26 April 2015

Living by the loom

My column in Mumbai Mirror today: 

Shyam Benegal's Susman offers a portrait of the handloom weaver's predicament, sadly relevant even today.

Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, in Susman (1987)
At one point in Shyam Benegal's Susman (1987), two ikat weavers are walking back from a meeting with an agent and a city-based buyer. “Why didn't you ask the buyer for an advance?” says the younger brother Laxmayya (Annu Kapoor). “Apne munh se paisa maang ke kaahe apne ko chhota banayein? (Should I have demeaned myself by asking for money with my own mouth?)” responds the elder brother Ramulu (Om Puri). “Would have been better not to take the order.”

Susman is one of Shyam Benegal's less-watched films. It is part of his clutch of issue-defined films commissioned by government bodies or cooperatives. It has its limitations: Benegal's regular stable of 'alternative' actors can feel a little too starry. Watching Shabana Azmi and Om Puri and Pankaj Kapur play impoverished Pochampally weavers speaking in Dakkhani, can feel like a stretch – Azmi, in particular, looks and acts far too urbane. But Benegal has always had the ability to craft fictions that offer a nuanced, thoughtful picture of the situation he has chosen to depict, and Susman is a good example.

It is a film that deserves to be watched this week, as the central government contemplates a policy shift that might endanger the very existence of the handloom weaving sector. Scroll.in reported on Friday that “the Ministry of Textiles is looking into a memorandum submitted by power loom owners to ease provisions in the Handloom Reservation Act of 1985 that allow only handloom weavers to make certain textile products.” Over the years, the 22 handloom-only items originally listed by the Act has already been reduced to 11. Also, it is well-known that power loom weavers manufacture these reserved products, passing them off as handloom. Further de-reservation is likely to price handloom goods out of the market, and threaten the survival of what is the world's most stunningly diverse, skilled range of hand-crafted textiles.

Benegal seeks to draw in the middle class viewer with a display of handloom weaves, each sari covering the screen as we hear the unmistakeable voice of Neena Gupta applaud the particular finesse of each to a less-knowledgeable but terribly opinionated man. When we finally cut away from the saris to Gupta, she turns out to be a designer called Mandira: the handloom sari-wearing, big-bindi-ed figure we all know, directing some sort of sari-based fashion show.

Mandira is hard to please, and when she clicks her tongue at some of the work that master weaver Narasimha (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) brings her from Pochampally, Narasimha suggests that she explain her demands to the weavers herself. So it is that our English-speaking designer, accompanied by her even more English-speaking boyfriend, Jayant Kripalani, encounters Ramulu and his household.

It is after this slightly ham-handed beginning that the film comes into its own. Benegal cleverly uses the household's particular situation as illustrative of a larger socio-economic reality. In Ramulu's perfectionism as a craftsman, in his inability to bargain with agents, in his silent resentment of his situation but his fatalistic approach to dealing with it, we see the tragic predicament of the handloom weaver who doesn't have a head for the market. And while Ramulu is profoundly attached to the work he does, he displays what little realism he has in refusing to let his little son sit at the loom.

Because the financial pressures upon him are such that Ramulu has begun to see his attachment to his work as a form of bondage. “Ukhaad ke phenk doonga isko ek din. Yeh kargha nahi jail hai jail. Ismein bandh karke daal diya hum ko,” shouts Om Puri in one moving scene. And as we watch him, framed behind the long horizontal bar of his loom, it feels as if he is indeed boxed into a corner of the world. 

Roti deti so cheez ko aisa nahi bolte (Don't say such things about the thing that feeds you),” says his wife Gouramma (Azmi) worriedly. But the film makes clear that weaving is failing to fill stomachs. The cooperative societies set up to save weavers from the clutches of agents and touts have quickly been corrupted from within, beholden to the powerful. Big orders don't come to the co-op because they require deposition of advance monies, funds the co-op can't risk. The co-op secretary loans the Society's supply of silk thread to Narasimha on the sly, and is bribed to sell off discounted saris in bulk to Laxmayya, who intends to resell them in Hyderabad and set up as an agent.

Through Ramulu's prospective son-in-law Nageshwar, we also see the new workspaces created by the powerloom. The village of individual homes in which weavers work at their own pace, often in conjunction with other family members, is replaced by a cramped all-male factory space, and the regular thak-thak of the handloom by the raging sound of the powerloom. In the factory, warns Nageshwar, a man cannot leave his machine. Benegal doesn't say it, but it's clear why: because the machine isn't his any more. It owns him, rather than the other way around.

But while Benegal's leanings are apparent, he is clear-eyed about how unsustainable handloom has become for even its most skilled practitioners. The tragic irony of a weaver having to steal thread in order to weave a silk sari for a daughter's wedding is a powerful one, one which recurs in Priyadarshan's Tamil film Kanchivaram (2008). Kripalani's computer-type boyfriend also represents the view against handloom, demanding of Mandira how long the artificial “sahara” of government loans and the “sentimentality” of people like her will keep it alive.

The film manages to end on an upbeat note. But the government's answers to these questions, asked nearly twenty years ago, remain as tragically short-sighted as ever. Handloom can thrive and grow, if we only do right by it. As Ashoke Chatterjee, ex-head of the Crafts Council of India, asked recently: “Why are powerloom lobbyists so eager for their fabric to appear handmade if demand is falling?”

24 April 2015

Extra-legal understanding

My Mumbai Mirror column last Sunday: 

Chaitanya Tamhane's debut film Court is a devastating, elegant indictment of our collective present.

If you're a Hindi film viewer, you've been watching the lives of heroes unspool in courtrooms forever. One of my earliest cinematic memories is of Awara, whose high melodrama involves pitting the judge (Prithviraj Kapoor, also the father) against the accused (Raj Kapoor, also the son), with the daughter/lover (Nargis) mediating between them as lawyer. Awara used the court as real and metaphorical stage for a debate that went beyond a particular crime to the social pressures that create "criminals". Basu Chatterjee's Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, a remake of Sidney Lumet's Twelve Angry Men, couldn't be more different in tone, but its interest in tracking a jury's arguments is, like Awara's, concerned with how the social impinges on the legal. ERHF may seem gritty compared to Awara, but Chatterjee's realism clearly didn't stretch very far: jury trials were abolished in India soon after 1959's Nanavati trial, so a 1986 film about one undercuts the plot's very premise.

But then real-life courtrooms have never had much impact on Hindi movie ones. Hundreds of films, with their "mere kaabil dost" and "kanoon jazbaat nahi, saboot dekhta hai", have wrung eloquent oratory and dramatic suspense out of the dry deliberations and incessant waiting that make up the everyday reality of the Indian courtroom. Of course, there are exceptions; I can think of two recent films that have captured the farcicality of the legal process. Feroz Abbas Khan's slightly dated but pitch-black satire Dekh Tamasha Dekh (2014) showed an investigation into whether a poor man killed in an accident was Hindu or Muslim, having the court deliberate, among other things, on the existence of a river. Subhash Gupta's Jolly LLB (2013) took a smalltime lawyer's big ambitions as the basis for a funny but deep-down cynical take on how the law really works.

Chaitanya Tamhane's superb debut, Court, shares something with the films I've just mentioned. Like them, it is cinematically invested in the theatre of the courtroom, as well as with how the social cannot be divorced from the legal in practice. And yet Court is unlike any other film you've seen - or are ever likely to see. The case Tamhane takes as his take-off point is certainly the stuff of farce: a lok shahir, a folk singer called Narayan Kamble, is charged with abetment to suicide because the police decide that a sewage worker who died on the job was actually following an exhortation made in a song written and sung by the accused. But Tamhane's genius lies in taking the ridiculous and treating it seriously, so that what creeps up on you is much more powerful than if it were farce. Nothing is exaggerated to elicit a reaction. Nothing is played for laughs. So calm, unhurried and deliberate is Tamhane's embrace of his location and his characters that one is persuaded, right from beginning to end, that what one is watching is real.

But - and I cannot stress this enough - Court is no documentary. What Tamhane has done is to assemble a team experienced in documentary - editor Rikhav Desai, cinematographer Mrinal Desai, sound designer Anita Kushwaha - and put their clearly immense talent to use in the service of an immaculately-crafted fiction. Right from the start, when we see Kamble (played by real-life social activist Vira Sathidar) emerge from a tuition class he teaches, walk across a courtyard, catch a bus and arrive at the "Wadgaon Massacre Cultural Protest Meet" to perform his songs, the film combines the wide-angled observational approach of documentary with the unwavering narrative focus of fiction. Visually, too, this is true. These initial scenes, like those in the courtroom later, are clearly informed by a sense of the city as live theatre, but even in the widest of shots, and sometimes at a great distance, the camera picks out the sprightly old man in his grey beard and peach kurta.

The Dalit shahir's songs are sharply critical of the political and economic milieu, but while letting us hear some wonderful lines involving large malls and our "Great Fall", Tamhane's film refuses to ride piggyback on this causticity. Its chosen tone is more deceptively gentle. Understanding what happens in the courtroom involves following its principal protagonists outside of it. So we follow Kamble's defence lawyer Vinay Vora to the fancy supermarket in which he does his solitary shopping, and the prosecution lawyer Nutan home on the local train discussing the unaffordability of olive oil. And so on.

These journeys may seem random, but they aren't. Taken together, they constitute Court's astute intervention in that age-old debate about how the law relates to the socio-cultural world within which it is practiced. And here Tamhane reveals a finely-honed sense of both the tragic and the absurd, delivered without comment. The well-off Vora can't speak to a child in a poor, working class area without "Excuse me" and "Thank you". When he suffers public humiliation, we see him weep; but almost immediately after, getting a facial. The judge who refused to hear the case of one poor Mercy Fernandes, because she wore "sleeveless" to court, takes his vacation in a family resort where everyone descends fully clothed into the swimming pool. The widow of the sanitation worker who went unprotected into manholes encounters a safety belt for the first time in Vora's car. Long after the film ends, you will think about how these worlds, kept so starkly apart by barriers of class, language and prejudice, cannot but stare uncomprehendingly at each other when they collide in the courtroom.

21 April 2015

Post Facto: Bharatanatyam, ‘sleeveless’ and a threatened museum

My Sunday Guardian column this month:
Last month, the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum had to abandon its plans to host the grand finale of the Lakme Fashion Week, after alleged threats from a Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) leader. The tie-up with a fashion event was part of managing trustee and honorary museum director Tasneem Zakaria Mehta›s attempts to raise money (a fee of Rs. 2 lakh was to be paid for the use of the venue), while giving the museum›s visibility a fillip. Whether one thinks that the idea of a museum being given over to a fashion show for an evening is an exciting innovation or a bizarre mismatch, it is clear that those who actively opposed the event did not see it in the Mumbai Mirror's neutral terms — as "an alternative public space being used for an international event."
A museum trustee told the Mirror that the event had to be shifted elsewhere at the last minute because Byculla corporator Samita Naik's husband, Sanjay Naik (also an MNS leader) went to the museum premises and threatened to take another 300 people there to protest against the show. The fashion show episode is only the most recent in the battles between the BMC and Mehta, who have earlier crossed swords over ambitious plans for the museum›s expansion. Last week, things came to head when the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which partially funds the museum) unanimously passed a proposal to revoke the agreement between the BMC, Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). The current management, which is responsible for creating one of India›s very few exciting museum spaces, was meant to last another five years. It has now been put on six months' notice.
Reports quoted Sandeep Deshpande, an MNS group leader who presented the proposal to oust Mehta, as saying: "What culture does she intend to show? Our culture is Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Lavni and Kathak; this is what we should be showing to the foreigners, not the culture that these people talk about."
When I posted that quote on Twitter, one response I got was "our culture is Bharatanatyam? Who›d have thunk the Hindu right would admit to sexual slavery as its culture." The tweet was referring, snarkily, to the fact that Bharatanatyam as a dance form emerged out of the centuries-old devadasi system, in which young girls were married off to a deity or a temple, effectively becoming bound to provide sexual services for upper-caste men in the community.
Snark aside, the ironies of Deshpande's remark are inescapable — and several. First, Bharatanatyam's origin really is tied to what can honestly be described as a Hindu way of life — just not in a way the Hindu right would like to admit. Second, what's on display here from the MNS and its ilk is an incredible historical amnesia, an erasure of the decades of struggle that went into reclaiming Bharatanatyam and sanitising it into an art form that girls "from good families" could practice. Third, that sanitising was a deeply controversial thing, with voices like that of Balasaraswati publicly criticising the way the dance form was stripped of its erotic gestures. And finally, while Bharatanatyam as practiced in the wake of Rukmini Devi Arundale and Kala Kshetra might be de-eroticised, lavani certainly is not. The erotic charge of lavani is integral, both in its lyrics and its dance steps.
At one level, I'm glad that the MNS wants to claim these dance forms, or any dance forms, as part of "our culture". But given that this "support" is so uninformed by history, and so kneejerk and hypocritical in its sense of morality, it seems possible that the tables could turn at any moment. Lavani and tamasha were once beyond the pale of Brahminical culture; now they have been appropriated as Maharashtrian culture, so much so that they were made exempt from the ban on bar dancing. Right now, the world of fashion is tagged as Western and upper class, thus immoral. Tomorrow, "our culture" could co-opt it, and label something else immoral.
Meanwhile, when pushed to the wall by the moral police, we can end up defending things in their terms. "Anamika's collection was celebrating Indian garments and was not immoral," Mehta was quoted as saying — if it had been Western wear, would it have been less morally upright?
Chaitanya Tamhane's unmissable debut feature, Court, trains its steady gaze upon a Mumbai courtroom in which similar culture wars are being played out just below the surface. The charge is one of abetment to suicide, but what is really on trial is a man's refusal to toe the hegemonic cultural line. If a man claims to be a folk singer, a lok shahir, then it is terribly suspicious that he should be a member of any social and political organisations — and oh, downright fraud that he should voice political or economic dissent "in the guise of cultural workshops".
Culture here is what a majority endorses — it seems almost its job to mock the minority, whether that be a Catholic lady publicly punished for wearing a "sleeveless" top, or the North Indian migrant who is a figure of fun because he dares propose marriage to a Marathi girl. Culture, in this view, is only culture if it challenges nothing. It must laugh foolishly at its master's jokes, and roll over and die when told to. It must bark at outsiders, but it must never bite its own.
Published in the Sunday Guardian.

13 April 2015

Songs in the Streets

My Mumbai Mirror column yesterday:

Kundan Lal Saigal would have turned 111 on 11 April. But here's a question. Why should you care?

When I was a child in Delhi in the early 80s, a family friend I called Vinoo Uncle sometimes sang me to sleep. The song was always "So ja rajkumari". I remember it in the best way a lullaby can be remembered: as a silken cocoon which never failed to rock me softly into slumber. 

It was only decades later that I learnt that it was a song made famous by KL Saigal. Saigal sang it for a film called Zindagi, directed by PC Barua, who made the original 1935 Devdas. (Zindagi, which repeated the Devdas star couple Saigal and Jamuna, was the highest-grossing film of 1940, and I recently learnt that it might be the only film Manto ever reviewed.) 

But Saigal appeared in my life much before I discovered all that. When I was 11, I lived with my nani in Calcutta, and every time I expressed irritation about the music classes I had to take, she would tell me how as a child she had badly wanted to learn to play the violin. And for some reason, the story of her (unfulfilled) musical ambitions was tied to her having been a Saigal fan. I had no idea who Saigal was, except that when Nani told me this story, her eyes would acquire a faraway look as she started to hum some quivery-quavery song of a type which the 11-year-old me could only definitely identify as "old". 

This, while somewhat imprecise, was not untrue. Kundan Lal Saigal was born on 11th April 1904. And if you remember that he was dead before independence, it is absolutely remarkable that so many people continued to sing his songs into the 80s. My nani was perhaps an unsurprising candidate: born in a village in Uttar Pradesh, she would have arrived in Calcutta at the end of the 30s, when Saigal's popularity was at its peak, and she a teenager with adolescent romantic yearnings. Why Vinoo Uncle knew or sang Saigal is less easily explainable: he must have been barely four when Saigal died, in January 1947. But he had a younger sister he may well have sung lullabies to, and they were growing up in Lucknow, the city that produced the song's lyricist, Saiyid Anwar Husain, better known as Arzu Lucknawi. 

But somewhere between the 80s and 2011, I acquired a taste for Saigal. I may not be able to write the paeans to his Bhairavi that biographers of a certain age do, but I was enough of an admirer of "Diya Jalao" and "Ek Bangla Bane Nyaara" to feel slightly conflicted when Ram Sampath composed an parody of his slightly nasal, melancholic, lyric-heavy style, called "Saigal Blues". I must admit that "Is dard ki na hai dawaai, Majnu hai ya tu hai kasaai" fitted perfectly with the irreverent faux-tragedies that filled Delhi Belly, but when I laughed out loud, I wondered if I was betraying Saigal. And my nani. 

This week, as Saigal turned 111, I reopened my copy of Pran Nevile's 2011 biography of him. Like so many Indian biographies of musicians and performers, the book is liberal with anecdotes and scanty with facts - perhaps inevitably so, given how little documentation appears to exist of Saigal's early life. But even these often conflicting origin myths do locate Saigal in the wider context of a North Indian musical milieu, of which little survives today. Nevile conjures up a Jammu in which "famous classical musicians... trained professional singing girls who then looked for patronage from the Maharaja's court", and where a pir could tell a boy to focus on zikr and riyaz for two years. Somehow it seems perfectly fitting that Saigal, having decided to become a singer, should leave home and spend eight years doing all sorts of jobs in the cities of North India - Moradabad, Lahore, Kanpur, Bareilly, Simla and Delhi - while picking up music seemingly from everywhere. The world of Saigal's childhood is a world in which a boy from a well-to-do family still wanted the singing part of Sita in Ramlila. It is a world of "wandering ministrels (sic), temple priests, faqirs and jogis", in which kissa singers sold satirical verses for an anna, and not just religious festivals, but the hawking of goods involved music. 

This was the matrix which early cinema drew on to create a film like Street Singer (1938), and into which its music fed back. In Nevile's words, "paanwallas, tongawallas, peons, clerks, hawkers, students and teachers could be heard humming Saigal's ghazals". And Lahore's famed kothas rang with Urdu ghazals popularised by Saigal. 

Nevile credits Saigal's songs for popularising film music on records. But cinema and recorded music were then far from replacing live performance; something best illustrated by the fact that cinemas in Lahore combined film screenings with live song-and-dance performances: "Ek ticket mein do maze". 

The story of Saigal could be the story of many things: of Indian cinema's first properly mobbed superstar; of the rise of gramophone recording; of Hindi cinema before it became Bombay cinema - when Indian cinema was being produced almost entirely from Calcutta, with several films made in Bengali and remade in Hindi. As the industry shifted base, Saigal, too, moved to Bombay, but died soon after, an alcoholic, at the young age of 42. (There is a strange echo of Manto here, who died soon after leaving Bombay, also an alcoholic in his forties.) Will someone not make the bio-pic?

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

12 April 2015

Picture This: Chasing Politics

Last Saturday's BLink column
Following Shazia Ilmi through the 2013 Delhi assembly election, a new documentary offers a glimpse into the struggles of the Aam Aadmi Party. 

Lalit Vachani’s 2015 documentary 
An Ordinary Election, shot in the run-up to the 2013 Delhi assembly elections, tracks politician Shazia Ilmi’s campaign in south Delhi’s RK Puram constituency. Screened last week in Mumbai, Kolkata and at least three different venues in the Capital, the film attracted an audience largely comprising activists, journalists and academics. While Vachani could not have predicted it, the fact that Ilmi left the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in May 2014 and joined the BJP in January 2015 (after losing the RK Puram seat narrowly to the BJP contender) forms an overarching frame for the way we view the film. And given that the much-publicised exit of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan from the AAP Executive Council was taking place the week Vachani chose to screen his film, many saw it as a prescient comment on the AAP’s present.
From the start, when we see Ilmi alone in a seemingly empty room, being recorded for TV even as she is recorded for Vachani’s film, it is clear that she is a creature of the camera. As The Economic Timesrecognised in a 2011 profile of her, “being on TV is Ilmi’s core competence.” Having worked as a political correspondent and news anchor for 15 years, Ilmi “is not flustered by rudeness, can shout as loudly as necessary to gain the anchor’s attention, speaks fast and without gaps so that others can’t sneak in parallel commentary, appears to have a cultivated disregard for punditry, and has the rare capacity to smile beatifically for the entire duration of the debate.”
We have had more occasions to watch Ilmi in action since, and Vachani shows her putting these impressive abilities to use on the campaign trail, continuing to hold the beatific smile while being told by a Vasant Vihar uncle that she should have stayed a journalist, or hearing the news of her electoral defeat. In a Q&A after one Delhi screening, Vachani said that he considered tracking at least one other candidate, perhaps from another party, but for various reasons, including budgetary constraints, decided to stick with Ilmi, whom he knew from her student days at Jamia Millia Islamia. (Vachani now teaches courses on documentary at the University of Göttingen, Germany.) But while he makes good use of his unfettered access to Ilmi, and her ease before the camera, he spends equal time talking to her three different campaign managers and volunteers, providing a rare picture of AAP from the inside out — a point I shall return to.
A documentary doesn’t have to lay out its arguments like a thesis does, which can be a strength. But the two axes along which Vachani’s interests lie seemed clear to me: religion and class. Religion is perhaps the more obvious one, given that Ilmi, whose name identifies her as Muslim, was standing from a constituency where only 4.5 per cent of the population is Muslim. AAP’s choice was a rejection of vote bank politics, and Ilmi repeatedly appeals to voters to see her as ‘just a citizen’ rather than a ‘Muslim face’. What the film also catches, though, is Ilmi’s cleverly multifarious presentation of self, in which references to biryani (cooked by one of her poorer constituents) sit side by side with remarks that project a subliminal Hindu worldview: “Jab bahut zyada adharm badh jaata hai, toh safai ke tareeke hote hain”. In one revealing scene, she does not contradict a temple priest who says, “Brahmin prasann honge toh bhagwan prasann honge (If Brahmins are pleased, god will be pleased too)”. When she then leans over to whisper in his ear, “My mother-in-law is Brahmin,” it is difficult not to think of it as political opportunism, especially in the light of Ilmi’s future actions.
As for class, the film shows Ilmi traversing the constituency of RK Puram, which consists of middle-class government quarters, jhuggis, as well as posh colonies. She is self-possessed and gracious wherever she goes, though her appeals to middle and upper middle-class voters rang truer for me than her attempts to learn Tamil from Tamil-speaking slum-dwellers, which evoked an Indira Gandhi style of politics. What is harder to pinpoint — and yet crystal-clear as you watch the film — is how class operates as a dividing line within the party, causing invisible fractures that eventually break the campaign, damaging Ilmi’s chances. We see the removal of two campaign managers. The first, Omendra Bharat, an IIT graduate and an inspired orator, is replaced by Siddharth (no last name), another computer engineer, who lasts until a TV sting shows him willing to accept donations without receipts. (The sting was later dismissed as manufactured.) Anjana Mehta, who replaces Siddharth, comes across as a much-more English-speaking figure, who dismisses both Omendra and Siddharth as “pontificating” rather than working, and casts aspersions on their loyalty. Vachani captures the anger of several volunteers who believe that these decisions were taken undemocratically, including Mohanji, who stops working in protest, only to return once Ilmi leaves.
One revealing disagreement breaks out over why Ilmi should be called ‘Ma’am’ rather than by her first name. Gender, of course, is the elephant in the room. Ilmi talks of men’s inability to deal with a woman as boss. Omendra’s carload of campaigners is entirely male and North Indian, while Siddharh is quoted as unselfconsciously saying that whatever money he spends on AAP, “it’s still cheaper than dating girls”. AAP’s brilliantly energetic 2015 campaign revealed a party so astute about class as to successfully make it the unifying election plank so many have failed at. Watching Vachani’s film, though, one worries that it cannot prevent itself from being riven by it.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.

7 April 2015

Much too fast and furious

My Mirror column on Sunday:

Dibakar Banerjee's contemporary spin on a 1940s Bengali sleuth is packed full of grungy period detail, but detective Byomkesh Bakshy doesn't look like he can save the world. Not at this speed, at any rate.

The pleasures of detective stories are – or ought to be – two-fold. There is the pleasure of being rowed gently into a world in which secrets lurk beneath the surface of the everyday. And then there is the pleasure of watching a single mind, invariably a mind sharper than most people's, lower a net into these seemingly unruffled waters and fish those secrets out of the depths. Dibakar Banerjee's new film offers plenty of the first kind, having populated its 1940s Calcutta canvas with so many secrets that it feels like watching a particularly atmospheric painting come to life. But Banerjee's Byomkesh feels too callow and too hurried to afford us the second kind: not so much because he nets the wrong fish, but because he hurtles through this storied world without letting us savour what he does uncover.

Bengalis, who were colonized earlier (and more effectively) than most of the rest of India, acquired a taste for detective fiction early. Priyanath Mukhopadhyay, a retired policeman, began recounting his experiences in the Darogar Daptar (The Inspector's Office) series in 1892, around the same time as Arthur Conan Doyle began writing his first stories. Mukhopadhyay's popular series didn't draw from Doyle, but Holmes and Watson certainly had an influence on other Bengali writers of crime fiction, giving rise to many a cerebral detective who solved crimes with the aid of a not-as-clever associate who happened to be a writer. One of these was Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, whose Byomkesh Bakshi first made his appearance in print in the 1930s, accompanied by his writer friend Ajit. The alliteratively-named detective was a dhuti-wearing middle class Bengali man of his time, with a domestic life involving a wife and a child, and a world that extended only till Cuttack and Munger and Dhaka – quite different from Satyajit Ray's rather more cosmopolitan Feluda, a bachelor who spoke fluent English and bore the Anglicised name of Pradosh Mitter (rather than Mitra), and whose travels took him to much farther-flung destinations like Jaisalmer, Ajanta, Kathmandu, Gangtok, places that Satyajit Ray had been to himself. But while Feluda's adventures were always child-friendly, full of antique smuggling and kidnapping, Byomkesh mysteries could often involve crimes of lust and passion and revenge.

Another reason why Byomkesh has endured is that he has been incarnated in many avatars outside the pages of Sharadindu's 32 and a half stories. He has been given audio-visual form by directors as disparate as Satyajit Ray, who cast Uttam Kumar as Byomkesh in the famously disappointing film Chiriyakhana; Basu Chatterjee, who turned Byomkesh into a national household name with his Rajit-Kapoor-starring series on Doordarshan in the early 1990s; Anjan Dutt, who launched his first Byomkesh film in Bangla with the young TV actor Abir Chatterjee in 2010; and Rituparno Ghosh, whose Satyanweshi, starring Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh as Byomkesh, had to be completed by his crew after Ghosh died unexpectedly while still working on it.

Dibakar Banerjee's Byomkesh, then, is only the latest in a long line of cinematic interpretations. It is fitting, in a way, that Byomkesh should finally find a home on the Bombay film screen, because Sharadindu Bandhopadhyay worked for nearly fifteen years as a scriptwriter with Bombay Talkies, Filmistan and other studios. On the other hand, it does feel slightly odd to watch this picture-perfect world of dhuti-clad Bengalis called Something-Babu having to read Yugantar in Hindi and saying such things as “same-to-same”-- not to mention the jarring dissonance produced by Sneha Khanwalkar's deliberately anachronistic musical score.

There is much period detail that starts off feeling marvellous and on-the-ball—such as the smoky streets of North Calcutta's old Chinatown, festooned with Chinese New Year banners and strings of Chinese sausages, or the way the competitive, education-obsessed, bhadralok milieu is established with effortless accuracy by characters being remembered by their university gold medals, whether two years or 20 have passed since they were awarded. But then, in swift succession, Banerjee flings at us a Burma-born actress who goes by the annoyingly Hindi heartland stage-name of Angoori Devi, a comic Sardar taxi driver, two dumb Bhagalpuri pehelwan guards to provide the Hindustani quotient, a pack of Chinese druglords and a ridiculously fake Japanese villain strutting about with a samurai sword -- and the film began to feel like a mithai too stuffed with mewa to taste anything at all. 

Every possible constituent of Calcutta's 1940s mix is ticked off, except perhaps the Armenians. But by trying to splice together deaths by sword and deaths by strychnine, nationalist party politics and British policemen and the Chinese opium trade and the Japanese bombing of Calcutta, the film refuses to let one properly soak in the smells and sights of any one of these. Each time Nikos Andriatsakis's supremely atmospheric cinematography deposited us at the dark edge of a galli, with opium addicts stumbling out, I craved to be let into the opium den, to see it for myself. But that never happened. Meanwhile Watanabe's house looked like a facade only present for him to prance about in the garden. I enjoyed much of the spectacle of what I do understand is meant to be a genre film, but I felt nothing for any of the central characters -- and less for any of the peripheral ones, even when they died thankless deaths.

As Dibakar Banerjee put it so beautifully in an introduction he wrote to a Puffin edition of three Byomkesh stories in 2012, being Byomkesh was always about doing the right thing. But there was something deliciously gradual, small-scale, sometimes even mofussil about the Byomkesh stories that I remember, which has been replaced here with an action hero out to save the world. It feels like a delusion of grandeur. I hope he'll come back to ground level.