Byomkesh Bakshi: The outsider in mainstream cinema

For a character whose lifetime lasted a span of just 30 short stories, Byomkesh Bakshi has infiltrated the subconscious of the Indian noir fan quite deeply.

Shriram Iyengar

In many ways, Byomkesh Bakshi is the opposite of Sherlock Holmes or C Auguste Dupin. He is not Bengali by birth. Hailing from Munger district of Bihar, he arrives in the city as an orphan and stays on forever. Byomkesh is also married. Even Feluda and Ghana Da, the closest contemporaries in Bengali crime fiction, remain solitary and devote their life to the pursuit of intellectual exercises. Saradindu Bannerjee's Byomkesh Bakshi is just a regular Bengali citizen, whose indulgence in criminal investigation offers him the same stimulus as, say, a crossword would offer to someone else. Yet, the character ofByomkesh Bakshi remains the most enduring symbol of the Bengali intellectual in 20th century Indian literature and films. 

As far as films are concerned, Byomkesh Bakshi has been the target of several directors in the last few years. Anjan Dutta revived the genre with his Byomkesh Bakshi (2010) based on the novel 'Adim Ripu' while Rituparno Ghosh's last film before his death was Satyanweshi (2015) based on the novel of the same name.

In Bengali, these films revived the long-lost love for the intellectual detective. Dibakar Bannerjee, another Bengali, sought to turn Byomkesh Bakshi into a pan-Indian icon with his Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015). The film, a cross between the comic book genre and pulp fiction noir, appealed to a new generation growing up on Marvel and DC franchises while adding a touch of the dark to the clean rationalising of the Bhadralok detective. As of today, there have been 11 feature films (10 in Bengali, one in Hindi) and four television series based on Saradindu Bannerjee's famed 'truth seeker'. Hindi cinema's biggest producers, Yash Raj Films, have already latched on to the idea of a Byomkesh Bakshi franchise. They have bought the rights to some of the most important novels of the canon, and are all set for a sequel to Dibakar Bannerjee's film. Yet, they remain outsiders to a canon that is worshipped and remains popular in Bengal. 

Saradindu Bannerjee created the character of Byomkesh Bakshi in 1932. It was a direct influence of another famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. Yet, the author ensured a separate identity for his protagonist by providing him some of the attributes of the ideal Bengali. This ensured the character's status as an outsider to the detective canon. Unlike fellow Indian (also Bengali) sleuths like Feluda, Byomkesh steers clear of any Eurocentric attributes. His attire, habits, and life are rooted in the Bengali lifestyle. His cases revolve around more basic criminal instincts of greed, lust, or vengeance. 

The famous detective is also a man out of place. In Dibakar Banerjee's film, Byomkesh constantly finds himself either accosted or thrown out by the authorities. He is constantly made to feel that he does not belong. The only place he finds himself welcome in is the home of Anirudh Guha, his Moriarty.

Yet, following Raymond Chandler's adage, Byomkesh Bakshi goes 'down these mean streets a man must go; who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid'. It is here that the contemporary nature of the character emerges. As Dibakar Banerjee put it in an interview, 'I think that Byomkesh’s strength lies in the fact that Saradindu took a Western form and made it completely his own. Indian, rooted in its time and place, populated with deep insights of character and setting that give the reader a fantastic mix of the familiar yet shockingly new in every story.'

But the familiar is not enough for the modern audience. With the ever-pervasive presence of the internet and geo-tagging, the intellectual capacities of Byomkesh Bakshi seem out of place and out of time. Basu Chatterjee selected Rajit Kapur as his Byomkesh during a more innocent time of landline telephones and national television. Sushant Singh Rajput's detective is almost a global superhero, as he thwarts an Axis plan to protect the country during World War II. To attract the post-millennial, something more than the intrigues of a common murder needed to be put together. 

The legendary Satyajit Ray was the first to try and adapt the character to screen with Chiriyakhana (1967). Starring Uttam Kumar as the famous detective, the film was a washout and was criticised as a farce by many. Satyajit Ray, however, had written a descriptor of his story specifically stating that 'It is not one for the Bond addicts'! In 2015, when Sushant Singh Rajput introduced himself as 'Bakshy. Byomkesh Bakshy', it was a departure from one master and a nod to the famous British secret agent. It was also a marker that Bengal's most famous detective is no longer the outsider in mainstream Hindi cinema.