Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Byomkesh Bakshi

It’s very difficult to imagine Byomkesh Bakshi without the very talented Rajit Kapoor as the eponymous detective and KK Raina as Ajitbabu, the writer and the sidekick, from the iconic TV serial by Basu Chaterjee which ran for 33 episodes in Doordarshan in 1993 (I haven’t seen Satyajit Ray’s ‘Chiriyakhana’ (1967) with Uttam Kumar in the lead.)

In Anjan Dutt’s 2010 film, ‘Byomkesh Bakshi’, said to be the first installment in a proposed trilogy to be directed by singer-songwriter-actor-director, Abir Chatterjee plays the home-grown Sherlock Holmes, a popular figure in Bangla crime fiction (along with Ray’s Feluda), created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, and Saswata Chatterjee plays the Dr Watson-like sidekick, Ajitbabu. Both are competent on screen, especially Saswata Chatterjee (You may know him as Bob Biswas, the insurance agent cum contact killer in Sujay Ghosh’s ‘Kahaani’), and the memories of the earlier reincarnations of Byomkesh Bakshi should not spoil the fun. (The next film, titled ‘Abar Byomkesh’, (Byomkesh Again) is set to be released soon.) The current film dramatises the story, ‘Aadim Ripu’, while the next two films are supposed to be adaptations of ‘Chitrochor’ and ‘Kohen Kobi Kalidas’.

It’s a murder mystery set in a few years after India’s Independence, in the middle of a communal riot in Kolkata, with the Ajit character also serving as narrator, filling the gaps in the story, and also creates a backdrop for the narrative to flourish, but it’s not always convincing. I’m not sure the riot backdrop serves any purpose other than underscoring the fact we human being are capable of doing anything, even the most heinous of crimes. The story also highlights the moral bankruptcy in post-independent India, and also hints at robbery and black money, and also crimes of passion.

Anyway, all these work well in the context of the film where the person least suspected turns out to be the killer. But, I cannot tell you who, this is a detective story. And, it doesn’t matter since the proceedings are so interesting, despite the fact that the entire film is dialogue-driven instead of action, with most scenes taking place indoors. When the narrative goes outdoors, the film tries to maintain the period look, but not always with success. The rioters running amok in the streets do not look convincing, and they are very few. It looks more like a TV film, than a feature film.

A woman, Nonibala Devi, visits Byomkesh saying that she fears that her adopted son may be in danger. They were in Patna, she was a nurse, never married and adopted Prabhat. A few years back, they met an old and wealthy man, Anandibabu, who took a filial interest in Prabhat. He invited the mother-son due to live with him in Kolkata, and helped Prabhat open a bookshop (Prabhat is a binder by profession. Remember, this has something to do with the mystery.) In short, Anadibabu has all but adopted Prabhat. Now, the old man’s nephews want a share of his wealth, and for that, they might harm Prabhat.

But Byomkesh cannot take the case as no one is hurt yet. A while later, the detective takes up the case anyway, as he has nothing better to do, with the riot going on, and with his wife in Patna (a sub-plot never developed properly). This gives the filmmaker a chance to introduce the dramatis personae of the story, till Anadibabu is killed, and in Byomkesh’s eyes, everyone is under suspicion and each has a motive.

Books play an important role in the investigation. The dead man’s closet is full of books, but he did not look like a man who could read. The mother says she cannot read English, but carries a Sherlock Holmes book with her. The son owns a bookshop (he is in love with a glamorous singer and it’s unlikely that she loved him, unless she had other motives.). There’s a reference to Sukumar Roy’s collection of nonsense verse ‘Abol-Tabol’ (for period detail, there’s also reference to 1937 film ‘Prisoner of Zenda’ (or was it the 1952 version with James Mason and Deborah Kerr?)). And then, there’s Ajit, the well known writer.

What works well for the film is the tight screenplay. Everything is there for a reason; there’s no red herring, there’s no suspense for suspense sake, and everything is explained in the end, a hallmark of a good detective story. Above all, the film works due to the chemistry between Abir Chatterjee as the ‘goenda’ (spy), though he likes to call himself a ‘Satyanweshi’ (seeker of truth) and his admirer and chronicler played by Saswata Chatterjee.

And it was great, after a while, to listen to Bangla as it should sound, with the intrusion of English and Hindi, as it has become a trend in modern spoken Bangla (for that matter, every local language in India).

Here’s looking forward to ‘Abar Byomkesh’.

More on Byomkesh here.

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