Satyajit Ray

Shonku on big screen

Print edition : March 03, 2018

Satyajit Ray's illustration for Nakur Babu o El Dorado, the Professor Shonku book that is being made into a movie by Sandip Ray. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

Satyajit Ray's illustration for Nakur Babu o El Dorado, the Professor Shonku book that is being made into a movie by Sandip Ray. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

Satyajit Ray's illustration for Nakur Babu o El Dorado, the Professor Shonku book that is being made into a movie by Sandip Ray. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

Sandip Ray in his study. He points out that his father often placed the whimsical scientist Shonku in places that he himself had never visited. Photo: Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

Professor Shonku, the scientist-inventor who went on to become one of Satyajit Ray’s most popular fictional creations, will for the first time appear on the big screen in a film directed by Sandip Ray.

PROFESSOR SHONKU, the genius scientist, inventor and polyglot whose adventures have enthralled generations of young Bengali readers for six decades, will for the first time appear in a feature film. The wise old figure of Shonku, one of Satyajit Ray’s most enduring literary creations, like Feluda (Ray’s other immortal literary creation), has continued to grow in popularity and has achieved a cult status in Bengali culture. The film, which is being directed by Ray’s son, the eminent film-maker Sandip Ray, is based on the book Nakur Babu o El Dorado (Nakur Babu and El Dorado). The film will be called Professor Shonku o El Dorado. This adventure takes place in the heart of the Amazon forests of Brazil, with Nakurchandra Biswas, the professor’s psychic friend, accompanying him. The film will be produced by Shree Venkatesh Films.

Many popular characters in Bengali fiction have been represented in cinema, among them Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s great sleuth Byomkesh Bakshi, Sunil Gangopadhyay’s crippled but formidable archaeologist Kaka Babu, and Ray’s dynamic detective Feluda. It is surprising that Professor Shonku took more than 57 years since his creation to make it to the big screen. Sandip Ray explained why: “A Professor Shonku has to be on a big scale, and has to be bilingual. Our biggest challenge for so long has been that we did not have the technology necessary for the visual effects required in a Professor Shonku film. Now the time is right as the technology for the required visual effects is being developed locally.”

Initially, Sandip Ray was also considering another Professor Shonku adventure—The Unicorn Expedition, which was a personal favourite of Satyajit Ray. But he realised that the kind of visual effects necessary at the climax of the story might make it a little too difficult to handle. Nakur Babu o El Dorado, on the other hand, would require comparatively fewer visual effects. “We have to be very careful. The young viewers are now exposed to so much sophisticated technology that we are taking a lot of time with our pre-production work, so as not to disappoint them,” he said. The shooting will take place in two phases. The initial phase, from May, will be in India, and then from August onwards, the filming will be in the Amazon forests of Brazil.

Satyajit Ray himself apparently never thought of making a film on Shonku; and when he wrote the first Shonku story, Byomjatrir Diary (An Astronaut’s Diary) in 1961 for Sandesh magazine, he did not have a series in mind either. Diminutive, elderly, bald and bearded, Trilokeshwar Shonku cut a singular figure never before seen in the pages of Bengali fiction. If, initially, he appeared a little eccentric, over the years he evolved into a serious, sagacious person with an open mind, and his worldwide fame as a scientist did not affect his innate humility.

In Shonku, Ray bestowed much of his own humanistic ideals and ideas. “Shonku is Satyajit Ray; there is no doubt about that. As in the case of Feluda, who is also in many ways Satyajit Ray, my father gave Shonku many of his own characteristics and left out traits that he did not like. Shonku’s honesty, personal and academic integrity, his essential Bengaliness and his erudition are all traits of my father,” said Sandip Ray.

Satyajit Ray was a big science fiction fan, and one of his favourite fictional characters was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger. In fact, originally, the idea of Shonku was born out of Challenger and the hilarious science fiction/adventure parody Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary (the Diary of Heshoram Hushiyar) by Ray’s father, the famed poet and writer Sukumar Ray. That accounts for the eccentric and even comical characteristics displayed by Shonku in the initial stories; later, of course, he became a very serious figure. All the Shonku stories are presented in the form of a diary meticulously maintained by the good scientist.

Ray's wish fulfilment

As is the case with the Feluda stories, the Professor Shonku stories are also travelogues, taking readers along with the intrepid and wily protagonist to adventures in different parts of the world. Whereas the Feluda mysteries are played out in places that Satyajit Ray had been to, Shonku’s adventures often take readers to places the writer never visited. Sandip Ray points out that through Shonku, Ray often indulged in a sort of wish-fulfilment exercise: “My father always took Feluda to places he was familiar with; but he often placed Shonku in countries or regions he always wanted to go to but never had the opportunity.”

This made writing Shonku stories quite tough, and Ray had to rely on his friends living in different parts of the world to help him out with information. “My father wrote to them telling them that he was working on a story and needed road maps and visual details, not just for his writing, but also for his illustrations,” said Sandip Ray. The correspondence made writing a Shonku story a long-drawn process, and Ray’s sources of information were encyclopaedias and books. The National Library in Kolkata was one of his favourite haunts.

Popular as the Shonku series is, with its own army of dedicated fans, Feluda has a greater following among younger readers. After all, a tall, young, revolver-carrying crime-solver, with a teenage sidekick, is easily more attractive to youngsters than an elderly, bald scientist. Yet while they identify with Feluda, they are equally captivated by the inventions and adventures of Shonku. In fact, both Shonku and Felu have drawn the same readers, despite having different kinds of appeal.

According to Sampa Sen, Associate Professor of Bengali in Government Girls College, Kolkata, Professor Shonku’s appeal is wider because the series is more cerebral and mature in its content and message.

“Professor Shonku, though an out and out Bengali, like Feluda, is a more universal figure in that he is an internationally recognised scientist. Through the adventures of Shonku, Ray is also providing an encyclopaedia of information and knowledge for young readers. The diary form is a unique aspect in Bengali science fiction. I find Professor Shonku is greater than Feluda in literary value,” said Sampa Sen.

Sandip Ray, who has made seven Feluda films, also believes that the reach of a Professor Shonku film will be greater than that of Feluda. “I think Shonku’s reach will be wider mainly because of the bilingual aspect and the visual effects. I am also looking at a simultaneous all-India release,” he said.

Though the story Nakur Babu o El Dorado was written in 1980, the film is being set in the year 2016. “There will be certain obvious changes because of the different period in which we are placing the story, but we will not be changing anything that is essential in a Shonku adventure. And we are also being very careful to adhere to the original characterisations in the books,” Sandip Ray said. So Shonku fans will be delighted to see on the big screen the regular characters of the series, like Prahlad, the faithful domestic help, and Newton, the 24-year-old cat who resides with Shonku in his quaint bungalow with its little garden on the bank of the Usri river in Giridih (now in Jharkhand). Shonku’s scientist friends, including the German Wilhelm Krol and the Briton Jeremy Saunders, will also feature in the film.

Satyajit Ray almost always illustrated his stories. This has made choosing the right actor for the role a tricky task for Sandip. The acclaimed actor Dhritiman Chatterjee, known for his roles in Satyajit Ray films (Pratidwandi, or the Adversary, 1970, in particular) will be playing the role of Shonku. “Dhriti da is of the right age, height and his English is impeccable. We needed an actor who is fluent in English to play Shonku,” Sandip Ray said. Nakur Babu will be played by the veteran actor Subhasish Mukhopadhyay, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the illustrations. “Because of my father’s illustrations, the images of the characters are etched indelibly in the imagination of readers. This makes a director’s task all the more difficult. Our main challenge is to make the film live up to the imagination of the readers,” he said.

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