Feluda: A Sleuth For All Times

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    “Elementary, my dear Topshe,” is what legendary Bengali sleuth Feluda would have remarked if his friend and assistant had confronted him with this fundamental question – how could they stay relevant in the age of social media and shrinking screens? The answer, the dapper detective would have shot back is, ‘Let’s feature in a web series.’

    And that’s exactly how it panned out when Bengal’s much-loved crime-fighting duo – private investigator Prodosh Chandra Mitter and his cousin Tapesh, better known as ‘Feluda’ and ‘Topshe’ –starred in their first web series in 2017.

    Modelled very obviously on Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, Feluda and Topshe are the creations of renowned Bengali film director and author, Satyajit Ray. Beginning with his first story in 1965, Ray wrote a total of 35 Feluda stories and novels, which were published mostly in the children’s magazine Sandesh and the Durga Puja special edition of the Bengali magazine Desh, before they were published as standalone books. Twenty seven years after he started writing the series, Ray passed away on 23rd April, 1992, gifting his fans one last mystery – an unfinished Feluda story.

    Beginning with Bakaullah and Priyanath Mukhopadhyay in 1889, detective fiction has enjoyed tremendous popularity with the Bengali audience. Almost every major Bengali author has created a detective series, although not all are as well known as Feluda. For Ray’s publishers Ananda Publishers, even today Ray’s detective remains among their biggest seller, rivalled only by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s detective Byomkesh Bakshi.

    Ray himself came from a family of creative people. His grandfather Upendrakishore and his father Sukumar were both extremely well-known authors. Upendrakishore ventured into publication and printing with U Ray & Sons. Among their best loved publications was the children’s magazine ‘Sandesh’. Ray himself began his career in advertising, before venturing into filmmaking with ‘Pather Panchali’ in 1955. By 1970, He had more than a dozen films under his belt, including the critically acclaimed Jalsaghar (1958), Devi (1960) and Nayak (1966).

    Ray created the series as part of a plan to resurrect Sandesh, which had been launched by his grandfather but which had shut when the publishing house went into liquidation in 1927. Ray’s first Feluda story was Feludar Goyendagiri (Feluda’s Investigations) and for the next few years, Ray regaled his young readers with serialised stories such as Badshahi Angti (The Emperor’s Ring) between 1966 and 67, Kailash Chowdhury-r Pathor (Kailash Choudhury's Jewel) in 1967 and Sheyal Debota Rahasya (The Anubis Mystery) in 1970. Publication of Desh and Sandesh until Ray’s death in 1992

    That same year, Ray attended a wedding, where he was introduced to Sagarmay Ghosh, editor of the prominent Bengali magazine Desh. Ghosh was aware not only of Feluda, who was gaining popularity, but also of Ray’s science fiction series starring the eccentric Professor Shonku. Ghosh asked Ray if he would give him a more grown-up version of his Feluda stories for publication in Desh, but Ray laughed it off.

    When multiple attempts to persuade him proved fruitless, Ghosh turned up at Ray’s Bishop Lefroy Road flat in Kolkata. Ghosh was infirm and it was almost impossible for him to climb the steep stairs to Ray’s flat, but climb them he did. Ray could no longer refuse, and the first ‘adult’ Feluda made his appearance in the story Gangtok-ey Gondogol (Trouble in Gangtok) in the Durga Puja special edition of Desh magazine in 1970.

    Despite the Holmsian inspiration for Feluda and Topshe, Ray imbued them and their world with elements from the one he inhabited. None of his stories discusses their origins in great detail but, just like Ray’s own ancestors, who hailed from Mymensingh in erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh), Feluda’s family too hailed from East Bengal, from Sonadighi village in the Bikrampur region of Dhaka. Feluda’s father, Joykrishna Mitra, was a teacher of mathematics and Sanskrit at the Dhaka Collegiate School, the oldest government high school in Bangladesh, established in 1835.

    Like Ray, Feluda too lost his father at an early age, and was raised by his uncle. The family shifted to Kolkata after Partition, and Feluda grew up with his cousin, Tapesh Ranjan Mitra, nicknamed ‘Topshe’. Every one of the Feluda stories is written as a first-person narrative by Topshe, and the young boy is always in awe of his older cousin’s seemingly superhuman powers of observation and deduction. Ray himself was a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and therefore, so is Feluda. In the story London-ey Feluda (Feluda in London, 1989), Feluda visits the Sherlock Holmes museum and acknowledges that if it wasn’t for Holmes, he would never have become a detective.

    The Mitra family of ‘Feluda’ lives in South Kolkata, at 21 Rajani Sen Road and the Kolkata that was familiar to Ray keeps popping up in the stories. For example, in Baksho Rohosyo (Incident on the Kalka Mail, 1972), Feluda is mugged on Pretoria Street, a stone’s throw from Ray’s own residence. In Sheyal Debota Rahasya (The Anubis Mystery, 1970), one of the people Feluda visits lives in Lovelock Place, where there was once an editing studio where Ray had worked. Like Ray, Feluda is a voracious reader, and again, like Ray, his interest in the city’s history comes through in his adventures.

    Feluda’s many idiosyncrasies are delightfully woven into the stories. The athletic detective practices yoga on a daily basis, but also knows martial art forms such as Jujitsu. But contrary to his otherwise healthy lifestyle, he is a smoker, who is partial to Charminar cigarettes. He also owns a .32-caliber Colt revolver, although it isn’t used frequently.

    Apart from his cousin Topshe, Feluda is often joined by the author, Lalmohan Ganguly, who writes under the pseudonym ‘Jatayu’. Ganguly lives in the North Kolkata neighbourhood of Garpar, where Ray had spent a considerable part of his childhood. Ganguly also provides much of the comic relief in the stories.

    A part of Feluda’s enduring appeal is probably due to the fact that most of the stories resemble travelogues. Feluda either travels to exotic locations to solve mysteries or becomes involved in criminal cases while on holiday. Ray meticulously researched each location, down to the tiniest detail, and made the places he wrote about come alive through the eyes of Topshe. He took this aspect to the next level when he took Feluda to the silver screen.

    In 1974, three years after he published it as a novel, Ray released the first Feluda movie Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress). For the eponymous fort, Ray chose Jaisalmer Fort in Rajasthan, its yellow stone walls lending it its characteristic golden appearance. In the story, a young schoolboy, Mukul Dhar, begins to recall events from his past life. A crucial detail the child remembers is that his father was a gem cutter and would work on precious stones.

    When this is reported in the press, the child is kidnapped by the criminal duo of Mandar Bose and Amiyanath Burman, who hope to find buried treasure in the child’s former home. But the only detail Mukul can recall about the location of his house is that it was inside a golden fortress. Burman hypnotically probes the child’s memory, and learns that the golden fortress is Jaisalmer Fort. Meanwhile, in Kolkata, fearing for his life, Mukul’s father engages Feluda, who tracks down the duo and rescues him in an explosive climax inside the Jaisalmer Fort.

    While the film won multiple National awards and was commercially successful, Ray could not have imagined the impact the film would have on Jaisalmer’s tourism. Even today, in this Rajasthani city, more than 2,000 km from Kolkata, it is not uncommon to find tourist guides and shopkeepers who speak fluent Bengali or Ray’s garlanded photograph in hotels, restaurants and shops. The ruins shown in the house as Mukul’s home in his past life are now known as ‘Mukulbari’.

    In 1986, Feluda made his television debut in the series Satyajit Ray Presents, in the story, Joto Kando Kathmandute (The Criminals of Kathmandu, 1980). But casting the Bengali sleuth was a challenge. Ray wanted Amitabh Bachchan to play Feluda but when the actor was unable to allot dates for the shoot, Shashi Kapoor was chosen.

    Although it was to air on television, the series was shot on 35mm film, giving it the appearance of a movie rather than a telefilm. Alankar Joshi aka Master Alankar, played Topshe while Utpal Dutt played Feluda’s arch nemesis, Maganlal Meghraj. While Kissa Kathamndu Ka was appreciated nationally, in Bengal, the response to Shashi Kapoor as Feluda was lukewarm.

    The year 2015 marked Feluda’s 50th anniversary, and taking Ray’s legacy forward is his son Sandip, who continues to make Feluda films, both for television and the big screen. To commemorate the anniversary, Kolkata-based filmmaker Sagnik Chatterjee created a documentary film on the character. As part of his research, Chatterjee found that Feluda stories had been translated into Odiya, Malayalam, Gujarati and Marathi, apart from English.

    In 2017, Bengali actor Parambrata Chattopadhyay, who had previously played Topshe in Sandip Ray’s Feluda films, directed a web series and also starred in it as Feluda. A sequel to Chhinnamastar Abhishap (The Curse of the Goddess, 1978) has been directed by Srijit Mukherjee and is due for release as a web series this year. Even in the hands of others, Ray’s signature style survives, including the Feluda theme music composed by Ray himself.

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