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.  

No comments: