Literature

Ray’s alter ego

Print edition : June 09, 2017

Satyajit Ray with his cast during the making of Joy Baba Felunath. Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

Ray’s drawing of his Feluda’s bedroom for “Sonar Kella”. Photo: Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

Ray’s illustration for "The Emperor’s Ring". Photo: Courtesy: Sandip Ray

The appeal of Feluda, Satyajit Ray's iconic Bengali detective, remains undiminished more than 50 years after he was created.

IN 1965, Satyajit Ray tried his hand at something new for Sandesh (the Bengali children’s magazine that he edited)—a detective story. It was serialised in three parts running from December that year to February 1966. Little did he realise at the time of writing the story Feludar Goendagiri (Feluda’s Sleuthing) that he was creating one of the most iconic and well-loved characters in Bengali literature, whose popularity would grow with every new generation of readers. Feluda, whose formal name is Prodosh Mitra, and his satellite and chronicler, his 14-year-old cousin Tapshe (proper name Tapesh), and their faithful friend, the comical and endearing crime fiction writer Jatayu (proper name Lalmohan Ganguly), have for more than half a century been an integral part of Bengali culture and are etched indelibly into the Bengali psyche. No post-Independence fictional character in Bengali literature has emerged till date that has had the kind of social impact as Satyajit Ray’s detective.

Nearly 52 years later, a “Feluda” exhibition held in Kolkata by the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives on the occasion of the master film-maker’s 96th birth anniversary once again demonstrated that the dynamic detective Feluda’s appeal had remained undiminished. Both the young and the old thronged the Bengal Art Gallery, ICCR, where more than a hundred illustrations, photographs and posters of Feluda books and films were on display and sale. Of particular interest to Satyajit Ray’s admirers and “Feluda” aficionados were the laminated photocopies of Satyajit Ray’s handwritten manuscripts, drafts, sketches and paintings, which hung alongside the pictures and posters. Pictures worth more than Rs.50,000 were sold to collectors on the very first day.

The beginning

After the publication of the first story in Sandesh, Satyajit Ray himself was taken by surprise by the reception it got and the excitement it generated. He was flooded with letters not just from his target readership of children and teenagers but also from their parents. Satyajit Ray also realised that the story had led to a marked increase in Sandesh’s sales. Sandip Ray, Satyajit Ray’s son and an eminent film director, told Frontline: “My father was astonished. He felt the phone calls and letters he received for writing the Feluda story were more than he had ever received for his films. It was not just children who were writing, but their parents as well. They now wanted a bigger Feluda. Then he thought of the first novella, Badshahi Angti (The Emperor’s Ring), which was serialised in Sandesh for a year.” A phenomenon was born, and after that there was no turning back. Even 51 years later, Feluda books are still as popular as ever.

“When I wrote my Feluda story,” Satyajit Ray was to write many years after creating him, “I scarcely imagined he would prove so popular, that I would be forced to write a Feluda novel every year. To write a whodunnit while keeping in mind a young readership is not an easy task because the stories have to be kept ‘clean’. No illicit love, no crime passionel, and only a modicum of violence.” This accounts for the fact that there are absolutely no women characters in the Feluda stories. However, the stories are set in such a manner that the complete absence of women is never conspicuous.

What Satyajit Ray created was something unique, and that too at a time when there was a dearth of detective fiction in Bengali literature. Perhaps the most enduring aspect of the Feluda series is that it goes beyond the genre of detective fiction per se. A Feluda book is not just about crime and criminals; it is as much a travelogue, an adventure story, a source of interesting information and trivia about a diverse range of things—history, places, nature, literature, society and culture. Even though adults were equally addicted to the Feluda stories, Satyajit Ray always had children in mind when writing them, and so, in the subtle manner in which a truly great master works, he imparted education and knowledge while he entertained and thrilled. “To be quite honest I had never heard of the Renaissance painter Tintoretto until I read ‘Tintoretto’s Jesus’ [published in 1981]. There was no Internet at that time, so you can imagine the enormous amount of research that my father had to do,” said Sandip Ray.

With words and illustrations Satyajit Ray created in just 35 stories and novellas immortal characters who have captured the imagination of generations of young readers. Feluda himself is a striking figure. He stands over six feet tall, with a commanding presence and masterful ways. He has a brilliant, analytical mind and is vastly read. Though a quintessential Bengali, he can hardly be called traditional or confined within the boundaries of an entrenched Bengali way of life. According to Sagnik Chatterjee, the maker of the documentary film Feluda: 50 Years of Ray’s Detective: “Feluda is rooted in Bengaliness, but his ideas and way of thinking are highly cosmopolitan and enlightened in a more European way. Feluda is that Bengali which all Bengalis want to be.” In some ways Ray was also subtly moulding the character of his young impressionable readers.

The character of Feluda is presented from the perspective of the narrator—Tapshe. To Tapshe, the formidable detective Prodosh is his elder brother Feluda (da being the abbreviated form for dada, meaning elder brother). Felu dotes upon his much younger cousin but is at the same time a strict disciplinarian and a guide and teacher. Under Felu’s watchful eyes, Tapshe himself is turning out to be a strong and capable individual, with a deeply imbibed set of values and a growing understanding of the world and the society around him. Felu is, in fact, the universal “dada”, mentoring the young without mollycoddling them.

Sagnik Chatterjee told Frontline: “Ray never wrote Feluda from a moralistic point of view. There are a lot of things in the books which are actually taboo for children. For example, Feluda smokes, and he smokes [with] so much charisma that those kids who grew up reading or watching Feluda on screen would inevitably smoke a Charminar [Felu’s preferred brand of cigarette] if they took up the habit later, and they would see themselves as Feluda. In the stories there are references to ganja, charas, LSD, smuggling, etc. Ray never tried to hide these darker sides of society from young adults. But they are never made overt in the stories. This way, Satyajit Ray, through Feluda, also informed the young reader about the harsher realities and dangers prevalent in society.”

According to Sandip Ray, Feluda was his father’s alter ego. “Actually Feluda is my father. There is no doubt about it…. He has attributed to him many of his own traits, and his own personal likes and dislikes. Things that my father liked, Feluda also liked, and the same went for what he disliked, too. For instance, punctuality and time management—these were traits that my father was very particular about, and so was Feluda. Moreover, a perceptive reader can also find out by reading a Feluda book what Satyajit Ray was interested in at that time, for that would inevitably find its way into the story. That’s also perhaps why Feluda has remained a part of our lives for such a long time,” Sandip Ray said.

In Ray’s own image

In fact, the actor Sabyasachi Chakraborty, who has played Feluda for both television and cinema since 1995, based his portrayal of the sleuth on Satyajit Ray himself, rather than his predecessor in the role, the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee, who played the role of Feluda in the Satyajit Ray-directed Sonar Kella (1974) and Joy Baba Felunath (1979). “I was asked not to watch the earlier films and instead follow the books and the illustrations…. The only thing I did was try and emulate the way Satyajit Ray used to sit in his room, and the no-nonsense manner in which he used to speak,” Chakraborty told Frontline. Before playing the part, he had contacted Soumitra Chatterjee and asked him what Satyajit Ray had told him about playing Feluda. “Soumitra babu told me that Satyajit Ray had said that this man [Feluda] is very cerebral, show it in your eyes,” said Chakraborty.

Interestingly, Satyajit Ray’s wife, Bijoya, was a greater fan of the crime story genre than he was, and it was at her suggestion that he tried his hand at writing a detective story. Satyajit Ray himself was more into science fiction. Sandip Ray said: “My father was a fan of Sherlock Holmes, but it was my mother who was a huge fan of crime fiction. It was she who suggested to my father to write a detective story, and he decided to give it a try. He would always consult my mother while writing. If he was satisfied with the first draft, he would copy the final draft and give it to my mother with a pencil to make necessary changes.” Satyajit Ray was a very fast writer and was able to complete a whole novella in just three to seven days.

According to Partho Mukhopadhyay, who writes under the pen name Shekhar Mukhopadhyay and is the author of the acclaimed crime novel Gajapati Niwas Rahashya (The Mystery of the Gajapati Abode), the sweeping quality in the Feluda novels and stories was perhaps due to the fact that Ray wrote them in the midst of his extremely busy schedule. “They are not long stories, and the action is fast-paced. The style of writing is such that it feels as if the writer himself is sitting in front of you and telling you the story. There is not so much cerebral work in solving the mysteries, as there is adventure and action,” Mukhopadhyay told Frontline. Sampa Sen, Professor of Bengali Literature at Hooghly Mohsin College, points to the language of Satyajit Ray as one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of the Feluda books. “The language is so easy and fluid and the action and plot are so taut that reading a Feluda book is like watching a film. There is also so much humour in the books, which is uniquely Bengali but at the same time universal. But most unique are the characters that Ray introduces in the Feluda adventures. These various interesting characters, who appear with their own idiosyncrasies and hobbies, not only add colour to the adventures but also ignite young minds with curiosity. This is something unique in the genre of Bengali detective fiction,” she said.

Nod to Holmes

Satyajit Ray never denied the obvious debt to Sherlock Holmes. From the tall, aquiline features of the protagonist and his method of deduction to the chronicling of his adventures by his ever-present understudy, the shadow of Holmes is all too evident in Feluda. But it is a tipping of the hat and no more than that. For, Feluda may travel to London to solve a case, but you cannot place him anywhere outside the Bengali context. Moreover, unlike Holmes or Byomkesh Bakshi (the iconic Bengali detective created by Sharadindu Bandopadhyay in the 1930s), Feluda is not restricted to any particular period in history (pre-Independence period for Byomkesh, and the late Victorian and Edwardian ages for Holmes). Though Satyajit Ray wrote the stories in the 1960s and 1970s, Feluda has remained a figure for all ages. His attitude and outlook and the nature of the stories keep him open to change. According to Mukhopadhyay, the fact that Feluda can be projected on any time period can also be a limitation of sorts. “In period pieces like Byomkesh and Sherlock Holmes, one gets a picture of the society prevalent in those days, which one does not get in Feluda,” he said.

While the character of Feluda remains open to reinterpretation, the atmosphere of the Feluda books reflects the fast-fading old-world gentility of the educated Bengali middle-class family of the 1960s and the 1970s. The world changed very quickly after the onset of liberalisation in the early 1990s, and so did the culture and literary scene of Bengal. The characters in Satyajit Ray’s Feluda books interact with a certain quiet, gentle dignity that would stand out as out of place today. It is a cultural world preceding the one dominated by TV soaps and commercials.

While Satyajit Ray’s two Feluda films— Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath—were made in the 1970s, the later films made by Sandip Ray place Feluda in contemporary settings. He brought back Feluda to the screen first as a television series in 1996, with Sabyasachi Chakraborty in the lead role, and subsequently as full-length feature films. An entirely new generation was hooked. The older generation, for whom Soumitra Chatterjee was the definitive Feluda, also accepted Sabyasachi Chakraborty, and the legend continued. But Sandip Ray had to deal with certain problems that the changing times presented. For example, he could not make Feluda use the Internet, as that would make redundant the delightful character of Sidhu Jetha (jetha is one’s father’s elder brother), the old man with encyclopaedic knowledge whom Feluda was in the habit of consulting from time to time.

Moreover, Sandip Ray has to be doubly careful as Feluda fanatics are extremely possessive of their favourite detective and hate any kind of tampering with either the storyline or the characters. “In one film [ Bombayer Bombetey, or The Hooligans of Bombay, 2003] I show Feluda using a mobile phone. I was careful to show that he doesn’t own a mobile but knows how to operate it. I had placed the story not at the time it was written [1976] but in 2003. This was not acceptable to a section of the audience, and I had people writing to me asking why I gave Feluda a mobile phone. I find this kind of possessiveness very weird; but it exists, and so I have to be very careful, as everybody has made Feluda a part of their life,” said Sandip Ray.

The illustrations, by way of sketches in the stories made by Satyajit Ray himself, are an equally important part of the cult of Feluda and actually serve as directions for the films. Like Sidney Paget’s drawings of Sherlock Holmes that appeared with Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories in the Strand Magazine in the 1890s, the sketches of Feluda are a key factor in establishing his immediately recognisable image.

Illustrations


Many Feluda fans saw in the illustrations more than a passing resemblance to the screen legend Soumitra Chatterjee, whose on-screen representation of the detective remains the most popular more than 40 years since his last Feluda starrer. There is a section that is still convinced that Satyajit Ray conceived of the physical characteristics of Feluda with Soumitra Chatterjee in mind. This is a fallacy that Sandip Ray dispelled. He explained that for the first Feluda film, Sonar Kella, Satyajit Ray initially wanted a new face to play Feluda. He was looking for a mixture of Barun Chanda, Dhritiman Chatterjee, Soumitra Chatterjee and Subhendu Chattopadhyay, all screen actors of that period whom Ray used in his films. “He realised that the mixture he had in mind was impossible to get, and ultimately he chose Soumitra da,” said Sandip Ray.

Initially the sketches in the stories were slightly comical, but as a result of the increasing fan mail, slowly that changed, and Feluda became smarter and more handsome in his bearings. According to Sandip Ray, the actor on whom Ray actually based his illustrations in the later books was Santosh Dutta, who played Jatayu, the loveable pulp detective story writer who accompanied Feluda and Tapshe in their adventures. “In the early stories, Jatayu looked very different in the illustrations. After Santosh Dutta portrayed him in Sonar Kella, my father felt compelled to change his sketches to make them look like him. Santosh da did something magical, and the film dictated the illustrations,” said Sandip Ray.

Over the years the Feluda cult has grown. Every new Feluda film is an eagerly anticipated affair like a Christmas morning present or an approaching festival; people do research on the books and the characters and even to this day continue to form fan clubs on social media and in neighbourhoods and schools.

But the most telling statement of the continuing appeal of Feluda is that of a 12-year-old boy staring at a picture in the Feluda exhibition gallery in 2017 and adjusting his hair and expression according to the sketch on the wall. One day he will grow up to be like Feluda; there is no doubt about that. In fact, he is already on his way.

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