Rites of passage are important in every culture – whether it be leaving home, the first kiss, the first real fight, the first job, whatever. For Bengali bibliophiles, it is, or at least it used to be, the point at which a child put down his copy of the collected volumes of Feluda stories and picked up the Byomkesh Somogro. Of course, like a favourite childhood dessert, we all come back to Feluda, always, and have a definite soft corner for it in our hearts, but at the end of the day, the faint praise is damning – Feluda is children’s fare, cursed never to receive the serious analysis or plaudits that it deserves.
The story of the genesis of India’s first friendly neighbourhood superhero is by now canon. How Satyajit Ray revived Sandesh, the children’s periodical started by his grandfather, the legendary literary visionary Upendrakishore Ray, and where his father Sukumar Ray had made his name as one of the foremost poets of his time, how in the middle of what was perhaps the most cinematically fertile period in his life, when he was making films like Charulata, Mahanagar, Devi, Teen Kanya and Nayak, he penned the story of a thirteen-and-a-half year-old boy Tapesh Ranjan (affectionately called Topshe) and his twenty-seven year-old genius dada (“elder brother/cousin”) Prodosh C. Mitter (nickname Felu) solving a little mystery of an elderly gentleman receiving death threats via mail in Darjeeling. Feludar Goendagiri (Feluda’s Sleuthing) was an instant sensation among Sandesh’s young demographic as well as a significant percentage of their parents and elders. Four years after the first Sandesh outing, Feluda stories began to be serialized in issues of Desh, perhaps still the most popular Bengali literary magazine, which, in contrast with Sandesh, was aimed squarely at adults. But Ray never abandoned his fundamental principle, one that perhaps ended up as his Achilles heel – Feluda was written always with children in mind, so no sex, no gratuitous violence, the avoidance of dangerous moral ambiguity. Feluda’s popularity was cemented by the tradition of one story being published every year in the massively popular annual Durga Pujo issue of Desh – by the 70s, he had become part and parcel of the Bengali urban cultural landscape, even more beloved than Ray’s purely cinematic creations, because while his tastes in film often veered toward the highbrow, his literary pursuits were decidedly more accessible.
Ray’s knack of creating immortal characters, as evidenced by his Apu trilogy or his Professor Shonku series (perhaps India’s only science fiction hero), did not desert him here. The cast of characters was soon broadened to include Feluda’s bumbling brother-in-arms, the pulp fiction writer Lalmohan Ganguli (pseudonym Jatayu), the scheming criminal mastermind Maganlal Meghraj, Feluda’s Mycroft-ian uncle Shiddeshwar Basu, or Sidhu jyatha (meaning elder brother of one’s father) – the world of Feluda was soon alive and bristling with danger at every corner and populated with colourful characters to the brim.
And at the centre of it all was Felu himself. A 6’2” tall athlete modelled physically, and spiritually, on Ray himself, with an encyclopaedic grasp over virtually any topic under the sun from printing fonts to poisons, he was the archetype of a Bengali para (neighbourhood) superhero – the only allowance to his fallible humanity was to allow him to be a chain-smoker, much like Ray himself. He was a good cricketer (you have to be a sportsman to enjoy the undying respect of the youngsters), knew a hundred card tricks and indoor games, was a massive fan of Arthur Conan Doyle, was a master of disguise, wrote secret entries in his notebook in Greek and preferred to solve cases using his magajastra (the brain-weapon) rather than his .32 Colt revolver. This Bengali-ness may also be why Maganlal Meghraj is so obviously Feluda’s nemesis – not just for his cruelty, but for his deeply accented Bengali. For a blue-blooded Bong, there can be no greater insult.
Feluda was also an educator and mentor to Topshe, who served as the audience surrogate in this universe – Feluda teased Topshe, bullied him, but at the end of the day was fiercely protective of his younger sibling. The authenticity of Ray’s creation lies in its astute portrayal of the relationship dynamic between borda (elder brother) and chhotka (the little one) – this is why, unlike Byomkesh or Kakababu, Feluda never got married, never even had a girlfriend. Because the point where your dada gets married is typically the point where you, as the younger sibling, lose him. Thereafter he has a world of his own, with his job, his family, his own kids who soon replace your role in his life – the icon of adulation is lost to the mysterious world of the adults, and you inevitably have to grow up to follow him into it. Feluda is the Peter Pan of detective fiction, destined by necessity to remain forever accessible to his chhotka fans for the next great adventure.
Written as they were by a filmmaker with deeply refined sensibilities, these stories were always ripe for cinematic adaptation, and in 1974, Ray himself took up the mantle, deciding to adapt Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), a delightful story about a boy who could remember his past life as the son of an artisan in Rajput-era Rajasthan. The film was a study in Hitchcock-ian suspense, sprinkled with a liberal dose of action-adventure – it was a blockbuster. Nevertheless, it was a rather simple film, without significant subtext or metaphor, a straightforward origin story. Ray’s other Feluda film, though, in 1979, Joy Baba Felunath (The Elephant God) was a whole different animal. Shot in Benaras, and featuring multiple subplots about a stolen heirloom, murder and mysterious godmen, it was one of Ray’s most accomplished films, a whodunit that could effortlessly stand with the best of world cinema.
But these films suffered from the same malaise that the stories did – as a result of Ray’s avowed declaration, that Feluda is primarily a character created for children, these two films, although much beloved by fans, are nevertheless considered two of the least-significant additions to the Ray canon, a harmless distraction for the grandmaster. What these judgments overlook is that the Feluda movies provide the greatest proof of Ray’s dizzying versatility, the fact that he was not just good at operatic mood-pieces like Jalsaghar, but had a Spielberg-ian talent for different genres of cinema.
On Satyajit Ray’s 94th birth anniversary, it is worthwhile to note what Feluda has become to Bengalis, and indeed, a large swath of all Indians, today. For one thing, he has been reinterpreted numerous times across a wide variety of media from TV to radio to films, by a host of artists, most prominently by Satyajit’s own son Sandip Ray. But unlike, say, a Sherlock who can survive and even thrive with drastic reinvention, the Feluda canon is necessarily rather static. Because the essence of Feluda’s popularity among his most diehard fans lies in one thing and one thing only: – nostalgia. A Feluda story takes me back to my childhood, to lazy summer vacation afternoons spent devouring stories of mystery and intrigue, putting myself in the shoes of Topshe, and traveling the world with Feluda, content in the knowledge that no matter what happened, someone had my back. As we all grow older, maybe this is why we keep coming back to these stories, for that reassurance, for the memory of those days which felt imbued with the magical potential of childhood summers, when it was obvious the world would inevitably bow to our swashbuckling charm, and the warm embrace of the people who mattered was never far away, where Feluda was always ready with a smile, a twinkle in his eyes and a joke on his lips, to take us for a thrilling ride.
And so, nearly half a century after his mesmerizing debut, Felu Mitter lives on.