"Bakshi, Byomkesh Bakshi," the detective introduces himself a la James Bond in Dibakar Banerjee's testosterone-charged 2015 re-creation of Saradindu Bandopadhyay's iconic detective. That reminded me of Satyajit Ray writing to Marie Seton, while shooting Chiriyakhana (1966), about wanting to make a thriller/whodunit with "a total avoidance of occidental thriller clichés … it's certainly not one for the Bond addicts." And just as well. If anything, Byomkesh Bakshi is in many ways unlike any other fictional private-eye, not only in India, but also internationally.
For one, here is someone who introduces himself not as a sleuth but as "satyanweshi"– a seeker of truth. Though Byomkesh and Ajit have often been called Bengal's answer to Holmes-Watson, the author himself made interventions that render such comparisons superfluous, the odd plot influences notwithstanding. Unlike Holmes and Poirot, who remained bachelors, Byomkesh falls in love, is very much a family man and even has a son. It's his chronicler Ajit who remains one all his life – unlike Watson and Arthur Hastings. (Of course, Holmes had his Irene Adler – "to Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman", as Watson writes in A Scandal in Bohemia – and Poirot his Countess Vera Rossakoff, the jewel thief he was smitten with, but there is nothing by way of a conjugal life resembling Byomkesh's.)
Experiencing an extraordinary resurgence on the screen in the past decade, Byomkesh is all set to woo audiences again in Arindam Sil's forthcoming film Byomkesh Gowtra. And these films have introduced aspects to Byomkesh that make him even more atypical. For example, Sil's Har Har Byomkesh (2015) not only has the detective on his honeymoon, but also exchanging sensual poetry from Jayadeva's Geeta Govindam while comparing notes on the meaning of "smara-garala" with his wife Satyabati ("lust poison?" she offers as explanation), coming upon the killer's identity in the middle of an intimate moment with her, and even spending time buying her a Banarasi sari!
Despite being by far the best detective in Bengali fiction, cinematic adaptations of Byomkesh were surprisingly negligible for years. After Ray's 1966 film, the one notable adaptation came as late as 1993, with Basu Chatterjee's TV series starring Rajit Kapur. It was Anjan Dutt's Byomkesh Bakshi (2010) that opened the floodgates. One is not sure if the creative and commercial failure of Ray's film had anything to do with the long gap, but Dutt says, "In Bengal, no one but Ray (Feluda and Goopy-Bagha) took franchises seriously … I bought the rights of nine Byomkesh stories in 2009." Dutt eventually went on to make six of those, the commercial success of which brought the detective back into the reckoning in films. "Success begets success … Bengali obsession for literature meets Bengali obsession for thrillers," is how Srijit Mukherji puts it.
As an interesting aside, the Byomkesh boom in Bengali cinema was probably kicked off by a non-canonical play in English called Checkmate, written and directed by Mukherji. It was to be Byomkesh's last case and had Ajit as the murderer. Mukherji says that the play, which ran to packed houses, was staged just before the first Byomkesh film starring Abir released. Anjan Dutt was supposed to play an ageing Byomkesh, but eventually Aporup Acharya did.
Apart from pioneering the franchise, Dutt also introduced Abir Chatterjee as Byomkesh, at a time when the actor was not even one film old. Chatterjee, who has had the rare chance to play both Feluda and Byomkesh, says, "Over the years, I have made Byomkesh more like me, or maybe I have become more like him, we have grown together. My father gave me my first copy of a Byomkesh novel when I was in my eighth standard." Dutt says he wanted a fresh face that would "exude the intelligent Bengali and look good in a dhuti."
In Har Har Byomkesh and Byomkesh Pawrbo (2016), Sil has taken the franchise beyond its literary moorings, and outside the confines of Kolkata. In the upcoming Byomkesh Gowtra, for example, he shifts the narrative from Kolkata of 1952 to Landour, Mussoorie… What adds to the excitement, according to him, is that they "deal with adult themes – lust, adultery, sexual tension, incest, crimes of passion, which offer great cinematic possibilities…"
If Dutt gave Byomkesh a firm footing in cinema, it is Arindam Sil who has expanded his cinematic horizons. In Har Har Byomkesh and Byomkesh Pawrbo (2016), he has taken the franchise beyond its literary moorings, and outside the confines of Kolkata. In the upcoming Byomkesh Gowtra, for example, he shifts the narrative from Kolkata of 1952 to Landour, Mussoorie. Like all Bengalis, Sil swears by Byomkesh. "Byomkesh is just not another detective – in terms of literary value, these stories rank right up there with the classics.' What adds to the excitement, according to him, is that they "deal with adult themes – lust, adultery, sexual tension, incest, crimes of passion, which offer great cinematic possibilities…"
With the glut of Byomkesh films of late, does he see the franchise running out of steam? While Dutt says he stopped after making six films as "the market was getting too crowded," Sil points out that Gowtra is releasing two years after Pawrbo. 'And now that SVF Entertainment has the rights to all the stories, we will take care to space out the films. To make a franchise, you have to make it interesting – go one better than the previous one and that's what we have tried in Gowtra.'
Chatterjee, who has come to own the character over six outings, is not worried about being typecast. "It's given me a profile. I have also noticed that the last two films became immensely popular even among non-Bengalis. With Arindam-da, Byomkesh has become a big brand. There's now the challenge of maintaining a certain standard. Gowtra will be competing with six Puja releases. While Byomkesh has become larger-than-life – breaking the mould, with Byomkesh doing action – we have also tried to make it interesting by highlighting his romantic side."
First appearing in 1932 in the short story Satyanweshi, Byomkesh featured in thirty-two more stories over the next thirty-eight years. So there's no reason to doubt that the franchise will continue to thrive. As Sayandeb Chowdhury, Assistant Professor of English, School of Letters, Ambedkar University Delhi, says, "There is a specific kind of mainstream popularity that is often reserved for the private-eye and among them Byomkesh presents a specific template, which is very Holmesian and at the same time very culturally identifiable as Bengali. He also offers escapades into sexuality, politics and violence, which are necessary ingredients for the mainstream film audience." With Byomkesh Gowtra promising all this and more, Bengali audiences can look forward to not only a thrilling ride but also quenching their Puja-time wanderlust – this time in Mussoorie, cracking a murder with their beloved detective.
Watch the trailer here: