How Soumitra Chatterjee Modelled Feluda on Satyajit Ray, Film Companion

Feluda is trending, for different reasons. Last week, there was an announcement that the indigenously developed paper strip test for Covid 19, named after Satyajit Ray’s iconic detective series, is going to be rolled out in 8 Indian cities. (With the acronym standing for FNCas9 Editor-Limited Uniform Detection Assay, it has been said to have 96% accuracy in terms of detecting the virus.) 

Last week, legendary actor Soumitra Chatterjee, passed away at 85, following health complications after he tested positive for Covid. Chatterjee played the character in the Feluda films made by Ray when it was adapted from the books into Sonar Kella (1974), and Joi Baba Felunath (1979). The trailer for a new web series on Feluda, directed by Srijit Mukherji, is out. Tota Roy Chowdhury is the latest in the list of actors who have played Feluda. Others include Shashi Kapoor, Sabyasachi Chakraborty and Abir Chatterjee, but there’s little doubt that no other actor has captured the imagination of the audience as much as Soumitra Chatterjee. 

One reason is simply because the Ray films were on a league of their own, beautifully made, and adapted for the screen, characterised by Ray’s masterful sense of economy—and other great performances, that include Santosh Dutta as Lalmohan Ganguly, Kamu Mukherjee as Mandar Bose in Sonar Kella, and Utpal Dutt as Maganlal Meghraj in Joi Baba Felunath. They were far superior films compared to anything that came later.

Chatterjee gave a human face to Feluda’s almost superhuman abilities, notably with his measured and effective use of eyes. It was his way of bringing out Feluda’s thinking nature on screen–“Eyes, eyebrows and frown”, as he says in one of his interviews. But the secret to Chatterjee’s portrayal of Feluda could be that he modelled a lot of his mannerisms on Ray. Apart from following Ray’s script on how to play the character, Chatterjee was also drawing from Ray’s personality. 

How Soumitra Chatterjee Modelled Feluda on Satyajit Ray, Film Companion
A still from Sonar Kella’

There is a popular notion that Ray modelled Feluda on Chatterjee, so much so that the illustrations in the stories looked like him. It’s not entirely true. On the contrary, Chatterjee thought the early Feluda sketches were like Ray: “The height, those cheekbones, the build”, Chatterjee said in an interview. Apart from these, Feluda, like Ray, is an avid reader, loves travelling, and has a similar cigarette smoking style. When Chatterjee told this to Ray, he seemed mildly surprised and said, ‘And people tell me that I model my sketches of Felu on you’. 

The actor has iterated several times over the years about this aspect of his approach. He has even pointed out specific things. In the iconic train scene in Sonar Kella, for instance, when Lalmohan Ganguly speaks in Hindi without realising that Feluda and Topshe are Bengalis, Feluda says the line ‘Apni Hindi chaliye jete paren, besh lagchhe.’ (You can go on, it’s quite enjoyable). In an interview with Boria Majumdar for the book [email protected], Chatterjee says, “Anyone who knew Manik-da well will tell you that’s how he spoke. While there was always a degree of self-confidence and sense of assurance, he was never rude or arrogant. Also, he had a very subtle sense of humour that I tried to imbibe while playing Feluda in both Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath”. 

Feluda was a literary construct onto which Ray projected his tastes and fantasies. “Baba started bestowing all his personal likes and dislikes on Feluda. He began sending Feluda to places that he had himself been to and liked a lot,” Ray’s son Sandip says in an interview with The Telegraph. He adds that his father’s idea of an ideal onscreen Feluda was a combination of all his leading men: Barun Chanda, Dhritiman Chatterjee, Subhendu Chatterjee and Soumitra Chatterjee. When he decided to make a Feluda film, he went with Chatterjee. 

How Soumitra Chatterjee Modelled Feluda on Satyajit Ray, Film Companion
A still from ‘Joi Baba Felunath’

It’s easy to see why. Even though the Feluda in the books has its differences with Chatterjee—for one, he had a more Eurocentric look in the illustrations—he was still his best leading man. Chatterjee had the ability to give him exactly what he wanted. “It’s not that Manik da and I had a lot of discussions about how I should play Feluda. But I had a fairly rough sense of what he wants. You could say that I was the vehicle for his ideas,” he says in an interview with Gautam Bhattacharya for the weekend supplement of the Bengali newspaper Sangbad Pratidin.

Chatterjee saw Feluda as an extension of Ray, who he considered a teacher. There’s a moment in Sonar Kella when this aspect of the character is emphasised. It’s when Topshe’s mother is worried that going off with Felu to solve cases outside Calcutta might hamper her son’s studies, to which Topshe’s father says, ‘Felu’r moto mashter ki kothao pabe?’ (Will he ever get a teacher like Felu?). 

How Soumitra Chatterjee Modelled Feluda on Satyajit Ray, Film Companion
A still from ‘Sonar Kella’

The scene is a part of an extended ‘introduction scene’ of Chatterjee as Feluda—we have met pretty much all the characters from the film except him. It’s preceded by a shot of him doing a headstand—we only see see his feet, then hear his voice (talking to Topshe, who has knocked on his door to inform him that a client has come to see him). And it’s followed by a shot of him from the back, wearing a red panjabi over a white vest. We still haven’t seen his face. 

It’s a great way to bring together the dream combination of the cerebral and the physical athleticism, the teacher and the hero—traits that define Feluda. 

Another defining trait of Feluda visible in Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath is the way he is able to connect with children—both on screen and in the audience. Few filmmakers handled child actors the way Ray did; he didn’t treat them as children, but on an equal level, like an adult. And Chatterjee learnt a great deal about this while working with him. He often recalls an anecdote on the sets of Sonar Kella, when they were traveling back to the hotel after a long, hard day of shoot in Jaisalmer. On other days, the actors and crew members would indulge the child actor on the set Kushal Chakraborty (who plays Mukul), a curious kid with a lot of questions; but that day they were exhausted and were giving customary, mechanical answers to his questions, including Chatterjee.

Ray’s patience with the child amazed him. He must have been the most tired of them all and he still answered all his questions: why there are so many stars visible from the desert, why their colour is blue and so on, with scientific accuracy and simplicity. Chatterjee not only incorporated these qualities into Feluda, but also into his own life. And no other image illustrates it more than the scene in Joi Baba Felunath, when he sits on his knees in front of the little boy, Ruku, bringing himself below the child’s eye level, and engages with him about Captain Spark, limericks and the King of Africa.

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