Big Screen Movies

Feluda was Ray, Ray was Feluda

Feluda and his sidekick Topshe as illustrated in the books.   | Photo Credit: Ray Society

Sagnik Chatterjee is full of Feluda. I just nudge him and an incessant and passionate discourse on Bengal’s most beloved detective follows. The 6’ 2” extremely fit, .32 Colt revolver carrying, Charminar-smoking yoga buff called Prodosh Chandra Mitra, created by Satyajit Ray, has been a lifeline for Chatterjee. “The first puff of Charminar I took made me feel like I was Feluda myself. I can’t imagine a life without him. He hasn’t been about crime and criminals but something beyond. He was part of our upbringing, a window to knowledge. He shaped me as a human being,” says Chatterjee.

Not only did he grow up devouring his books, but the mass communication graduate from Symbiosis Institute in Pune also worked with filmmaker Sandip Ray on his Feluda films between 2003 and 2009. Entirely apt then that his big screen debut should be a documentary called Feluda: 50 Years of Ray’s Detective: “It wasn’t something forced but an inner compulsion, it just needed to be done.”

First formal film

But making a film on Feluda is not an easy job, particularly if it’s your first. On the one hand, there was the usual difficulty of raising money (after many financiers walked in and out, it was crowd-funding that came to the rescue), and on the other, the onerous task of bringing alive the collective nostalgia for a larger-than-life character, the mythology and lore around him. And then the fact that an average Bengali would know a lot about him already.

A poster for the documentary.

A poster for the documentary.   | Photo Credit: Souradeep Ray

Did Chatterjee anticipate a “so what’s new” thrown back at him? “Most don’t know the history in entirety. Some have been acquainted with Feluda only through films,” he says. Also, there might be a lot of love, affection and knowledge but no formal, on-screen documentation. “How has a fictional character survived for so long even after the death of its creator? Why does a restaurant have a Feluda menu? How has he touched a chord with so many age groups and generations?” Chatterjee asks rhetorically and hopes the film has been able to offer some answers.

The documentary is as sprawling as our conversation—stretching over two hours. There is no aspect of Feluda that Chatterjee has left untouched—be it the books and their multilingual editions or the much-loved films; the history and chronology; the character himself; his unplanned, accidental birth; what he and his numerous adventures stood for and some analysis and opinions. There are innumerable people—fans, researchers, academicians and associates. There are sketches and illustrations and film clips. And then there Ray’s booming voice. It’s as though Chatterjee has squeezed out every little detail possible, poured out all his love for Feluda on screen.

This can be seen as both the film’s strong point and also its weakness. There is a lot happening in the film, perhaps a bit too much. But an interesting pattern emerges. That of a journey in the footsteps of Feluda. A throwback to the detective’s Tintin connect—how both solved mysteries on expeditions. Many travelling Bengalis are known to have done that—gone to Jaisalmer to look for Sonar Kella, carried a copy of Gangtokey Gondogol (Trouble in Gangtok) on a visit to Gangtok.

Chatterjee does the same. From looking for Feluda’s official residence in Ballygunge—21, Rajani Sen Road—to going on a pilgrimage to Shalimar Hotel in Mumbai’s Kemps Corner that Feluda checks into in Bombaiyer Bombete (The Bandits of Bombay). The camera traverses the streets of Varanasi looking for villain Maganlal Meghraj's house in Joi Baba Felunath and to London to revisit Londone Feluda when the detective famously declared Holmes his guru. And it’s the oddball characters he meets on this trip that make up the best parts. Like the Marathi girl who discovered Kolkata with a Feluda book in hand.

360 degree person

Through these journeys, Chatterjee’s attempt is to bring Ray, the writer and illustrator, to the forefront. “He was a complete, 360 degree creative person,” he says. It’s about the picturesque, visual quality of Ray’s writing, the strong faith readers had in Feluda; how his books weren’t just about Feluda but other characters as well—Jatayu, the narrator-sidekick Topshe, the Moriarty-like Maganlal Meghraj, and other fascinating, cunning and literate villains. Feluda’s values—his commitment to art, conservation and heritage—and how they reflected Ray’s own vision. Feluda was Ray, Ray was Feluda.

Soumitra Chatterjee (seated), who played Feluda in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Sonar Kella’ and ‘Joi Baba Felunath’, with director Sagnik Chatterjee during the shooting of the documentary.

Soumitra Chatterjee (seated), who played Feluda in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Sonar Kella’ and ‘Joi Baba Felunath’, with director Sagnik Chatterjee during the shooting of the documentary.   | Photo Credit: Souradeep Ray

Chatterjee himself remembers how Durga Puja had become synonymous with a new Feluda adventure. “It was like Feluda would come to us in the festival just like the Devi.”

There are some interesting debates thrown in as well. The lack of women in Feluda’s “masculine” world, the deliberate lack of romance and sexuality, for instance. Or how Ray wrote for the young, so though he showed some vices, he kept them at a distance. Also, how our culture restricts us from experimenting, makes us play safe with the character, unlike how the Mark Gatiss-Steven Moffat-Benedict Cumberbatch combination has entirely reinvented Feluda’s inspiration, Holmes.

For now, quite fittingly, Chatterjee’s Feluda is all set to premiere on Ray’s birthday on May 2 at the New York Indian Film Festival. Chatterjee hopes he will be able to release it in India commercially by the end of this year. A journey with his beloved detective may have culminated for him with the completion of the film. But the journey of the film itself has only just begun.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 4:23:17 AM |

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