are timeless wonders, featuring Ray's warhorse Soumitra Chatterjee as Feluda and and Santosh Dutta -- a hotshot lawyer in real life -- as cheap-thriller writer Lalmohan Ganguly aka Jatayu, the buffoonish counterfoil to Feluda's brilliance.Almost every Bengali knows the dialogues of both films by heart. (Below is an iconic scene that we all love:)

Since Satyajit Ray's death, his son Sandip Ray has made more Feluda films than his father did. Films that compete with each other in mediocrity, and are sometimes so bad (like 2010's Gorosthane Sabhdhan) that even Feluda fanatics can't sit through them. (Well obviously Sumit hasn't met me!)

The newest Feluda film in theatres for two weeks now, Royal Bengal Rahasya, is one of Sandip Ray's better films. But it is still at best mediocre, with a pot-bellied Feluda and amateurish visual effects and sound design.

A pity again, because Satyajit Ray's films are audio-visual feasts. The musical theme he wrote (he was an avid organ player and fan of Johann Sebastian Bach) for the series that was so catchy that even now a Bollywood director is 'inspired' by it when he makes a theme for a film like Paa.

The plot for Royal Bengal Rahasya, if you have read the book, is full of promise. A rich retired hunter-turned-writer with a house in the foothills of the Himalayas invites Feluda to solve a riddle his grandfather left. But once Feluda reaches there with Jatayu and Topshey (Feluda's Watson, his younger cousin), a tiger kills the host's secretary. Is there more lurking in the jungle than a man-eater? Feluda starts sniffing a whole different puzzle. The movie is a thoroughly unimaginative rendering of the story in toto, without an iota of the finesse, sharpness, wit or humour that sparkled through almost every line and every frame Satyajit Ray created.

This is a fossilised Feluda. Stuck in a time warp. It looks like a play in an age where even the worst Bollywood films have acquired a certain gloss. And its actors don't have enough charisma to carry off a theatre treatment. Yet, it is one of Sandip Ray's better films. So you can imagine how low the bar has been set. Some say it's a burden of legacy, but to me it seems like we have become so used to mediocrity that we are inventing excuses for it. Even Holmes had an onscreen legacy in Jeremy Brett.

Sorry to say, Sandip Ray has consistently got it wrong -- since the day he tried to make a Hindi TV serial on Feluda with a middle-aged Shashi Kapoor. No wonder the serial fizzled out. A young Shashi Kapoor could have made a great Feluda, of course. 

Like thousands -- if not millions -- of Bengali children, I used to stand in line outside the Ananda Publishers' stall at the Calcutta Book Fair every year, holding my mother or my father's hand, to buy the newest Feluda book. Yesterday, when I took my parents to watch Royal Bengal Rahasya, I held my mother's hand to help her down the stairs. That was the only part I felt good in the evening out.

Maybe I should be grateful that the Professor Shonku series of science fiction that Satyajit Ray wrote and the master's Roald Dahl-esque short stories have been spared. So far.Maybe someday, a bright young director/screenwriter will re-imagine Feluda. Or make a fantastic period film that brings out the appeal of the books. Or make a Professor Shonku film with world-class special effects.

But for now, I feel like banging my head against a wall.


Counterview:  Feluda must go on…

Roshmila Bhattacharya, Hindustan Times | Mumbai, January 08, 2012
I brought in the New Year with Feluda. A cocktail of death and drama, hissing snakes, hidden treasure, a half-mad brother and a man-eating tiger, I couldn’t have asked for a better start to 2012. A couple of days later, I was on the phone with Sandip Ray, wondering about a follow-up to Royal Bengal Rahasya. Satyajit Ray’s director son admitted he was Clueless, having run through his list of stories for the screen.

Besides, with Bibhu Bhattacharya passing away after canning his last shot, and Sabyasachi Chakraborty, at 55, way over Feluda’s age (27), he had to look for a new Felu and Jataju. The desi detective wouldn’t return for at least two years.

My sigh will find an echo not just in Bengal, but elsewhere in the country too, Pradosh C Mitter having become a household name.

At 6 feet 2 inches, with a handy 32 Colt revolver and an analytical mind referred to as the Magajastra or brain weapon, he first appeared in Feludar Goendagiri (1965), a story Ray penned for Sandesh, the children’s magazine his father, Upendrakishore Ray, had started and which he was editing.

He wrote 35 stories that made the Charminar-smoking private investigator a worthy match for the pipe-puffing Sherlock Holmes.

 “Why don’t you plan a Feluda exhibition in the interim?” I urged Sandipda.

He loved the idea “I have plenty of illustrations, original manuscripts and working stills, that along with behind-the-scenes anecdotes, film clips and Feluda books would be a  crowd-puller.  We could take the exhibition to metros like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, even abroad.”

While I wait for the exhibition, I go back to the first of the Feluda movies, Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1974). Sandipda, who was assisting his baba (father), recalled an outstanding performance by Kushal Chakravarty as Mukul. He also has fond memories of the other Mukul, mistakenly kidnapped in the film first.

It was Shantanu Bagchi’s first film and Ray handed over a long dialogue sheet, wondering how many retakes he’d require. Mukul reeled off the lines in one perfect take. A delighted Ray patted him on the back and told him to go out and play.

“I was outside, Shantanu strolled up to me and asked with complete seriousness,"Why did jethu (uncle) give me such boka boka (silly) lines?’” Sandipda laughed, disappointed the remarkable actor didn’t do another movie.

“I’m told he is working with an advertising firm in Mumbai. I’d love to meet the grown-up Mukul.”

From the sand stone fortress in Jaisalmer and the  narrow bylanes of Varanasi (Joy Baba Felunath, 1979), Feluda took a giant leap into the new millennium with the climax of Tintorettor Jishu (Tintoretto’s Jesus, 2008)  filmed in Hong Kong.

“The film was 80 per cent complete in 2006. We’d shot in Kolkata, Jhargram and Chattisgarh, and only the climax was remaining, when we hit a roadblock. In the book, the villain is unmasked in Hong Kong, but for financial reasons, the original producer wanted to shoot in Singapore or Bangkok. I refused to compromise, so the film was shelved for two years,” revealed Sandipda.

Meanwhile, Arijit Gupta expressed interest in another Feluda story and the super success of Kailashey Kelenkari (A Killer In Kailash, 2007) lead to Tintorettor Jishu being revived and released in December 2008. They shot in Kowloon, Hong Kong island and even the Gold Coast “It made for stunning visuals!”

Sandipda was equally overwhelmed by the Kailash temple in Ellora’s Cave 10, one of the natural sets of Kailashey Kelenkari, along with Cave 15, world famous for its Dusavatar, and Cave 19 that depicts Sita ki kahani (Sita’s story).

“Baba had visited the caves back in the ’40s, traveling in a bullock cart from Aurangabad. I drove down 70 years later, but the sight of the Kailash temple left me speechless as well,” he admitted.

Sandipda, however, had to update the story that had first appeared in the Durga Puja special of the Bengali periodical Desh in 1973, “You don't expect Feluda to get clues through trunk calls today, do you?” he laughed.

“Life has changed since the sedate ’70s become more  action-packed.”

So will the new Feluda change from Sherlock Holmes to James Bond?

I don’t think so. We’ve had three Feludas since the cerebral Soumitra Chatterjee, a more physical Sabyasachi, and in the mid-’80s, Shashi Kapoor in Satyajit Ray Presents on DD, whose wig was a problem and who was an absolute no-no in Bengal. Who’s next? I’ve invited suggestions on Facebook and Twitter.

Let’s join Sandipda in this hunt. It can turn out to be just as interesting as the stories we’ve grown up reading. (I agree!)


My view: Keep them coming... I love them all - both Holmes and Feluda in their avataars! The more the merrier :)

In fact, I have all the Feluda stuff that I could get my hands on - the original Satyajit Ray books, the English translations, the comics series in English and Bengali and the radio plays by AIR (Feluda: Soumitra), BBC (Feluda: Rahul Bose) and  Radio Mirchi Sunday Suspense (Feluda: Sabyasachi). I have been scouring bookshops and the internet for Feluda Tirish (Sandip Ray's original adaptations for television), the hindi version made by Sandip Ray for TV as a part of "Satyajit Ray Presents" and the recent animation adaptation that was aired on Disney Channel (and I keep missing it!)

Apart from this I have also caught various "bootlegged" versions on Youtube including this version called "Retired Feluda" - a story penned by Ritwik Mukherjee fictionalising Feluda, the legend of Bengali Literature, as an grown up and eccentric guy, and his comeback to the detective world.

And here's the trailer of a St. Xavier's College presentation of Ghurghutiar Ghotona - youtube it:

... and a video montage:

So let's give Sandip Ray a break - to say that he has colossal shoes to fill, would be the understatement of the millenium. He is trying his best to keep the legacy alive and in my opinion, all six films (seven, if you count Dr. Munshir Diary - the telefilm) are entertaining and honest attempts. I have enjoyed many afternoons of bliss with my grandmother at Priya Cinema watching Feluda back in action. And I look forward to as many more installments that I can get. I shudder to think who would fit the bill once Sabyasachi decides to hang up his boots.

In the meantime, here's Sandip Ray on the Feluda Phenonmenon and Feluda... back in action!. Also read this interesting take on the series.

Sandip Ray on how Feluda was created:

Ciao. I have to go back to listening to Badsahi Angti on Sunday Suspense.