Sunday, 4 January 2009

STILL GOING STRONG

STILL GOING STRONG

Trust me, he is no relation of mine though we carry the same surname and deep inside I always wanted to be like him --- the suave, agile and sharp minded Pradosh Chandra Mitra aka Feluda. From the avenues and lanes of Kolkata city to the glitzy streets of London, from the snow-capped mountains to the deserts of Rajasthan --- the evergreen bachelor Feluda, his cousin Topesh, thriller writer Lalmohan Ganguly alias Jatayu and a whole range of Indian, non-Indian characters have been in action for several decades now.

For the uninitiated, Feluda is the fictional investigative character created by no one less than filmmaker Satyajit Ray. The first Feluda story appeared in the popular Bengali language children’s magazine Sandesh in December 1965. Besides writing, Ray himself illustrated the stories with excellent sketches. Till his death, Ray penned about 35 Feluda stories in which the private investigator took up “interesting cases” and solved them. Topesh, somewhat like Watson recording adventures of Sherlock Holmes, narrates the stories. But, unlike Holmes stories, there are hardly any female characters in the Feluda stories. And so there’s no trace of romance in any of the stories; Ray, possibly wanted to keep the stories limited for children.

The first Feluda story that Ray turned into film was Sonar Kella (Golden Fortress). The story was published in 1971 and the film was released in 1974. The thriller revolves round a boy called Mukul who claims to recall the happenings of his past life, gems and pearls, peacocks, and a golden fortress. Beside Sonar Kella, Ray made one more Feluda film --- Joi Baba Felunath (1978) that is set in Benaras and sees the first time appearance of the character Maganlal Meghraj, whose villainous activities returned in later Feluda fictions. In both the films a young Soumitra Chatterjee acted as Feluda, Siddartha Chatterjee played Topesh and Santosh Dutta acted as Jatayu.

Interestingly, in the book Sonar Kella, Ray illustrated Jatayu as a rather lean, clean-shaven individual who offered a kind of comic relief to the racy thriller. In the film, however, Jatayu is neither lean nor clean-shaven. But, not just these differences, with his acting prowess the late actor Santosh Dutta gave the character an identity that became larger than Ray’s original creation. Dutta made Jatayu more na├»ve and hilarious and Bengalee viewers accepted screen’s Jatayu wholeheartedly, cutting across the ages. Feluda stories became popular even among the older readers.

The master filmmaker-storyteller Ray realised it and in his later Feluda stories Ray portrayed Jatayu keeping Santosh Dutta in mind. The illustrations in the books changed accordingly. After Dutta’s sudden death, Ray had famously remarked that he wouldn’t make any other Feluda film for want of Jatayu on screen. Something similar happened with Soumitra Chatterjee. Despite his romantic and anti-establishment screen identities in other films, for a large section of filmgoers, Soumitra meant Feluda. But, with time, the actor aged and it was a discussion point for the film buffs about the possible replacement, if any at all.

However, Ray’s son Sandip later made couple of television serials on Feluda stories and some films with new set of actors. A lanky Sabyasachi Chakravarty took up the investigator’s role. Jatayu’s role went to the late actors Robi Ghosh and then Anupkumar. Bibhu Bhattacharya is currently wearing the Jatayu mantle. Sabyasachi, who reportedly was approved by Satayjit Ray, has so far acted in three films directed by Sandip --- Bombaiyer Bombete (released in December 2003), Kailashey Kelenkari (December 2007) and Tintorettor Jishu (December 2008). The audience response to these three films has been positive, mostly because of the fan following that Feluda commands and Sabyasachi’s convincing portrayal of the character. However, the same thing could not be said about Sashi Kapoor; his portrayal on television of the bachelor-sleuth from 27 Rajani Sen Lane in Kolkata caused much dismay among the audience.

Like his other movies, Ray used music to add to the local flavour of the place where the stories are set. Thus, in Sonar Kella we find Rajasthani folk music because the story takes the characters to that State in search of the golden fortress and the hidden treasures; in Joi Baba Felunath the bhajan provides the religious context (the story subtly shows the overpowering influence of religion on human thought process) that one can associate with the holy city of Benaras-Kashi.

The Feluda films mostly followed the original stories. However, demands of the screen adaptations led to certain changes in the films; opening shots of the two films by Ray, for example, are different from the way the stories in print begin. Bombaiyer Bombete (Bombay Bandits) was originally written in the 1970s. So were many other Feluda stories like Baksho Rawhoshyo, Gangtokey Gandagol, Jato Kando Kathmandutey, Chhinnamastar Abhishap and the rest. When some of these were turned into television serials in Bengali and Hindi, changes had to be made to keep up with the time. Thus, in Baksho Rawhoshyo on television we see Maruti cars and keypad telephones; in Kailashey Kelenkari , reference to the “trunk calls” have been done away with since that mode of communication is now obsolete, Feluda in the film disguises as a photographer associated with National Geographic, he lives in a new neighbourhood and Jatayu has new cars; in Bombaiyer Bombete Feluda is more trigger-happy unlike the print version.

Like any other thriller or whodunit stories, Feluda fictions also have their share of brainstorming and action. Feluda is however, is no superman. He banks more on his analytical capacity and observations than gadgets and weapons. And his otherwise simple ways makes it easier for an average reader to identify with character. But, more importantly, through the realistic conversations, settings, mix of accurate background information and real life events, these works depicted the societal aspects of Bengal, specially that of Kolkata city with such precision that these stories can well be reference points for social scientists in future. Anyone who might be interested to have an authentic picture of typical Bengalee behavioural patterns, specially that of the bhawdrolok (gentleman), Ray’s fictions cannot be missed, just like his celebrated films.