Let me begin this by saying that I am a big Byomkesh Bakshi fan. The two volumes of the Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s detective stories were bought by my mother before her wedding and were kept inside a glass almirah at her maternal house. The books had dark red hardcover bindings and ultra small fonts, including some pages which were half-eaten by moths, giving them bullet ridden appearances. However, once I discovered the literary treasures buried inside these books, all my subsequent attention was turned to going through them as fast as I could. Thus, a large part of my lazy afternoons on one of my middle school summer vacations was spent on devouring the hidden jewels inside these fat books. In fact, I was so hooked by the stories that after my tenth standard exams, I brought the entire collection over to my house and went through them again. Byomkesh was thus, in a way, one of my first childhood heroes.
There is a lot to like about the Byomkesh Bakshi stories. The character is a simple, domesticated, middle class Bengali bhadralok, very laid back, perpetually smoking and with great aversion to any sort of physical activity. He had a wry sense of humour, some peculiarities of habit (like reading only the ‘advertisement’ section of a newspaper) and of course, above average intelligence and brilliant observations skills. However, he was nothing out of the ordinary. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, he was not given to summarize the entire life history of an individual by just looking at the sole of his shoes. He also was not known for his physical abilities, unlike Feluda, and all his great adversaries were likewise brainy, rather than brawny. He was, thus, a guy-next-door detective, a likable and relatable one, someone every physically unfit, geeky Bengali kid, could realistically aspire to become.
What also impressed me was the writing style of Saradindu. Bengali literature, in its relatively young history, has become more and more reader friendly as it has gradually shed the dense Sanskrit-like verse of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya and moved to the simple prose of today’s authors. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay was one of the original pioneers of presenting a simple writing style. But this style was taken to the logical extreme by Satyajit Ray who parted with almost all literary flourishes and adopted a conversational style, focussing on strong plotlines instead to advance his stories. Most modern authors have followed in his footsteps. For me, Saradindu occupied the sweet spot in the Saratchandra-Satyajit continuum, wherein the author’s style was extremely reader friendly and still had occasional literary flourishes. It was also a great injustice that Saradindu will always be known for his Byomkesh stories whereas he had an equally impressive collection of extremely readable short stories.
It was thus with great anticipation that I was looking forward to the movie adaptation of Byomkesh by Dibakar Banerjee. I had since three of his four earlier movies (all except ‘Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye’) and have been suitably impressed by his style, quirky humour, memorable characters and expert handling of modern day urban issues. I was also delighted to read Dibakar Banerjee’s introduction to an English translation of Byomkesh Bakshi collection, where he mentions his discovery of the character under similar circumstances as mine – a childhood summer afternoon in a small town relative’s place and his similar admiration of the character.
However, after watching ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy !’ , I left the theater with very mixed feelings and pondering over a case of so near yet so far. Let us harp on the positives first. This Byomkesh Bakshi is a re-interpretation of Dibakar Banerjee and is very different from the original creation of Saradindu. Banerjee warns of this with the title of the movie – after all, Byomkesh Bakshi of Saradindu abhors the word ‘ detective’ and likes the tag of ‘Truth Seeker’ or ‘Inquisitior’ (‘Satyanweshi’ in Bengali) to describe himself. Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh is a newbie amateur, fresh out of college, always in a hurry, just learning the tricks of deduction and is possessed with boundless energy and curiosity. Banerjee’s Byomkesh is like a younger and restless version of the sleuth before he becomes more mature, sedate, skilled and starts appearing in Saradindu’s works.
Banerjee seeks to combine a number of elements from earlier Byomkesh works and mash them in the form of a single, coherent thriller. There are passages and dialogues strewn across the movie, which sound like homages to a number of the earlier Byomkesh stories. The movie largely starts with the plotline of ‘Satyanweshi’, the first Byomkesh thriller, then throws in some element of ‘Arthamanartham’, especially the track with Satyabati and her brother, and then gradually branches into original plotlines. At one point in the climax scene, the movie looked like it would end like ‘Chiriyakhana’ but then it takes a different turn. Banerjee also does a good job of creating a Moriarty like adversary for Byomkesh, and fittingly enough, it is one of his most formidable opponents from the books, probably the only one who appears in two different Byomkesh stories (both highly satisfying and among my personal favourites), and almost manages to kill Byomkesh in both the stories. Banerjee also makes sly references to Munger (‘Byomkesh and Barada’), Sardarji with the blue taxi (‘Uposonghaar’) and Bosepukur murders (probably homage to ‘Bosepukure Khunkharapi’, a work involving Feluda, the other famous Bengali detective).
Banerjee also recreates the 1940s Kolkata brilliantly. The pre-independence Kolkata, chaotic in the middle of an independence movement, a World War at doorsteps and the horrors of the great Bengal famine, and at the same time, one of the largest trading hubs of the world, a city alive with all kinds of possibilities and teeming with people belonging to all sorts of nationalities, have been brought to life with immaculate attention to details. The crowded alleys of North Kolkata, the abandoned ghats along Ganga, the spotless clean office para of Dalhousie area, the shady opium dens of Chinatown, trams, handpulled rickshaws and dilapidated residential buildings, all make appearances.
Banerjee’s ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshi’ is also a highly stylized work. It features heavy rock background music and in cinematic style, is far more stylish than any of Byomkesh’s earlier adaptations. The editing is crisp with the story moving forward relentlessly and the camerawork is brilliant.
The movie’s major failing lies in its story. For a who-dun-it thriller to become a classic, the story has to be really brilliant and has to keep the reader guessing till the end. Of course, it was not possible for Banerjee to base the entire movie on a single Byomkesh story. The Byomkesh stories are typically short, have simple, linear, focused plots and are more fit to serve as thirty to forty five minutes television episodes, rather than full blown movies. This is probably why, Byomkesh’s adaptations on the silver screen have generally failed whereas Doordarshan could create a great television series out of the same material. Banerjee tried to write his own story line, borrowing from some of the initial Byomkesh stories but then diverging significantly. However, he fails to create a great story, relying on accidents rather than deduction skills of Byomkesh to solve many of the mysteries, and ends with a less than satisfactory climax.
The acting is mostly acceptable, but the movie features at least one questionable cast in the form of Swastika Mukherjee. While the original intent would have been probably to introduce an Irene Adler (ala Sherlock Holmes) kind of character, the character is poorly written and poorly acted and some of the worst moments of the movie feature her on screen. Her almost comic attempts at seductions, deliberately halting dialogue delivery and the total absurdity of her character, end up ruining most of the charms of the movie.
To sum up, ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshi’ is an audacious, ambitious and stylish take on a decades old detective character, that did all the difficult things right, and could have become a great movie if it only had the basics in place. The end of the movie hints at a sequel and given that it is a big studio movie, a sequel is probably in the pipeline. Here is hoping that the makers can tie up the loose ends of this movie and deliver a more fulfilling experience in the follow up.