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OP-ED: Revisiting Ray at 100

  • Published at 09:36 am May 2nd, 2021

How have his body of work and its adaptations held up over the decades?

When Shashi Kapoor passed away a few years ago, my Facebook was abuzz (or should I say alight?) with clips of "mere paas maa hai" -- the retort of an honest police officer to the taunts of his gangster brother flaunting his ill-gotten wealth in the 1970s blockbuster Deewar.

I wanted to post about Kapoor as my favourite childhood hero. I was sad to find no clip of Kissa Kathmandu Ki -- Satyajit Ray’s small-screen adaptation of his Feluda caper in Nepal. Granted, the TV movie wasn’t Ray’s finest, but all sorts of weird and improbable stuff can be found online -- why not this, I wondered.

My mind then wandered to why Ray cast Kapoor and not Amitabh Bachchan, the only tall man in India, for the role of the towering Bangali detective. Perhaps it was because Bachchan was, by then, too busy with politics. But that leads one to wonder why Ray hadn’t made a Hindi Feluda earlier.

For that matter, why did Ray not make more Hindi movies? It’s not like he was oblivious to Bollywood trends. He even set one of the Feluda adventures in mid-1970s Bombay, when Bachchan was smashing box office records and the bones of villains. In the novel, Lalmohan Ganguly is advised by Feluda about the masala that would make a blockbuster:

…Instead of one double role, have a pair of double roles. The first hero is paired against the first villain, and hero number two and villain number two make the second pair. That this second pair exists isn’t revealed at the beginning…

…Need smuggling -- gold, diamond, cannabis, opium, whatever; need five musical sequences, one of which should be religious; need two dance numbers; two or three chase sequences are needed, and it would be great if in at least one of them was an expensive car is driven off a cliff; need an inferno scene; need heroines against the heroes and vamps against the villains; need a police officer with integrity; need flashback of the heroes’ backstories.

…Need quick changes of scenes…at least a couple of times the story needs to be on the hills or the seaside…

…At the end -- and this is a must -- need a happy ending. But the ending would work best if it was preceded by several tearjerkers.

Of course, this is tongue-in-cheek. Ray wasn’t into making masala blockbusters. And he explained in a number of places that he was most comfortable in his mother tongue. But Ray was so in tune with the zeitgeist that even Enter the Dragon is channelled in that story, and I can’t help but wish he would have made the movie that would have been “rishte mein toh baap” to Qurbani, Tridev, or Mohra.

As it happens, Feluda returned to the big screen with Bombaiyer Bombete. However, I never found Sabyasachi Chakraborty convincing as Feluda -- he was just too old! And over the years, Sandip Ray’s adaptation of the series went from mediocre to inexecrable. Bars were so low for the late 2010 web series starring Parambrata Chatterjee (previously Topshe to Sabyasachi’s hero) that even though I wasn’t particularly thrilled, I looked forward to watching it.

I wasn’t disappointed.

This Mr Mitter was heavily inspired by Sherlock, at least superficially, though the adaptation of the classic tales aren’t quite as clever as the BBC show.

Now, I have heard a lot of purists grumble about these “modern versions.” Ignore those fuddy duddies, I say, and let a hundred flowers bloom. Page-to-screen transition inevitably means changes to the story. For example, the Bard has been aptly set in Mumbai underworld (Maqbool-Macbeth), Bihari badlands (Omkara-Othello), California ganglands (Romeo and Juliet), medieval Japan (Ran-King Lear), and Fascist Europe (Richard III).

In principle, there is nothing stopping a smartphone-using Feluda from being great in Dhaka. And in practice, Parambrata Chatterjee did a pretty good job looking sharp and observing even more sharply, smoking charminars and quipping wittily. In the first episode, Dhaka looks better than how Ray Jr managed to show Hong Kong! And the Mitter family’s backstory is cleverly re-imagined to weave a Bangladesh connection.

All of this raises the question of why Ray never sent his hero to Bangladesh.

Adventures took Feluda, Topshe, and Lalmohan Babu to all parts of India -- from the sands of Jaisalmer to the snows of Simla, and abroad to as far east as Hong Kong and west to London. But never Dhaka. Why? In fact, even though Feluda’s family is meant to be from the erstwhile eastern Bengal -- much like Ray himself -- the ancestral land plays no part in any Feluda story.

Not just Feluda. And not just Bangladesh. Unlike the works of Ritwik Ghatak or Sunil Gangopadhyay, partition and its legacy is completely absent in Ray’s creation. It’s not that he is oblivious to the history and politics of the region. The Bengal famine is the backdrop against which his best known work is set. And Ghare Baire is as astute a commentary on the divided Bengal on screen as it is on the page. Finally, Ray visited Dhaka weeks after liberation, and was acutely aware of the country’s birth pangs.

I have never read a convincing explanation of Ray’s lack of interest in Bangladesh. My conjecture is that he saw himself as a liberal Indian -- that is, decidedly against Hindi/Hindu chauvinist nationalism -- who was also a Bangali.

But most other such liberals never really accepted the partition. I think Ray is an exception. He accepted that Bangladesh had made its choice and gone separate ways, and its journey wasn’t something he was interested in.

I have not read a convincing explanation of the extreme masculinity of his literary creation, either.

There are perhaps more female drivers in Saudi Arabia than dialogues by female characters in the entire Feluda canon.  Ray said in a number of interviews that his target audience was tweens, and he wanted to keep things G-rated. Fair enough. No romance, no shipping. But the notion that equates female characters with romance -- I believe the word to use for that is sexist.

Yes, I understand that Ray was a 20th century man, and we shouldn’t judge him by the standards of 2021. Of course, he wasn’t sexist in the sense that he believed women are inferior or subservient. Quite the contrary. Whether it is Tagore adaptations like “Charulata” or life in the great city (Mahanagar, the Calcutta Trilogy) -- Ray portrayed the trials and tribulations of the women of his social milieu exquisitely.

But that just makes the lack of female characters in Feluda all the more baffling. Why couldn’t Maganlal Meghraj’s nefarious plans be thwarted by a plucky little girl, for example?

Even in the 19th century adventure yarns, there are female characters -- Jim Hawkins’ mother runs the Admiral Benbow Inn, and The Woman isn’t the only woman in Holmes’ London. Ray’s world may not seem testosterone addled, but the bias is no less insidious.

My fiercely independent female friends note that Satyajit Ray was their first love, that he was cooler than any of his characters, that the creator stood taller than his creation.

And yet, it’s a shame. My son is at that age when I was first thrilled by the famous camel ride in Shonar Kella. I wish Ray created a hero that he too could grow up with.

Jyoti Rahman reads and watches stuff and writes about it in www.jrahman.wordpress.com, where a version of this appeared years ago.

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