Mumbai: When William Blake published his The Tyger in 1794, he carefully re-placed the usual “i” of “Tiger” with a “y” in order to suggest the extraordinariness of the apocalyptic beast. Director Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (the “i” of “Bakshi” substituted by “y”), released on April 3, 2015, has been appropriately titled too: For like the Blakeian tiger, Banerjee’s “satyanweshi” (the “truth-seeker”) is unique in conception — jumping, in the promotional photograph, over the Howrah Bridge as the Japanese bombers stalk the Kolkata skies of 1942-43: For that is the period in which the post-modern take on one of Bengal’s more favourite detective’s exploits unfurl. As the awestruck, perplexed audience sits through the 148 minutes of dimly-lit, pre-Independence Kolkata streets and plethora of violence, they heave a sigh of relief that the other “Banerjee” — that is, the littérateur Sharadindu (who created the sleuth in 1932) — is no longer alive.
Sharadindu’s simplistic, psychoanalytical narration would have in no way matched Dibakar’s encyclopaedic and kaleidoscopic talents which pit a virtually-unarmed Byomkesh Bakshi (enacted by Sushant Singh Rajput) and his accomplice Ajit Banerjee (played by Anand Tiwari) against the Second World War-time Imperial Japanese Army, their Japanese agents in India like Dr Watanabe (Takanori Kikuchi), Chinese drug peddlers, and the film’s principal antagonist, the Japanese collaborator, Dr Anukul Guha (enacted by Neeraj Kabi). The Mata Hari-like character of Anguri Devi (Swastika Mukherjee), the love interest of Guha who ultimately dies a miserable death, only complicates the almost-indecipherable plot other than providing a certain degree of oomph: Diving in a swimsuit and liplocking with Bakshi. It is by a great stroke of luck that the investigator survives a shootout between the Japanese accomplices and Chinese law enforcers to unite with Satyabati (that is, Divya Menon), helped in no small measure by Nikos Andritsakis’ cinematography. One cannot blame thinking individuals for leaving without completing the film: it is hard to believe that Bakshi would converse casually with Guha on an open rooftop against a surreal, burning background even as the Japanese bombers mercilessly pounded the Port of Kolkata (which actually occurred on December 5, 1943), and that the Kolkata streets would be surprisingly clean of famished people tearing one another for a handful of stale rice. Approximately four million people perished in the Bengal famine of 1943.
Over the years from the late 19th century until the 1970s Bengali literature has presented India with a sizeable number of fictional investigators. Be it Priyanath Mukherjee’s inspector in-charge, Dinendra Kumar Ray’s Robert Blake, Hemendra Kumar Ray’s Jayanta, Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s Kiriti, Sharadindu’s Byomkesh Bakshi, Samarendranath Pande’s Deepak Chatterjee, or Satyajit Ray’s Feluda: sleuth-narratives seem to have been the Bengali littérateurs’ forte. Of these, the adult Bakshi narratives of Shara-dindu published between 1932 and 1970 have attracted the most critical attention. Beginning in the early 1980s until 2015, the Bakshi series of detective stories has led to the production of 10 films, five television serial series, and seven radio adaptations. What separates the Bakshi stories from other tales of investigation is the truth-seeker’s middle-class status, his mundane family life, his “bhadrolok” appearance, and his reliance on psychoanalysis to investigate rather than depending on Sherlock Holmes’ strenuous outdoor adventures.
And this is where Dibakar’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! seriously disappoints. Though he convincingly puffs on ancient-looking cigarettes and rides colonial tramcars and taxis. Rajput’s athletic, sprightly looks are too handsome to fit Sharadindu’s conception of the “bhadralok” detective. And, above all, Sharadindu did not actually publish any such single/composite narrative as seen in Dibakar’s film: Dibakar’s is an inefficient juxtaposition of at least eight Byomkesh Bakshi stories: Satyanweshi (1932 — where Bakshi and Ajit Banerjee first meet each other at a murderous homeopathic physician’s Kolkata boarding house), Pather Kanta (1932 — in scenes of usage of betel leaves), Makorshar Rosh (1933 — in context of usage of an addictive which cannot be easily traced), Arthamanartham (1933 — where the future-couple Bakshi and Satyabati are introduced to each other), Agniban (1935 — focusing on the exploits of a talented, but errant chemist), Chiriyakhana (1953 — filmed by Satyajit Ray 14 years later — where one can meet the doctor-and-actress couple Bhujanga-dhar and Nityakali, comparable with Dibakar’s Anukul and Anguri Devi), and Adim Ripu (1955) and Magno Mainak (1963), which deal with India’s freedom struggle, internal politics, sexual impropriety, nefariousness and spying during the turbulent 1940s. Dibakar’s film, in its attempt to become unputdownably-ultramodern, stretches the combination of these eight narratives a tad too far, and the whole superstructure appears to be constantly in danger of crumbling down.
In the Japanese-Chinese opium connection, one can detect the influence of Herge’s 1936 Tintin, The Blue Lotus. In mid-2013, the director had triumphantly announced that Yash Raj Films had brought the rights of “31 of Byomkesh novels in all languages outside Bengali”; the company’s maiden production in this direction is ominous — at least for thousands of Byomkesh Bakshi fans all over India who eagerly wait for and celebrate the production of each cinematographic production based on Sharadindu’s narratives. Even the seven tracks of music used in Dibakar’s film become torturous: frantic efforts by Imaad Shah, Rishi Bradoo, Usri Banerjee, Sandeep Madhavan and at least 10 other talented singers fail to provide succour to an audience understandably mystified by Dibakar’s futuristic art.
In spite of its innate complexities, Blake’s Tyger has gone on to become one of the more frequently-anthologised poems in English literature. And the difficulties of the plot of Dibakar’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! notwithstanding, the film has collected `90 million within the first two days of its release. Despite the credulity it inspires, Dibakar’s attempt to present yet another cinematic adaptation of Sharadindu’s detective stories is enjoyable at least for its nostalgic, nearly-accurate recreation of Kolkata of the turbulent 1940s.
The writer, an assistant professor of English at Cooch Behar Panchanan Barma University, West Bengal, is the author of The Manichean Investigators: A Postcolonial and Cultural Rereading of the Sherlock Holmes and Byomkesh Bakshi Stories...