Bengali literature has had its fair shares of goenda-golpo or detective fiction over the years, whether it be the swashbuckling adventures of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Indiana Jones-ish Kakababu, Samaresh Majumdar’s intrepid youthful sleuth Arjun (who could beat the Hardy Boys under the table any day) or Satyajit Ray’s towering Bong Sherlock, Pradosh C. Mitter, aka Feluda. In this private-eye pantheon though, Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi holds a unique place of distinction.
For one thing, he dislikes being called a private investigator, unlike many other literary detectives who take pride in the avant-garde-ness of their line of work. He prefers “Satyanweshi” or Seeker of Truth, making clear that his profession is to be seen more in the context of a philosophical quest to understand a mystery, rather than to solve a problem and catch the villain. Often in these stories, he lets a criminal go scot-free or lets them commit suicide in front of his eyes, rather than hand them over to the law, especially if he admires the intellect of the perpetrator or their motives. He is also, as exemplified by his identity as a Bengali bhadralok (gentleman doesn’t quite cover it; a bhadralok is to be seen more as a man of taste and erudition) and his literary timeline which stretches from pre-Independence India in the 1930s to well into the still-new nation of the 1960s, the epitome of the Indian post-colonialist hero. Neither a parochial xenophobe nor a slave to Western traditions, as Gautam Chakrabarti writes in his paper, “The Bhadralok as Truth-Seeker: Towards a Social History of the Bengali Detective” , “Bakshi may still be construed as a simulacrum of the English private eye, who becomes, in the Calcutta of the Thirties, a somewhat crypto-nationalistic, somewhat Anglophiliac intersectional figure, and represents the target audience’s deeply ingrained societal and cultural roots and existential split, in the throes of its modernist and proto-postcolonial desire to renegotiate the boundaries and entanglements of a transcultural mélange”
What makes Byomkesh such an excellent fit for the late Rituparno Ghosh’s cinematic palette, however, is the often mature adult themes tackled by Saradindu. Sex and romantic liaisons were a taboo for most Bengali crime fiction writers, owing to the fact that their readership consisted primarily of minors. Satyajit Ray even laid out his philosophy of never introducing mature thematic content into his Feluda stories, because he felt that even though his stories were read by people of all ages, it was always primarily targeted at children; hence no rapes, no extra-marital affairs, no murders for love. Saradindu followed no such dictum. Right off the bat, he started with stories of drug trafficking, mistresses, illegitimate children, etc. This embracing of the taboo and the risqué makes him a natural candidate for adaptation by Rituparno, who displayed a unique insight and compassion throughout his career for the lives of the sexually marginalized and of the complications of romantic relationships. Since his death, this mantle seems to have passed to the iconoclast Q, who despite being a dynamic filmmaker and sharing the legend’s penchant for the offbeat, lacks his elegance and ability to make the audience feel for his characters.
In SATYANWESHI, adapted from the novel CHORABALI (Quicksand), Byomkesh and his Watson, the writer Ajit, are invited to the royal estate of Byomkesh’s friend Himangshu, the town of Balbantapur, on a hunting expedition. Himangshu has recently returned from his studies abroad, where he was quite the sexual dilettante, following the death of his father Arunangshu, who dictates in his will that Himangshu would forfeit the crown if he married a foreigner and that he was to produce an heir within three years of marriage. Indeed, his marriage is arranged with all haste to the beautiful aspiring actress Aloka, but trouble seems to brew in Paradise when no heir is forthcoming after one and a half years. It is revealed that the real reason Byomkesh has been brought to the town is to explore the disappearance of the royal librarian Harinath Babu and to clear Himangshu’s name in the eyes of Aloka. But things may not be quite what they seem, as a host of characters associated with the royal family all seem to harbor their own secrets. And is that a tiger’s roar in the dead of the night, even though no tiger has been seen in the vicinity for over ten years?
The location of the royal palace with lanterns casting long shadows deep into the night allows for a potent dramatic atmosphere to prevail throughout the film. After all, what says murder mystery better than an old-fashioned haveli? Distant strains of classical music, the cackling of a hyena from the forest, crickets chirping and the undulating light from a candle – the music and the cinematography of the film by Debajyoti Mishra and Aveek Mukhopadhyay, are simply stellar. I would also commend the sound designer, but I can’t find his name anywhere. Damn you, Tollywood. Give a little credit to the people working behind the scenes.
The strength of the film lies in its buildup of tension, but its denouement, where most whodunits make or break themselves, is pithy, illogical and thoroughly unsatisfying. The acting falters in parts and it helps that no one except for Arpita Chatterjee (Aloka) is required to display the full range of their histrionic capabilities. Sujoy Ghosh is adequate, if not exactly great, and is given reasonable support by Anindya Chatterjee as Ajit and Sibaji Bandopadhyay as Kaligati Babu, the royal herbalist/healer.
Despite its similarity in tone and setting with GOSFORD PARK, Satyanweshi fails to reach the dizzying heights of that modern classic mainly because it has no ambition to be so. Or perhaps that ambition was cut short. I was painfully aware throughout the movie of a certain incompleteness, as if Rituparno did not have the time to do all that he wanted to with the story before his untimely demise. Satyanweshi is, beyond everything else, an exercise in regret – this could have been great, a future landmark in Bengali crime drama. Instead its historical significance lies only in being Rituparno Ghosh’s swansong, and not a robust one at that.
Rating: – 7/10.