As Dibakar Banerjee decodes Byomkesh Bakshi, Anuj Kumar follows the precocious filmmakeron a spy trail
In his short career Dibakar Banerjee has crafted an image where the discerning wants to know what’s next, what is he up to now. So when the news of his tie-up with Yash Raj Films spread, one feared dilution. But soon he allayed the fears by announcing the rebooting of Byomkesh Bakshi on big screen. Arguably, the finest fictional detective the country has read or seen, BB has largely been limited to religious interpretations on small screen with the image of Rajit Kapoor still fresh in mind. When it comes to big screen, Sharadindu Banerjee’s legendary character has not crossed the Bengal frontier. Last year we had a film by Anjan Dutta too. And Rituparno Ghosh finished Satyanveshi before he passed away. Dibakar wants to change all of that for he feels BB deserves big screen and a pan Indian audience. And in that sense joining hands with Aditya Chopra looks logical for he can provide the canvas that Dibakar needs, to recreate a war-torn Calcutta in a Colonial control. “This is the origin of Byomkesh. His beginnings. This film explains why at age 23 he decides to fight crime. It’s about a youthful, unsure, vulnerable man about to start his climb to great heights – using just his wits and taking on mighty adversaries just with his youthful exuberance and courage. This is about him defining himself, his friends, his loves, his hates, his enemies. This is about him making huge mistakes — then picking himself up and prodding on — that is youth!”
Like Guy Ritchie’s reworking of Sherlock Holmes, Dibakar wants to introduce Byomkesh to a younger pan Indian audience. And that is why he has cast Sushant Singh Rajput in the lead role. The choice seems odd if you compare it to what we have seen of Byomkesh on television and big screen. Isn’t he a mature character? “What is the point in repeating what has already been done? I want to explore the days when Byomkesh was new to the crime scene. I find the perfection of detectives a little odd. I want to see them as humans with their flaws.”
Dibakar got introduced to Byomkesh at the age of 14. “The books of Sharadindu Banerjee were a must have for every respectable Bengali bookshelf! It’s just that kids were not allowed to read them. Precocious ones like me would steal up on them and Byomkesh Bakshi was simply the most well-known detective character. Bengali books were available in select stores in Delhi. And you could mail order them.” Dibakar, who grew up in the lanes of Karol Bagh, says during Durga Puja all the big publishers put up their Puja editions of bestsellers and new books for sale in all the major pandals. “There was, and is – this famous Omnibus series of all Sharadindu’s works in 11 or 12 volumes, bound in red fabric hardcover with gold printing like an antique piece. And this essential series has been in print for 40 years. One is in my bookshelf right now as I speak!”
Recalling his competitors in North India, Dibakar says the scene in North India was quite pulpy. “Rajan Iqbal were the most well-known duo. They were a high school version of Bond meets Jai Viru with the usual high jinks of impossible sounding action, Goldfinger kind of villains and their lairs and everything in between. I still remember one of them featured a dance that the duo learnt so that they could dodge machine gun bullets with their incredibly fast moves so you can imagine the vibe! Mostly they would rip off covers from Hardy Boys books. Byomkesh was on a total different level in complexity, richness of atmosphere, characters and believability.”
Did he compete for space with Feluda in his collection?
“The two are totally different. Feluda is for teens and pre-teens – no adult crimes, mostly heists and murders around precious treasures of artistic, archaeological or historic value, and hero worship of a young detective by a teenage Watson and a comic third man.It’s is mainly educative without even you suspecting it even once! This is the hallmark of the greatest literature for young readers that adults also dip in.” BB, says Dibakar, is a completely adult series for adult readers, with deep insights into the darker regions of human nature – lust, greed, ambition, revenge, remorse. “The detective and his sidekick are worldly creatures, the setting is adult and there’s an arc from a strong sense of adventure and thrill in the beginning to deeper character studies towards the end. I have all of Feluda as well on the same bookshelf! He is my teenage hero along with Jim Corbett!”
Interestingly, Satyajit Ray’s Chiriyakhana was on Byomkesh Bakshi. “With none other than Uttam Kumar playing BB,” interrupts Dibakar. “The film was a commercial success but Satyajit Ray didn’t count it among his best works. He didn’t talk about it much.”
Sandip Ray once said that Feluda is so Bengali that when he made a series in Hindi for national network the character didn’t seem Feluda to him at all. Does he anticipate something similar with Byomkesh speaking Hindi?
“Byomkesh with his Bengali-ness and the setting of war-torn 1942 Calcutta is my main theme in a Hindi film. So, enjoy the paradox. We will have to make the local universal and entertaining without caricaturing the Bengali stereotypes. I find use of accented Bengali odd. In that case Aamir Khan should have spoken Gujarati in Lagaan and Shakespeare should have made Hamlet speak in Danish,” argues Dibakar.
Unlike Bangla, Hindi popular culture doesn’t really have indigenous detectives.
Dibakar says Hindi popular culture does not have the ingredients of the essential detective as defined by the late 19th Century tradition – a dark, crime-ridden, complex urban sprawl, lots of middle class and upper middle class sophisticated crime, an atmosphere of industrial, corporate, bureaucratic, scientific or sexual intrigue. Money. Urban politics. Crime syndicates. Erotic and psychological black holes that suck you in. And one cynical but idealistic sleuth working the maze towards justice. This is the setting of a true private eye story. We do not have most of these ingredients in feudal and largely semi-urban North India.”
“So we borrow,” Dibakar analyses, “from two prototypes that we have seen for a long time — Bond — the action detective and Robin Hood — the low class rebel and charming thief (who is actually high born but nobody knows till the climax). And us being us we throw in the lover-boy image as well to play up to the chauvinist and the sexually frustrated! Ultimately it becomes B-movie-ish or spoofy without getting the true hard edged, grim core of the real hard boiled pulp of Hammett or Chandler. Or Ray or Banerjee for that matter.”
In that case a detective’s story seems out of place today, when shoddy investigation has become a rule rather than exception. Dibakar agrees to disagree. “Indian court procedures, the justice system, the abysmal state of forensic sciences, the cretinous level of police investigation techniques, political corruption and the chaos completely eliminate any hope of crime solving in the present day. We better stick our necks in the sand and read fiction like Byomkesh – because only in that imaginary world there exists some justice! Forget it in real life. This is the best time for a fictional detective!”
On naming the film Detective Byomkesh Bakshi
The same as Sharadindu Banerjee’s. It was a masterstroke in branding. Bakshi is not a common Bengali surname. It is more of a title.
On Basu Chatterjee’s series
Of course like everybody else, I have lot of memories. My main memory is of being mistaken for a young Rajit Kapur on the streets. Those were the days.
Influence of Sherlock Holmes
Holmes is the prototype that affected everything that came after.
Though he himself came from an earlier French tradition but the detailing and depth of Holmes, and then Poirot – completely overarches everything that comes after.
I think that Byomkesh’s strength lies in the fact that Sharadindu took a western form and made it completely his own. Indian, rooted in its time and place, populated with deep insights of character and setting that give the reader a fantastic mix of the familiar yet shockingly new in every story.
Will his Byomkesh go out of Bengal as well?
He stays in Calcutta and saves the world.