Director: Sandip Ray
Actors: Dhritiman Chatterjee, Subhasish Mukherjee, Ricardo Dantas, Jacqueline Mazarella
Sandip Ray’s big screen adaptations of his father Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories are more fascinating as a cultural event than as films. Every two three years or so, around Christmas time, the Bengali moviegoer has returned to to theatres to watch tepid, unremarkable film adaptations on his favourite fictional detective as though it’s a winter ritual: snuggling into the warm blanket of nostalgia while trying to hold on to one of the last links to the great golden era of cultural superiority.
This has moulded our expectations — and lowered our standards — in a certain way: We don’t expect the new Sandip Ray film — which is typically an adaptation of his father’s stories — to blow our minds. Even if the films are vaguely dissatisfying, we’d still go to the theatre to watch it. Or now that the era of streaming is upon us, would we? There is a reluctance to go to the theatre to watch films that can be enjoyed at home.
At a time like this, it perhaps makes business sense to bring out the first ever film adaptation of Professor Shonku — Ray’s second most popular of his creations as an author, considered too expensive under the budgetary constraints of Bengali cinema until this point — which, with its sci-fi elements and special effects, make for a bigger spectacle than Feluda.
Make no mistake, Professor Shanku O El Dorado has all the stodginess that we’ve come to associate the Feluda films — take the opening sequence for instance, which makes a loose, half-explained connection between Shanku and the present — but it’s oddly comforting too. It’s 2016 and Shanku (Dhritiman Chatterjee) still lives in Giridih, with his cat Newton and his domestic help Prahlad, still corresponding with his scientist friends from all over the world through his proto-Skype invention. Invitation arrives to attend a conference in Sao Paolo in Brazil as a special guest, where Shanku will be felicitated for his contribution to science, and where his body of work will be in exhibition. Before he leaves for Brazil, a stranger, Nakur babu (Subhasish Mukherjee), visits Shanku, warning him of the dangers that lie ahead. A once-in-a-billion phenomenon of being touched by ball-lightning has turned Nakur babu into a clairvoyant. He tags along.
The Shonku stories always kept the science simple and the fiction inventive and fun, with names that seems to have been guided by the spirit of the nonsense humour of Sukumar Ray. The Annihilin turns its victim into vapour, because Shanku doesn’t like bloodshed. The Snuff Gun makes him sneeze for 32 hours. The Cerebrilliant makes the mind twice active, and as fast. The film makes economic use of these special effect elements, which also include Nakur Babu’s visions that he is able to project like a hologram. It does away with the daily-journal-entry narration style of the books, and importantly, is able to retain some of the simplicity in the storytelling: a relief when compared to the flashy, incoherent storytelling that goes around in contemporary Bengali cinema. The camera, appropriately, is unfussy.
Chatterjee is really the only actor one can think of who can play Shanku, and he plays the wise, old man with a twinkle in the eye; Subhasish Mukherjee as Nokur Babu brings an otherworldly weirdness into his character of an everyday Bengali. I laughed initially at the hammy acting of the actors playing Shanku’s scientist friends, and the villainous businessman who wants to buy the patents of his inventions, but stopped being bothered by it after a point. It had all become a part of the experience.