Satyajit Ray wrote his Feluda stories in the Bengali children's magazine Sandesh from 1965 till he passed away. He made Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979) into films, with Soumitra Chatterjee playing Feluda. With a three-character setup similar to Tintin, most of the stories feature Feluda, his cousin and chronicler Topshe, and the pulp writer Jatayu (alias Lalmohan Ganguly).
Topshe is Feluda's satellite, as he likes to call himself. In the stories, he is also the narrator— Feluda's Watson. If you think of Feluda as Tintin and Topshe as Snowy, Jatayu is Captain Haddock — the comic relief and financier in their adventures. Jatayu, who writes pulpy thrillers such as Gorilla's Grasp and Bleeding Diamond, is a counterpoint to Ray himself, whose Feluda stories are well-researched, logical, and never have ridiculous titles.
Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath are rare instances where the writer and the filmmaker are one and the same. It's fascinating to observe how Ray has translated some of his own ideas onto the screen. If Feluda is riveting on paper, Soumitra Chatterjee's Feluda is a revelation. His performance defines the canonical Feluda. For those who've seen the films, Feluda is Chatterjee. The novella and film versions enrich each other.
Sonar Kella is an especially enigmatic film. Dealing with the topic of past-life regression, it puts the strangeness of the human mind right at the center of a detective mystery (that is also a desert adventure). Mukul is a little boy who is obsessed with a 'golden fortress' that he claims to have seen in a past life. Dr. Hajra, a parapsychology researcher, takes him to Rajasthan to look for the fortress. A couple of conmen knock Dr. Hajra out and manage to convince Mukul to go along with them instead. They're in this for potential treasure in this mysterious fortress.
Feluda is hired (a bit too late) by Mukul's father to ensure the safety of his son and the professor. It's a straightforward story. What's intriguing is how Feluda's mind is depicted in a way that allows viewers to participate in his logical deductions, much as if they, like Topshe, were his satellites too.
Feluda is Holmes without the eccentricity. He's Poirot without the meticulously maintained moustache. Feluda's own words might help place him among other fictional detectives: "It is foolish to accept or reject anything without sufficient evidence. If you don't keep an open mind, you're a fool." Feluda is driven by questions, not answers.
Cases aren't conquests. They aren't problems to be solved. They are patterns with aberrations that need to be explained. He takes up cases for their aesthetic value, only when something is off in the pattern formed by the facts before him. He works out solutions using logic; not the scientific logic of a Newton, but the creative logic of a da Vinci. Feluda is an artist first, and a detective next.
In Sonar Kella (the novella), Feluda is preoccupied by geometry. He tells Topshe that geometry is everywhere. The iris of the eye, the sun, smoke rings that Feluda blows are all simple circles. When Topshe spits out of the window (a habit that infuriates Feluda), it takes a parabolic path to the ground. Even complex shapes like a spider's web have a simple geometric regularity. A web starts off as a square, which the spider develops into a complicated arrangement. In the film, Ray uses geometric shapes — simple and complex — to visually depict Feluda's mind.
In the initial scenes, when there is no real case and Feluda is motivated to take it up just because he is curious about Mukul's paranormal abilities (Remember "It is foolish not to have an open mind"?), we see visuals that are orderly. Feluda's living room with perfectly aligned furniture, and a neatly arranged library with books that are identical in shape, size, and colour.
We get patterns that are slightly more complicated when Feluda leaves for Rajasthan to meet Mukul and Dr. Hajra. At the station, we see a shot of the roof held up by crisscrossing iron beams with a circular clock in the foreground. Right next to Feluda's compartment, Dr. Hajra blows out smoke circles. At a hotel in Rajasthan where Feluda begins to suspect that Dr. Hajra might be an impostor, pillars at regular intervals on the corridor outside his room cast diagonal shadows on the floor. The facts are still straight in his head. Only, perhaps, they are becoming a bit slanted with suspicion.
As the plot thickens, and Feluda is not really sure what is happening anymore, Ray stops showing us patterns. Feluda finds himself literally in the middle of a vast desert with no definition, just miles of sand on every side.
Feluda's solution in Sonar Kella lies in working out what 'golden fortress' means. He needs to figure out where such a fortress made of gold could possibly exist in modern-day Rajasthan? His clue comes in the form of a stone cup that he stumbles on. No, not a cup with the villain's fingerprints like in Conan Doyle, or a cup with a bit of strychnine left in it by the culprit like in Agatha Christie. This is a cup made out of stone that has a golden hue. It has an elegant, spartan structure — a return to simple shapes. Intuitively, we see that Feluda has returned to the basic facts of the case, and has found clarity through that.
At the end of the film, when Feluda finally finds the fort, with its complicated structure that is made up of simple shapes, we too experience the joy of a simple solution to a complex mystery. The key was not in finding where the fortress was, but in cracking what 'golden' meant. It was a stone cup with a simple shape that helped Feluda figure it out. He went back from the complexity of a spider's web to the simple square based on which it was constructed.
It's easy to visualise Feluda as just a variant of Holmes, especially if you are a reader of Conan Doyle. But Soumitra Chatterjee restores Feluda to the truly unique detective that he is, in his own right. Feluda cannot be reduced to a mere shadow of Holmes. If that's not apparent when reading the stories, Chatterjee makes it apparent on film.
In the stories we get textual descriptions of Feluda smoking a Charminar and listening to a client. It's easy to imagine that Feluda looks like Holmes, sitting with his pipe next to the fireplace at 221 Baker Street. But, Chatterjee's Feluda sitting right next to a fish tank at 21, Rajani Sen Road, differs in the way he smokes a Charminar.
In an early scene, Feluda is listening intently to a client. Meanwhile, the Charminar burns to a dropping parabola (a simple shape), the ash about to fall off any time. Feluda glances just before it actually falls, briefly takes his gaze off the client, and ashes it into a circular ashtray. We see, without being told, how his actions have a certain geometric economy. The man can smoke almost an entire cigarette without disturbing the parabola, and he can ash it before it's too late. He can be single-minded without being absent-minded — he's definitely not Holmes.
Chatterjee constantly finds ways to externalise the intensity of Feluda's thinking without rendering him eccentric. In Jeremy Brett's masterful interpretation of Holmes in the 1980's TV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the detective comes off as a bit highly-strung. That was his way of depicting Holmes's rigorous mind. Often, when Feluda is onto something, he has an expression that's between a grimace and a smirk, something that looks like the effect of blood abandoning the face and rushing to the head. It's the look of someone who is unreservedly enjoying a bout of acute indigestion. We see that intense thinking can be painful and rewarding at the same time.
Chatterjee communicates mental tension through his eyes which seem to be able — at will — to turn a glint on and off. More interestingly, he repurposes everyday body language to communicate Feluda's mental state.
Take the scene where Feluda is trying to figure something out in Sonar Kella; he thinks Dr. Hajra is an imposter but can't put a finger on why he thinks so. We don't get a soundtrack that is reaching a crescendo, no gimmicky camera angles, no slick cuts. We just get a shot that shows Chatterjee's Feluda hiding his face behind his palms; Topshe and Jatayu are at his side. We don't get to see his eyes, which might have revealed his mind to us. We realise that he is nearing a solution when he is hiding only half his face behind a closed fist; a close-up shot this time. We know he has had his Eureka! moment when he removes his palms off his face to reveal eyes with the glint turned on. Without resorting to exaggerated behavior, the craft of filmmaking and an actor's performance come together to elegantly depict the hyperactive mind of a detective.
Feluda is less about chasing down criminals. He's more about solving puzzles. He is not consumed by his own brilliance. He is, especially in Soumitra Chatterjee's rendition, an everyday person's detective. Feluda is a lot like Tintin in that respect.
The sequence where Feluda rides a camel across the desert in Sonar Kella is reminiscent of Hergé's Land of Black Gold. Just as in Tintin, everyone is humanised. Dr. Hajra and his accomplice are pulpy villains. Yet, in a film that backgrounds a desperate search for treasure with a soulful Rajasthani folk plaintive about how one's mind — wherever it goes — always returns to Lord Rama, the pulpiness is redeemed by the perspective. Mukul, Feluda, and Dr. Hajra are all obsessed creatures. We might interpret the morality of each differently, but they are all victims of their obsession. Feluda, himself, is unvaryingly unassuming. Sometimes, he almost seems unaware of his gifts. Like Tintin, if his adventures take him down dark alleys, he will play along like a good boy scout. But, he knows to remain aloof from the darkness. Feluda might have been modelled on Holmes, but Ray's stories are a homage to Hergé. Ray even good-naturedly alludes to this in Joi Baba Felunath (the novella). Jatayu writes a book about the trio's adventure in Benaras, and Topshe just thinks it reads too much like a Tintin story.