The Bakshiphiles

India’s most popular detective now dominates the screen

01 October, 2013

A SLACK-JAWED WRITER, visibly taken in by the opulence around him, grinned through his beard at a dashing king. It was a still, muggy afternoon, and the three men—the writer was accompanied by a bespectacled man in white who chose to stay mostly silent—were sitting on wood-carved chairs in a regal, yet aging, palace. Having heard of local big game, the gents were waiting to hear a tiger’s bellow.

With an immaculately creased dhuti and a dressy stole draped over one shoulder, the young royal lifted the corners of his mouth in a weary but warm smile. “Call me Himangshu,” he pleaded with his visitors, insisting on informality.

“I’ll maim you with my shoe!”

The cry might not have been the one they were listening for, but it pierced through the afternoon just the same. The lights flared up, going from the soft-focus of the early twentieth century to a harsh contemporary glare, and those standing next to the director’s chair inched back instinctively. “Slow! Slow! Slow!” growled an impatient Rituparno Ghosh, turning from friendly to fascistic. “It’s the ’40s! They didn’t have anything better to do than talk, and they took their time doing it. Speak slower.” The cast tried to obey but Ghosh wasn’t pleased, and asked Indraneil Sengupta, the actor playing the king, to repeat the lines after him, on camera. Sengupta sighed, protested weakly, but gamely reset his expression and repeated each line Rituparno cooed off screen.

In May this year, I was in Calcutta on the sets of Rituparno Ghosh’s Satyanweshi—his adaptation of Sharadindu Banerjee’s ‘Chorabali’ (Quicksand)—and the actors seemed used to this kind of directorial explosion. Anindya Chatterjee, lead singer of the Bangla rock band Chandrabindoo, who plays Ajit Bandhyopadhyay, the aforementioned writer, smiled wanly and waited, it seemed, for his turn to be tut-tutted at.

This hand-holding of actors wasn’t restricted to Sengupta—though the shoe-threats seemed to exclusively come his way, perhaps because he’s an old Rituparno collaborator. The director was every bit a schoolmarm, correcting the way his boys held their dhutis and their gazes, and, later in the same scene, even sashaying into a room to show his heroine Arpita Chatterjee how to make an entrance. The popular allegation, then, that characters in Rituparno Ghosh’s films all sounded like him, seemed not only natural but politely restrained; they might have lived their own lives on the page, but on screen their behaviour was invariably filtered through Rituparno’s unique persona. Which is one reason why Satyanweshi, the last film of the acclaimed director who recently passed away, is unlike any other Byomkesh Bakshi film.

Sujoy Ghosh, best known as the director of last year’s hit film Kahaani, plays Byomkesh Bakshi in Rituparno Ghosh’s Satyanweshi. COURTESY SHREE VENKATESH FILMS

And others there certainly are.

Created by Sharadindu Banerjee in 1932, Byomkesh Bakshi is one of Bengali literature’s most enduring characters, an exceptional criminal investigator with his own moral code, who lives a genteel life. It isn’t surprising that the Byomkesh stories are still popular in Bengal, but the detective’s ongoing takeover of the big screen, 80 years after his first literary appearance, is not only remarkable, but utterly unprecedented for an Indian fictional hero.

With rights to the 32 Byomkesh adventures being acquired piecemeal, several versions of the iconic character are rubbing shoulders with one another. By the time you read this piece, Ghosh’s swansong will have released, and the third in Anjan Dutt’s Byomkesh trilogy (the first of his two Byomkesh trilogies, in fact) will be making its way to Calcutta theatres. Bengal’s loyal love for Satyajit Ray’s Feluda will remain, but cinematically, Byomkesh has the upper hand—his is the grown-up, darker, more emphatically Indian character. And, spurred on by the success of the Byomkesh adaptations, more and more detectives are climbing out of the literary woodwork and inching towards the screen.

Over in Mumbai, having bought the rights to all 32 stories in every language other than Bengali, Dibakar Banerjee has announced his own Byomkesh Bakshi film, with Kai Po Che! star Sushant Singh Rajput in the lead role. Elsewhere in that city, perhaps buoyed by Banerjee’s ambitious intentions, Shoojit Sircar, director of Vicky Donor, has announced plans for a remake of Ray’s Sonar Kella, with Aamir Khan as Feluda. Meanwhile, Basu Chatterjee’s classic 1993 television series about Byomkesh continues to captivate audiences via YouTube and yet another of Doordarshan reruns.

What makes this Bengali sleuth quite so fascinating to filmmakers and audiences alike? From Satyajit Ray’s 1967 take, Chiriyakhana, to Banerjee’s upcoming project, and with a legendary television show and many, many a Bangla film in between, the Byomkesh story continues.

BENGALI LITERATURE ALWAYS HAD its share of detectives, but these were mostly clones of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—set ostensibly in Calcutta, but merely London, or Paris, in disguise. It was into a far more realistic Calcutta that Sharadindu Banerjee, an author highly regarded for his literary fiction—both social dramas like Jhinder Bondi and historical novels like Kaler Mandira and Tungabhadrar Teere—introduced his Bengali detective, Byomkesh Bakshi, whose innate Bengaliness set him apart from other fictional sleuths.

Byomkesh lived in a Calcutta strongly and vividly evocative of the time. This was pre-Independence Calcutta, a wise and wicked city packed with secrets. The people in Banerjee’s stories were familiar enough folk who seemed, nevertheless, to have something to hide.

“I think he was the quintessential Bengali, that’s how you would define Byomkesh,” said Sujoy Ghosh, who is playing Byomkesh in Rituparno Ghosh’s Satyanweshi. “Bengaliness is a huge part of Byomkesh, the cigarette in one hand, the dhuti-panjabi he’s wearing, and using the edge of his dhuti to polish his glasses,” he said, drawing comparisons with the quintessentially Belgian Poirot and the indelibly English pipe-puffing Holmes. “That’s a culture, that’s who we are. He’s representing us and we totally identify with him.” Anjan Dutt, a director so smitten by the character that he’s making six movies based on Sharadindu Banerjee’s stories, agreed entirely: “Byomkesh has to be somebody who looks good in a dhoti. He has to be a good-looking, old-fashioned Bengali. He has to be a tall and very sharp Bengali, not the middle-class clerical Bengali, who has always been the stereotype, the kaerani Bengali loser, the ineffective intellectual. Byomkesh is somebody who has morality, strength, power, and can stand up and talk. He’s a representation of that strong, idealised Bengali.”

The influence of Holmes, as well as GK Chesterton’s Father Brown, is visible in the early stories. The first story Banerjee wrote, ‘Pather Kanta’ (The Thorn in the Path)—about a murderer who shoots gramophone pins into his victims using a bicycle bell—borrows a lot from Sherlock. “It was directly influenced by Doyle,” agreed Banerjee’s youngest son, Shantanu. “Maybe the influence was stronger because he was testing the waters.” But these inspirations wear off as Banerjee’s detective comes into his own. One that lingers appears to be Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin, with his method of ratiocination, wherein Dupin put himself “in the mind of” the criminal. Byomkesh, too, tries to think like his quarry and frequently empathises with them, sometimes enough to let them escape the hand of the law.

Rajit Kapur and Sukanya Kulkarni as Byomkesh Bakshi and his wife, Satyawati, in Basu Chatterjee’s teleseries for Doordarshan. INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE

Byomkesh abhorred the word “detective”. Working mostly independently of the police—while sometimes aiding them, naturally—Byomkesh invariably frowns at being called detective, and corrects those in his presence, instructing them to refer to him instead as “satyanweshi”, seeker of truth. “I think that means he’s more interested in the truth rather than giving justice,” explained Anjan Dutt. “In my first film [Byomkesh Bakshi, 2010], a father and son were both screwing the same girl, and the son, after spending all his life searching for the father, didn’t know that was the father, and kills him. Right in the end, Byomkesh tells him that ‘Yes, you killed somebody and you should go to jail, but I’m not sending you there. Yet you need to be punished. So the man you killed is the man you’ve been looking for, he is your father.’ And the guy is shattered.”

Byomkesh’s deductive reasoning may have borrowed from Poe—or the real-life French policeman and innovator Alphonse Bertillon, mentioned off-handedly in several Byomkesh stories—but his inferences were based on Indian texts. He would quote from sources as varied as the Mahabharata and Sukumar Ray’s 1923 collection of nonsensical rhymes, Abol Tabol—the latter proving a source of bemused irritation for Ajit, Byomkesh’s assistant and chronicler, who had bought the book for Byomkesh’s son.

"AT THE SAME TIME that he wrote Byomkesh, Sharadindu Banerjee wrote these strong psychological thrillers dealing with various aspects of human emotion, not sanitised for popular reading,” Rituparno Ghosh said softly, while his sets were being lit and his actors practised speaking with the requisite pace. “And my attraction to this subject is because of my fascination towards both kinds of his books.”

Rituparno, a critically admired filmmaker with a dozen National Awards to his name, was known best for inward-looking dramas involving complex emotions, but one of his greatest triumphs came in Shubho Muhorat, a clever adaptation of a Miss Marple mystery. Coming ten years after that experiment, Rituparno’s new thriller seemed geared to do more than follow Sharadindu Banerjee’s descriptive, gripping story about the mysterious disappearance of a librarian from a royal estate.

“I wanted to harp on essentially the Indian way of detecting the crime, or its analysis,” Rituparno said, “which came from the references of Indian epics and the Indian literature of the time. He quotes Sanskrit shloks, and even in his deduction, there is an Indian-ness. There is an Indian idiom to the analysis and findings. That I felt is very important: why can’t India have its own psychological thriller? What I’m trying to achieve is an Indian detective story told with references from the traditions of India. This is vital.”

Equally vital in a film like this is the lead actor. Rituparno’s Byomkesh, Sujoy Ghosh, is nothing like the Byomkesh we’re used to. He isn’t a tall man, and is found perennially in the peculiar outfit of a photua—a flimsy cross between an undershirt and a short-kurta—and baggy pants that end above his knee. Best known as the director of last year’s hit film Kahaani, Sujoy’s acting experience has been limited to a few negligible (and sometimes inadvertently hilarious) cameos in movies, mostly for friends, like Onir’s My Brother Nikhil and Siddharth Anand’s Ta Ra Rum Pum. He was, therefore, suitably nervous about stepping into the legendary detective’s dhuti. “I was damn worried about how Byomkesh speaks,” Sujoy, a man given to both Bengali slang and inventive Bengali profanity, said. “I wondered how they spoke Bengali in the ’40s, how different it was from my Bengali, whether the uchharon, the pronunciation, was okay. My Bengali’s very colloquial Bengali, khisti-khasta Bengali.”

“While everybody else was going by the height, I mean, inch by inch, I was not concerned about the copybook description of Byomkesh,” Rituparno said. “Sujoy is not a very tall person, but I think he has a face which is sensitive and intelligent, enough to analyse and realise the entire emotional gamut that is being played around him.” And, to some extent, Sujoy—shorn of his usual light stubble and wearing big black glasses picked up by Rituparno himself—looks the part. Perhaps a bit frail for Byomkesh, but certainly sensitive.

Rituparno saw Sujoy’s inexperience as an actor as an asset for the film. “I wanted a little tentativeness in him,” he said. “I never wanted a sleuth who is super-sure. I mean, it’s the entire process, the journey, through which he grapples and tries to arrive somewhere. It’s not that he knows the path and walks it in a very steadfast manner. All the way he is looking for clues, and he may be wrong, and he’s correcting himself. With an actor, there was a danger of the actor making it very definite and sure.” Sujoy, who often stays in a Calcutta hotel right next to the Mona Lisa Guest House he made famous in Kahaani, is a clever man who refuses to take himself seriously. He’s also a man with an unquenchable appetite for chilli chicken, a single-minded fetish which turns him frequently into a bloodhound come mealtime.

“He [Byomkesh] was not a cut-and-dried sleuth, so he brought in his own sense of humour, his own sense of compassion,” Rituparno said. “The whole idea of Byomkesh—that he condemns somebody as a villain, but he also salutes him for certain traits that particular person displays—I think that was a bit absent in the other Byomkeshes. They looked a bit too moral and judgmental.” The director goes back to his own Shubho Mahurat to illustrate how the character he’d created there, Ranga pishi-ma, his Marple substitute, never sentenced the film’s antagonist to punishment. “Finally in that film, the criminal and the sleuth bond. And that bond is the most important idea of the film. I would like my Byomkesh to be more compassionate than judgmental. I think morality is a virtue which is somewhat theoretical and is constantly changing with time, and yet we are sticking to some given tenets. So I don’t want to deal with a subject which has morality as its pivotal virtue.”

THE BENGALINESS and, similarly, the Indianness, of Byomkesh Bakshi may have been the primary reasons for his timeless appeal for readers and movie directors alike, but there was another facet to Banerjee’s detective that put him in a league of his own: marriage. It was a tremendous departure from established detective fiction. For all his cocaine-loving debauchery and wistful mentions of Irene Adler—and the overtly sexy way she is depicted in current television adaptations—Sherlock Holmes never had sexual relations with women. Hercule Poirot was almost clinically asexual. Perhaps superhuman narcissism interfered with the very idea of love; perhaps it seemed irrelevant in the greater scheme of things, a mere fog that would blur judgment and reason.

It was no different for Byomkesh’s Indian counterparts. Feluda didn’t marry; neither did Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s Kiriti Roy. Byomkesh, on the other hand, wasn’t only married but, in his own words, married to “a remarkable girl who retains rare grace under pressure, unlike the greater percentage of Bengali girls who turn into wooden dolls.”

Satyawati was never one to shy away from a battle of wits with her illustrious husband. A common subject of debate between the couple was, incidentally, extramarital affairs, which were at the core of several of Byomkesh’s investigations. “When there’s a discussion, when they are fighting about the case,” said Anjan Dutt, “Byomkesh is supporting the extramarital [hypothetically], and she’s primarily against it, and it’s brilliant. That’s what makes it so liberal, so beautiful, so fascinating and intellectually powerful. That Byomkesh himself is being completely faithful to matrimony, but he’s fighting for the fact that two people should not live their life together if their marriage is over. ‘I don’t see anything wrong with the professor falling in love with this young girl, if his wife isn’t giving him what he needs.’ ‘How can you even say that?’ It’s fantastic.”

A good detective story has little to do with obvious motives, and, frequently, the machinations in Byomkesh’s adventures are born out of adulterous passion and forbidden dalliances. Sharadindu Banerjee clearly saw society as packed with wolves in well-cut clothing. Several of his stories dealt with scandalously, even incestuously, warped affairs. But Byomkesh’s marriage remained clean throughout. “In each of his stories you’ll find Byomkesh dealing with very adult relationships,” Anjan Dutt said. “Father and son having an affair with the same woman, somebody having a tremendous affair with the maidservant of the house. In Byomkesh, people don’t kill just for money. The villains are not just thieves and burglars. They’re very intense people, strong people who have very solid motives. And there are sexual layers.”

But even though Satyawati was supposed to be Byomkesh’s intellectual match, her life revolved around their home. As Rajit Kapur, the actor who immortalised the on-screen Byomkesh through Basu Chatterjee’s Doordarshan teleseries, saw their equation, “She’s kind of just there, and she’s supportive.” He recounted the frustrations of the actress, Sukanya Kulkarni, who played the character. “She said, ‘I have nothing to do in these stories. I’m bringing tea, serving tea, wondering where you’re going, where you’re disappearing, when you’re coming back.’ So she got quite bored,” he said with a laugh. “She said, ‘I’m not doing anything; I’m not contributing anything.’ So Basu da said, ‘You are just there.”’

This makes one wonder if Satyawati was indeed an independent character or a convincingly developed prop for the Byomkesh persona. In the film Kill Bill: Volume 2, Quentin Tarantino wrote a monologue about Superman:

When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”—that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears—the glasses, the business suit—that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak; he’s unsure of himself; he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.

Abir Chatterjee as Byomkesh Bakshi in Abar Byomkesh, the second in Anjan Dutt’s six-film series featuring the iconic character. DAGC MEDIA

Banerjee’s Byomkesh too has two distinct identities: one, the outstanding, sharp detective, quick and alert and blessed with both fortitude and presence of mind; the other, amiable homebody, taking his time with the morning paper, a faithful husband. “He was a Bengali bhadralok, true, but a very, very intelligent Bengali bhadralok,” said Shantanu Banerjee about the character’s inherent duality. “So he did everything expected of a good Bengali gentleman, including getting married. He got married, loved his wife, loved his son. Everything about him was ordinary, just that his buddhi was much greater.”

“It is a very domesticated life,” agreed Dutt. “It is almost… well, it’s not mundane, but you know… he’s a faithful husband, and a very normal Bengali,” he said, cringing at his own use of the word “normal” as if it were a grave insult. And it was this aspect of Byomkesh being just like any Bengali man with a family and household duties, a characterisation that would have been incomplete without the presence of Satyawati, that made his other self even more extraordinary.

UNLIKE BYOMKESH, his comrade in arms, Ajit Bandyopadhyay, a writer who writes bestselling novels based on their adventures together, is defiantly single. In one of the later Byomkesh stories, the detective asks Ajit why he never married. “If I get married, who’s going to look after your marriage? I’m your bodyguard,” Ajit replies after letting out a dry laugh. The word “bodyguard” gives Byomkesh the right clue to solve that particular case, but a case could also perhaps be made for Banerjee alluding through the incident that it takes a team, and not just two, to keep a marriage successful.

“I have always found the world of detectives very queer,” said Rituparno. “They have only a male assistant. And it is like a Greek teacher and his pupil. In Feluda, there’s also a jester. That creates their whole world, and I often used to wonder and feel attracted to this world where there is no need for heterosexual tension. And in the process of creating Byomkesh as a flesh-and-blood person, the author marries him off to Satyawati.”

Yet, the director, who often engaged with sexuality through his films, seemed unwilling to define—or, at least, to label—the bond shared by Byomkesh and Ajit.

“The stories are treading very delicately,” he said. “Byomkesh has a wife. It’s not that he is not in love with her. At the same time, he has a friend, who he is sharing almost everything with; his friend is his only confidant. That’s how we get to know Byomkesh, through Ajit.”

There is a lot in the text—and in the various screen adaptations, however inadvertent— about the relationship between Ajit and Byomkesh that can be nudge-nudged and wink-winked at. The very first episode of the Basu Chatterjee television show ends with an awkwardly tender moment: on being offered a place to stay at Byomkesh’s house, Ajit asks his boss whether this is because he had earlier let Byomkesh stay in his lodgings. “No,” Byomkesh replies, beaming widely at him. “It’s just that after spending a few days with you, it doesn’t feel good to be by myself.” With Byomkesh clasping his hand, the assistant gleefully says “Sach?” (Really?) in a way that appears ambiguous. In Anjan Dutt’s first film of the series, Byomkesh refers to himself as Ajit’s “sleeping partner” and once even kisses him in triumph.

Not everyone is convinced about this subtext, however. “The thing is these days, because our knowledge base has widened,” said Sujoy Ghosh, “we can associate a lot of things with meanings that weren’t intended. Like I don’t think Agatha Christie, when she wrote Ten Little Niggers, was trying to tell the world how much of a racist she was.”

The role of the detective’s assistant—“and Ajit was an assistant in the real sense of the word,” said Basu Chatterjee—exists in fiction largely to allow expository explanations. And yet Ajit remains more proactive than most other investigative foils. His relationship with Byomkesh is both curious and affectionate. “That very subtle comedy has to be there,” said Anjan Dutt. “Like Ajit says at night, ‘What are we doing here?’ And Byomkesh replies, ‘We haven’t come here to play chess.’ Smart one-liners like this. ‘Do you have a gun?’ ‘No, I have a torch.’ ‘Do I have to hit that guy?’ ‘Yes, hit him with the torch and hit him hard.’ ‘What will you fight with?’ ‘My hands.’” The original texts are filled with quick-fire dialogue between the two, the tone of their exchanges often being the most reliable indicator of the graveness of the situation.

For Satyawati, Ajit is like a brother-in-law. “Satyawati is complaining all the time to Ajit about Byomkesh,” Anjan Dutt said. “It’s beautiful. And in [the last Byomkesh film I worked on], there’s a huge fight they have at home, and Byomkesh cannot tolerate it. He’s irritated—his son, Khoka, is sick—and at a certain point he blows his top, saying ‘Just because you’re carrying this kid around doesn’t mean you are everything. [Does it mean] Ajit and I don’t care?’ ‘No, you’ve never cared. I’m going to go away and let me see what you do.’ And Ajit fights back for him. ‘Don’t say that, don’t ever say that. Because we all know that Khoka will be fine in two days, but if Byomkesh loses here, then your head will be hung in shame, Satyawati.’”

The occasional authority and the familial entitlement Ajit enjoys makes him more integral to Byomkesh than others in this stock role; Byomkesh might not always tell him what’s going on—preferring to let him into the climactic reveal only along with the rest of us, with a typically long and articulate speech at the finish—but he is never dismissive of Ajit.

THE FIRST TIME MOST OF US—those who grew up outside Calcutta, at least—met Ajit and Byomkesh was in Basu Chatterjee’s 1993 television show. Chatterjee had already crafted cinematic gems like Sara Akash, Rajnigandha, Chhoti Si Baat, Chitchor, Khatta Meetha and Chameli Ki Shaadi, modern films with a strong middle-class backbone and no pretensions of grandeur.

But for a large section of Indian audiences, Basu Chatterjee will always be remembered as the man who brought Byomkesh Bakshi alive on television.

In 1982, after Doordarshan spread its reach all over the country, the state broadcaster wanted ambitious original content, and commissioned top filmmakers to work towards it. Over the coming years, Shyam Benegal presented the history of India with Bharat Ek Khoj; Govind Nihalani made the searing partition drama Tamas; and Sholay director Ramesh Sippy made the historic blockbuster Buniyaad. What the rapidly growing medium also needed, however, was simpler, everyday content. And it was to fill this gap that Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro director Kundan Shah came aboard, with shows like Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Nukkad and Wagle Ki Duniya, and Basu Chatterjee introduced his Rajani. Starring Priya Tendulkar as the titular crusader Rajani, the show about a citizen defiantly fighting for her rights resounded with disillusioned Indians across the nation. Chatterjee’s fiery-eyed samaritan in a saree was, in many ways, the first bonafide leading lady of Indian television.

It was a decade after Rajani that Basu Chatterjee took over our screens with Byomkesh Bakshi. “It took me a long time to fight with Doordarshan,” recalled Chatterjee, now 83, sitting in his flat in Mumbai’s Santacruz, wearing a jade-green lungi. He’d read the stories and loved them—“not a single one was uninteresting”—and decided, instinctively, to make them into a series. But it required a change of format. “It took about six to eight months to convince them that the stories can’t be compressed into half-hour episodes. They wanted to break each story into two parts, but I refused to break it. That was my feeling, and I don’t think I was wrong.” Doordarshan eventually caved and created the 45-minute slot specifically for Byomkesh, a decision that led to the episodes having self-contained narratives (with the exception of two stories that had to be made over two parts each).

Chatterjee zeroed in on theatre actors Rajit Kapur and KK Raina to play Byomkesh and Ajit, although without watching any of their previous work. Both were spotted in “insignificant” and “poorly made” television productions Chatterjee felt were beneath them. “These are hunches of the makers,” the director said casually. His gut must be lauded, then, for Kapur—who had acted in Shyam Benegal’s Suraj Ka Saatvan Ghoda before that and became a Benegal regular afterwards—was an astonishingly good choice for the part. A tall actor with sharply etched features and a winsome smile, his Byomkesh managed the tricky balance of being affable and seemingly agreeable, yet insistent and imposing. He brought a charming dynamism to the role and, crucially, he wore the dhuti with princely style.

“I was given all the stories in one shot, you know,” Kapur recalled to me, wary of talking about a role he played two decades ago. The then-dashing leading man now looks closer to Professor Calculus than Bakshi, but the all-conquering smile remains. “I was given all 32 scripts and asked to read them. So, reading them like a novel in one go, I got a pretty clear idea, at least about the simplicity of the man, who was a thinker, basically. He used to think ahead, a little more than some of the others around him, even his assistant. And I think what really worked in the stories was their simplicity. That’s how it was shot also; it was shot very simply, without any thrills and frills attached, and so the stories spoke.”

Chatterjee shot the series like he would a film, with most of it filmed inside Kapur’s own house. “We didn’t shoot episode by episode,” explained Kapur. “For example, I was doing all the scenes in my house here in Versova. So I was just changing clothes and making notes of my continuity, about which jackets and which kurta and what specs and things. Because I was also aging, you know. It starts off with Byomkesh being literally 24-25 and, I was told, went right up to when he was 44. So I had my individual notes about what age [I played] and what kurta I wore in my house.” At the end of the schedule, the team shot connecting segments on location in Calcutta. “ I was only changing clothes and going in and out of doors, corridors and streets,” Kapur said. “That’s all I did in Calcutta.”

The director—like his colleague Hrishikesh Mukherjee—had a knack for making non-Bengali actors, playing characters who weren’t specifically Bengali, nevertheless appear distinctly Bengali in mannerisms, speech, behaviour. These nuances also characterise Kapur’s portrayal of Byomkesh, save for the fact that he speaks immaculate Hindi. “Basu da told me these are the stories and this is how I see him: he’s a dhoti-kurta-clad man, lives a simple life but loves solving cases,” Kapur said. “And I just took that as my base and tried to give him what I felt was a very Brahmin, Bengali feel.” The garment, it appears, became a big part of Kapur’s homework. “I learned how to tie a dhoti, and how to walk in it, and how to carry myself in it. That was my exercise. When a character is perpetually seen in a dhoti, the comfort level must be there in that attire.”

“I’m very thankful to Basu da for having popularised Byomkesh Bakshi,” Anjan Dutt said. “Everybody in India got to know him. And then the English translations came out, after the serial. If there’s one Bengali character the country knows, the reading public has heard about, it’s Byomkesh. And this is because of Basu da’s serial.”

The show has aged surprisingly well. The production values are poor—in the third episode, for example, a scene set on a train is clearly set in a large room with characters on benches, shaking themselves to mimic a railway rhythm—but the stories are still riveting. The scripts were slavishly faithful to Banerjee’s original text, with one alteration made by the director: his Byomkesh didn’t use guns. “What attracted me to the character was the way he would solve everything with his mind,”said Chatterjee. “And when he can do that, why should he use a pistol for anything? That is the one change I have done to the original text, and there also [Byomkesh uses a pistol] maybe on only two occasions.”

If you’re reading this story on a weekday, you can tune in to a Byomkesh Bakshi episode on Doordarshan National at night. The episodes have also made their way on to YouTube, where the show is enjoying a whole new lease of life. “Somebody told me there’s a fan club for Byomkesh; there’s a huge site celebrating the show,” said Kapur, tentatively. “I’m totally unaware of all this. I’m surprised that after 20 years—I know the reruns are there, but—for people to come up and say ‘That’s the only thing we really watched, and we’re watching it again now on YouTube, and it’s still so engrossing.’ That’s surprising. And I know people who have that signature tune as their ringtone.”

THE ADVENTURES OF BYOMKESH Bakshi haven’t had quite the same level of success on the big screen, something his late creator would have lamented. Sharadindu Banerjee had moved to Bombay in the late 1930s to write screenplays for the studio Bombay Talkies, where he was a salaried writer working for directors such as German pioneer Franz Osten, and credited for films like Durga, Kangan and Navjeevan in 1939, and Azad in 1940. Banerjee, as his son Shantanu said to me, looked on with great eagerness when, in 1967, none other than Satyajit Ray took on one of his best-loved Byomkesh texts, Chiriyakhana (The Zoo). But the results left the author spluttering.

Satyajit Ray made Chiriyakhana during what might have been his most creative period, marked by Mahanagar, Charulata and Nayak—three diverse cinematic triumphs that show the master filmmaker’s tremendous range—and right before he made his great musical Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. A less-than-ambitious Byomkesh adaptation, then, appears particularly jarring for this wonderfully inventive period.

“They took his story and made it into a farce,” Shantanu said of the film. “He [Sharadindu] saw the movie and he was very disappointed. They distorted the story heavily. And Uttam Kumar [disguised] as a Japanese man? With a camera around his neck and saying, ‘Photograph, photograph?’ It was a terrible job. I’m confident that Satyajit Ray didn’t direct that film himself. They must have given his name to the film for some reason, and his name was why the movie wasn’t laughed out of theatres.”

Rituparno shared this point of view. “I think Uttam Kumar was a miscasting,” he said. “I think Satyajit Ray was not… It was not a very serious kind of casting. Because the film was done in aid of some technician relief fund or something. I don’t know the exact details, but it was done for a purpose of charity, where star attraction was more important than creating an authentic Byomkesh.”

Sushant Singh Rajput prepares to play Byomkesh Bakshi in Dibakar Banerjee’s upcoming film for the Yash Raj banner. STRINGER / FOTOCORP

Many, including Rituparno, also suspect that Ray, who had already created his own detective, Feluda, wasn’t as interested in Banerjee’s Byomkesh. In the winter of 1965, well in the middle of that fabulously creative spurt, famous multi-tasker Satyajit Ray had introduced the readers of his family publication, Sandesh, to a shamus they’d never forget. Founded by his grandfather, the illustrious Upendrakishore Ray, and given a wondrous turn by his father, Sukumar Ray, Sandesh—which turns 100 years old this year—was a children’s magazine of immense literary merit, and the director edited this fondest inheritance with much affection.

Prodosh Chandra Mitter, nicknamed Feluda, was a hero of a totally different breed. For one, he existed in children’s fiction. “Feluda is the credible fantasy for the kids, modelled on Superman and Batman,” said Rituparno Ghosh. “Which means he can never fail. Kintu Byomkesh is far more vulnerable, he is fallible. And certainly Byomkesh clings to certain values, which are not becoming of a detective. Like he can become very patriotic at times. Feluda is only a detective, he cannot be anything else, though he poses that he is a very learned man.”

“I think the difference is mostly in the period,” said Sujoy Ghosh. “Byomkesh has more of a historical feel, an aitihashyik feel to it. Feluda is more contemporary, the language is a little more ‘us’, you know? Feluda is not as polite; he’s a little more curt. And if you see, most authors model the detective on themselves. So whereas Byomkesh was very Bangali, Feluda was a bit more anglaise, I feel. Because Feluda is Prodosh Mitter—he’s not Mitra—he’s Mitter.” Ghosh said “Mitter” in a clipped accent, to rhyme with Twitter. Like Ray, not Rai.

The Anglophile in Ray found many outlets for his admiration through Feluda. In an adventure that takes him to London, Feluda pays a trip to Baker Street and even refers to Sherlock as the guru of all detectives. The Charminar-smoking Feluda is sharp, dynamic and a man of action—decidedly more so than the quick-but-quiet Byomkesh. There is also a lot of globetrotting in Feluda stories, as against Byomkesh’s Calcutta-centred universe. Colourful and instantly engrossing, the Feluda books are for readers of all ages, and enjoy a Tintinesque appeal.

The films marked Feluda out for special treatment. Ray directed only two of them—Sonar Kella in 1974 and Joi Baba Felunath in 1979—but, unlike his take on Byomkesh Bakshi, these were noted for perfect casting, nuanced direction, masterful cinematography and a near-Hitchcockian intensity. Soumitra Chatterjee, Ray’s favourite actor, defined the infallible, the awesome, the uber-cool Feluda, the cinematic image looking over the text; and Santosh Dutta—who played the King of Shundi in Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne—characterised Feluda’s comic foil, Jatayu, so well that it’s near-impossible to imagine any other actor in the role. After Dutta passed away in 1991, Ray lamented that there could be no more Feluda films since nobody could play Jatayu again.

Which isn’t to say others haven’t tried. Between 2003 and 2011, Satyajit’s son Sandip Ray directed five Feluda films based on adventures written by his father, although the films weren’t nearly as acclaimed. Sandip’s Feluda was Sabyasachi Chakrabarty, a solid actor and a credible tough-guy, who, nevertheless, lacks the charisma the audience had come to expect from Feluda, a romantically created character, an idealised hero. The casting was akin to having Naseeruddin Shah play a role written for a young Amitabh Bachchan. Sandip’s Jayatu was an even less convincing Bibhu Bhattacharya. “I saw two-three of the new Feludas,” Soumitra Chatterjee confessed to me. “But I did not like the films. Whatever little liking I could muster was for Sabyasachi, he is slightly better. At least he has presence and a good diction. But the new Topshe and Jatayu, I cannot stomach them.”

But despite the criticism, Sandip is keen to carry on with Feluda, although his actor is getting older. Chakrabarty, who started playing the sleuth a decade ago when he was 46, already too grey for the part, will perhaps need to be replaced with a younger actor. Yet in a Bengali film industry bereft of giant stars, who could occupy a role so celebrated?

AFTER RAY’S CHIRIYAKHANA, other attempts have been made to adapt Byomkesh for screen, such as the one by Manju De in the 1970s and Swapan Ghosal quite recently, but these, too, turned out to be insubstantial, causing nary a ripple among Calcutta audiences, who preferred Doordarshan’s Bengali-dubbed version of the classic television series.

That was until 2010, when pop-minstrel Anjan Dutt, a folksy singer-songwriter referred to by some as Bengal’s Bob Dylan, took a break from making indie films about angst in the urban Bengali youth—Bong Connection being his greatest hit—and launched his first Byomkesh Bakshi, an adaptation of the story ‘Adim Ripu’. A story about murder, incest and many lies, this strongly sexual drama struck a chord with film-goers in Bengal, even with a relatively unknown television actor as his Byomkesh. “The film released and people lapped him up with a real fervour. Byomkesh, they thought, has arrived,” said Rituparno Ghosh.

Thirty-year-old Abir Chatterjee wasn’t extraordinarily emotive in the 2010 film, but seemed to possess the quiet dignity of Byomkesh. Alongside him, Dutt cast Saswata Chatterjee as Ajit, and the actor—who rose to pan-Indian fame by playing the unforgettable Bob Biswas in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani—complimented the leading man perfectly. Saswata, who has, on occasion, even played Feluda’s sidekick Topshe for Sandip Ray, is now one of Bengal’s most sought after and critically applauded actors, and brought a great degree of credibility to the enterprise.

“Saswata was my first choice for Ajit: him I had to have. But I didn’t know where to find Byomkesh,” admitted Dutt, while eating egg sandwiches in Flury’s, perhaps Calcutta’s best-known bakery, and a place referred to by those in the industry as Dutt’s “office”. “I wanted someone who was Bengali, but at the same time very sharp, at the same time very modern, at the same time old-fashioned. I was not looking for a Tollywood star. I was looking for a young Soumitra; I was looking for somebody new—who would look good in a dhoti. Most of these Bengali stars today you put in a dhoti, they won’t look good. The character who plays Byomkesh has to. Why did Rajit work? And Uttam Kumar looked great in a dhoti. Somebody who can carry it off. If I wear it, I will look like an idiot. That was the main, main condition, that somebody look good and sharp in a dhoti-kurta, has to look smart and sexy. That was my criteria.”

It was important for Dutt to find a young actor because he had bought the rights to six stories—“six of the meatiest”, he said—and intended to create a long-running franchise.

Dutt’s adaptations are very loyal, but budget constraints made him set the 1940s-based stories in the 1960s and 1970s; with the Partition-era riots in the first story being replaced with the 1962 riots in Calcutta. “And because I had these stories, these six, I was looking for somebody new,” Dutt said. “Like Basu da had found somebody new. I told Rajit, and he asked ‘Why can’t I play him?’ and I said ‘You’re too old, Rajit.’ But he helped us in the promotions. Very sweet of him, he came down, and helped out. That’s when I looked at this guy in television, called Abir. I did a look-test with him, he fit the role, and I got Saswata on board. And the first film was a huge success.”

Abir—who performs even better in Dutt’s second film, Abar Byomkesh—has an understated appeal, a bespectacled gentleman who never seems to be trying too hard. “I think the new Byomkesh created by Anjan is a fascinating creation,” said Rituparno, “and Abir has grown from strength to strength from the first film to the next.”

Dutt has seen remarkable success with the adaptations, but being up there has its perils. Now—in a twist worthy of Sharadindu Banerjee himself—Sandip Ray has nicked Dutt’s Byomkesh, Abir Chatterjee, to be his next Feluda.

THE CASE OF THE PURLOINED PRIVATE-EYE is merely the latest dramatic twist in the increasingly cluttered cinematic world of the Bengali detective. There’s a premium on private eyes in Calcutta today, with several prominent Bangla filmmakers assiduously snapping up rights to various literary sleuths. Dutt’s Byomkesh will now be played by Priyanshu Chatterjee, a Bengali actor familiar to Hindi cinema audiences from films like Tum Bin; Sandip Ray is fast-tracking his next Feluda, starring Abir; and Bengal’s biggest star Prosenjit is preparing to portray Kakababu, a detective created by Sunil Gangopadhyay, in Mishor Rohoshyo (Egyptian Mystery). (Also in that film, directed by Srijit Mukherji, Rajit Kapur will play an Egyptian businessman.) Rights for the stories of Dinendra Kumar Ray’s Robert Blake and Panchkari Dey’s Bijoy Mitra are already being negotiated, and Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s Kiriti Roy might well beat them in the race to the screen.

This detective-mania exists partly because a strong mystery with a good plot can be made on a tight budget, and Bengali cinema is working with a very flat wallet indeed. Dutt’s first Byomkesh, for example, was made on a budget of Rs 84 lakh—which is approximately one-tenth of what a mid-range Hindi film spends on pre-release publicity alone. With rights to classic bestsellers available for cheap, Bangla cinema is going to see many versions of the same character, as well as the differences of perspective that will accompany it.

“I don’t see it, I don’t see him as Byomkesh at all,” Dutt said of Sujoy Ghosh playing the sleuth. “He looks like a very quiet, pensive person, but I always imagine a very sharp, smart-talking, very courageous Bengali.” Dutt sees little similarity between his take on Byomkesh Bakshi and that of Rituparno. “I think Ritu’s production design will be fabulous, his Byomkesh will look rich, the British period will come out, the horse carriages… My Byomkesh will be gritty, taxis, ambassador cars, guns and shadows. It’ll be ektu noir, a bit noir. In dhutis but noir. And I don’t see any clash.”

Arghakamal Mitra, one of Calcutta’s most vaunted film editors, is in the tricky position of editing both these Byomkesh films. “The difference I see is so personal, it would be wrong to put it down on paper,” he said. “I think both Byomkeshes can survive the audiences. I find it very interesting that the same character is being differently interpreted by these two directors. When I’m editing Anjan da’s Byomkesh, it’s such a different feel from when I’m editing Ritu da’s Byomkesh, and they both seem to me perfectly valid. I don’t think Ritu’s is too literal, no. And Anjan da’s, so far, according to his own submission, is truer to the text.”

He’s less sure about what Hindi audiences might expect from Byomkesh. “The moment you move into the Hindi zone, our idea of Byomkesh changes. I mean, for all you know, if Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Byomkesh, you just might be able to accept the person. But the moment there is a Bangla Byomkesh happening, you are too finicky about the look. A Nawazuddin Siddiqui—with even a very good Bangla accent, dubbed or not—may not be accepted.”

This is a problem likely to plague Shoojit Sircar’s chosen Feluda remake as well. Sircar, who wants to do a version of Ray’s much-loved Sonar Kella, might be better served taking on one of the many stories the director didn’t himself adapt. And Aamir Khan, for all his acting acumen, is not the tall, lean hero that Feluda is, and—seeing the way the Bengali filmmakers (and, indeed, audiences) have refused to let go of Byomkesh’s dhuti—it seems the purists care a great deal about getting the look just right.

Unusually, one name leaps to both Sujoy Ghosh and Anjan Dutt’s minds when asked which Hindi film actor could play Byomkesh: Abhishek Bachchan. “He looks like somebody who thinks before he answers,” explained Sujoy. “And that’s what all detectives should be like: think before they talk, don’t shoot their mouths off.” “He has it, that sharp, tall, very interesting look. I mean imagine how good a young Amitabh would look in a dhoti,” said Dutt. (Basu Chatterjee, asked the same question, said he’d take Rajit Kapur all over again.)

Despite one pinching the other’s leading man, Sandip Ray and Anjan Dutt apparently get along famously. “He asked me to let him do a couple of Byomkesh films,” said Dutt, laughing. “So I said sure, give me a few Feludas. I’d love to take that character on too, why not?” I wondered aloud to Dutt if, given the craze for literature-endorsed detectives in Calcutta, both Byomkesh and Feluda could be in the same film? In an original script? Dutt dismissed the idea at first, but then sat up, his eyes gleaming. “It would be very interesting but, I mean, how do we place them? Because the eras are different. But maybe, if we had a story in the ’70s, where Byomkesh is older and Feluda is starting out. And it’s the same case that comes to them. It can be very, very interesting.”

MEANWHILE IN MUMBAI, Dibakar Banerjee has rolled his sleeves up, joined forces for the first time with the gargantuan Yash Raj Films, and aims to take on his own Sharadindu story in a film with a peculiarly provocative title. “It’s not just Detective Byomkesh Bakshy with a Y,” said Banerjee, “but it’s Bakshy with an exclamation mark at the end. The exclamation stands for youth and action.” Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, then. The director defended his unusual choice of spelling by saying that Sharadindu Banerjee had never spelt Byomkesh’s name in English, which made Bakshy as valid as Bakshi. “I know that Byomkesh didn’t like to be called a detective, but Sharadindu babu said, through the character of Ajit, that while Byomkesh didn’t care for the appellation, he was at heart a private detective. He just hated to be slotted.”

Banerjee will start shooting the film, which is based on two of the original adventures, and features a Byomkesh just out of college, in January, and wrap up by the end of 2014. It is the director’s most ambitious project to date, a massive period film for which he has turned music composer as well. Banerjee’s Byomkesh will remain the quintessential Bengali, except that he won’t have “any funny Bengali accent” in a Hindi film.“My Byomkesh will be a young and sharp guy who will be accepted as a sleuth by a pan-Indian audience. Byomkesh will be in his 20s and be someone who has healthy interests in life, and loves the company of women. We even want to take Byomkesh to the global audience,” Banerjee earlier said in an interview to the Indian Express.

And Sushant Singh Rajput—fresh from the success of Kai Po Che! and Shuddh Desi Romance—seems well aware of his responsibility as the first Hindi Byomkesh. “I spent some time in Calcutta with various families who seem to have formed their own versions of Byomkesh,” Rajput said over a phone conversation. “Byomkesh belongs to them and there is a huge responsibility not to disappoint them. He is, after all, the first real detective in Indian literature.” Rajput’s been catching up on his predecessors, and feels Uttam Kumar was “slightly stylised but believable” and Rajit Kapur was impressive because of his simplicity, and because “there is no playing to the galleries.” Their Byomkesh seems to be aiming for gritty naturalism.

“Personally,” said Sujoy Ghosh about this upcoming Byomkesh, “I think he’s a little young. If they’re going with it like a Young Sherlock Holmes, then it works. The thing you have to see is that the kind of stuff Byomkesh does in the stories, a lot of that stuff is based on experience. And that only comes with age. I think, if you play it right, a young Sherlock Holmes can only solve certain problems, but a mature Sherlock Holmes can solve those plus [others]. He has the knowledge base to do that. At 19, I don’t know, for example, what are the various problems a marriage can have, a woman can have. It depends on what problem you serve the person with. In Steven Spielberg’s [1985 film] Young Sherlock Holmes, his problems were very college-going kind of problems. Whereas Indy [Indiana Jones] deals with life, death, immortality, which are much more deep. So you need a certain amount of a visual of life on your face to make me believe you can deal with this. But that’s very subjective.”

Banerjee, however, said that he found a truly interesting conflict in the idea of 22- and 23-year-old boys, young men “detecting and coming to know” how life works. “This is pure detection, before the maturity and the cynicism sets in.”

Rajput appears determined to live the part. He’s taken three months off after the September release of Shuddh Desi Romance to immerse himself in the Byomkesh novels and Bengali culture, and Dibakar’s prescribed him a mammoth reading list, which includes all the Sharadindu Banerjee novels, Nirad C Chaudhuri’s Autobiography Of An Unknown Indian, and books on the history of Calcutta. “I want to start by understanding pre-Independence Bengal,” said Rajput. The actor broke down his process: “My understanding of the character is formed by first studying all the similarities and dissimilarities I have with the character. That gives rise to a binary state between yourself and the character, and when the stand-by light is on and the camera begins to roll, you react—in that state—to whatever the director says.” Binary state? Byomkesh might well approve.

SUJOY GHOSH, a man whom Calcutta loves for the way he romanticised the city in Kahaani, looked uncharacteristically nervous as he sat in a Mumbai coffee shop ten days before Satyanweshi was due to release in Bengal. “If anything goes wrong, my head is on the block. And Ritu da’s timing is awful, man,” he said with his usual sense of humour. I had asked him a couple of days earlier, referring to a widespread outpouring of hatred on the internet for Ben Affleck after he was chosen to play Batman, if after Byomkesh, he would like to step into the shoes of the “world’s greatest detective”, alluding to DC Comics’ description for the superhero. “Yes please,” he replied. “Anything to cover my face.”

It is this relentless cheek that kept the crew grinning on the otherwise still and silent Satyanweshi sets. Two days before they were to shoot the climactic reveal, a Byomkesh fixture where he, like Poirot, articulately exposes the entire mystery, Sujoy was freaking out at the thought of delivering a monologue he described as a “huge fucking 98-pages of dialogue”, and at the possibility of being interrupted to have to “say it slower.”

Rituparno Ghosh, wearing a majestic turban and an inscrutable pout, wasn’t amused. He rolled his eyes dramatically at an inappropriate pun from Sujoy—in response to which the actor looked guiltily at his director. “I tell you,” Rituparno said, looking at Sujoy but talking to everyone around him, in a private voice but at public-address volume, “this guy will only be serious on the final day of the shoot. And not this shoot, but the last day, years from now, when we finish the trilogy. That’s when he’ll suddenly care.”

There’s something about chasing Byomkesh that’s all-consuming—like a sleuth on a trail, it is hard to let go. In 1970, when Sharadindu Banerjee was taken to a Pune hospital following a mild stroke, he hadn’t finished writing the thirty-third Byomkesh story, though he had, as always, outlined the plot completely in his head before writing the first line. “I went there and he tried to tell me the climax, the part he hadn’t put on paper yet,” recounted his son, Shantanu. “And I stubbornly refused to hear it, saying he would get better and get back and write it himself. I refused to believe that he wouldn’t come back home. He said, ‘Fine, don’t write it, but shunetoh ne (at least hear it?)’ But I was steadfast. And that’s why that last Byomkesh remains unfinished.”

In May this year, three weeks after he spoke of that trilogy, Rituparno Ghosh died of a cardiac arrest, leaving another Byomkesh Bakshi story incomplete. His team of regular collaborators have finished and released the film, and going by the reactions it is more slip-up than swansong, but we’ll always wonder if this Satyanweshi is indeed his Satyanweshi.