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Saradindu Bandopadhyay and his most iconic creation, Byomkesh Bakshi

Saradindu Bandopadhyay, who was born on 30 March 1899, was a prolific writer with several significant novels to his credit, but the popular Bengali detective he created in the early 1930s continues to overshadow everything else.

Roushni Sarkar

While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot created a readership for detective stories set in Europe of the colonial era, Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s quintessential Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi made his entry in the early 1930s and soon became a household name in pre-Partition Bengal.

Byomkesh Bakshi appeared not only as a counter representation of Western detective stories, in the backdrop of a colonized land, but his earthy and common man-like depiction was quick to grab the attention of eager Bengali readers.

The first story of the Byomkesh series, Satyanweshi, was published in 1931. By then, Bandopadhyay was already regarded as a popular writer for his poems and short stories. His mastery at creating a flawless and original noir plot in the first attempt was appreciated immediately and the author kept building the series with stories such as Pather Kanta (1932), Seemanto Heera (1932) and Markorshar Rosh (1933).

The author definitely drew inspiration from the two most famous foreign detective franchises of the time, but the complexities and breath-taking suspense elements in the plots, steeped in Bengali consciousness, were nothing if not unprecedented.

Apart from successfully creating the persona of Byomkesh Bakshi, who prefers to call himself Satyanweshi, or a seeker of truth, like Poirot, and who looks intelligent, has extraordinary intuition as well as cognitive and analytical prowess, and is well versed in classical literature, the author also invented ingenious tools, methods and motives for each crime in each story, such as Markorshar Rosh, Pather Kanta, Chorabali (1933), Agniban (1935), Adim Ripu (1955) and Shajarur Kanta (1967).

Not only did the themes and revelations of the stories, woven in old literary Bengali language, ie Sadhubhasa, baffle readers and yet satisfy their hunger for crime and psychological thrillers, but also the dramatic nuances, subtle humour and bits of romanticism, inherent in all of Bandopadhyay’s works, fascinated them and continue to do so.

The character of Ajit, Byomkesh’s friend and confidant, is another important aspect of the stories. He has a nondescript appearance, quite a contrast to Bakshi, but at the same time is perfectly suited as his friend in personal life and companion in investigations.

In 1938, Bandopadhyay moved to Bombay to write screenplays for Himanshu Rai's Bombay Talkies. He wrote the scripts for Durga (1939), Kangan (1939), Nav Jeevan (1939) and Azad (1940).

In Bengali, one of his first stories to be adapted on screen was Jhinder Bandi (1961), directed by Tapan Sinha and featuring Uttam Kumar in the lead. Later, in 1980, Tarun Majumder’s adaptation of Dadar Kirti, featuring Tapas Paul, Mohua Roychoudhury and Debasree Roy, earned both commercial and critical appreciation. Bandopadhyay left Bombay in 1952 and moved to Patna to concentrate on writing fiction.

The first ever film on Byomkesh Bakshi, Chiriakhana (1967), was made by Satyajit Ray. Although the director had already established himself as a filmmaker of repute by then, he failed to do justice to the story of the same title. Bandopadhyay was said to have been greatly disappointed to see the on-screen adaptation of his creation.

The biggest let-down was the casting of Uttam Kumar as Byomkesh. No matter how celebrated he was as Bengal's 'Mahanayak', or superstar, with his slightly chubby and bhadralok (gentleman) looks, he just did not fit into the image of the sharp, lean, witty detective.

This was followed by Manju De’s Sajarur Kanta (1974), in which the role of the detective was essayed by Satindra Bhattacharya while Shailen Mukherjee played Ajit.

In 1980, Ajoy Ganguly first presented Bakshi on television; however, there seems to be no documentation of it. In 1993, Basu Chatterjee took the initiative to present the Byomkesh stories through a Hindi television series. One cannot deny that while the teleserial may appear today to be filled with technical flaws, Rajit Kapur as Byomkesh Bakshi has been the most appropriate representation of the fictional detective till now. The twinkle in Byomkesh’s eyes at sensing the advent of a crime or the satisfactory hearty smile at solving a case was portrayed perfectly by Kapur.

Similarly, KK Raina was accepted well by Byomkesh fans for his performance that was true to the character of Ajit. Another memorable aspect of the series was its title track composed by Ananda Shankar.

The series ran for four years, till 1997, on the state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan's National channel and has also had repeat telecasts over the years. The show became so popular that it turned into an integral part of the collective nostalgic memory of the pre-satellite television days of Doordarshan.

After the series, there was a gap of a few years in recreating Byomkesh on screen. In 2004, Bengali filmmaker Swapan Ghoshal came up with a series, featuring Sudip Mukherjee as the sleuth. In 2007, there was another small screen representation by the same director, featuring Saptarshi Roy in the lead. Ghoshal then ventured into his big screen project Magno Mainak (2009), in which Subhrajit Dutta played Bakshi. None of these got much popularity.

In 2010, the audience was a little intrigued when Anjan Dutt made Byomkesh Bakshi based on Bandopadhyay’s Adim Ripu, featuring the then emerging hero of Bengali cinema, Abir Chatterjee, as Bakshi, while Saswata Chatterjee played Ajit. The team earned success with the fresh presentation and made Abar Byomkesh (based on Chitra Chor) in 2012 and Byomkesh Phire Elo (based on Benisanghar) in 2014.

Later, in 2016, Dutt again made a Byomkesh Bakshi film, based on Kahen Kobi Kalidas but with a change, featuring Jisshu Sengupta in the lead. Since then Sengupta has been playing the Satyanweshi in Dutt’s Byomkesh films, Byomkesh O Chiriakhana (2016) and Byomkesh O Agnibaan (2017).

Abir Chatterjee, on the other hand, continued to play the private investigator in Arindam Sil’s ventures on the iconic character that have also been running simultaneously with those of Dutt’s since 2015. In the past four years, Sil has made Har Har Byomkesh (2015), based on Banhi Patanga, and Byomkesh Parbo (2016) on Amriter Mrityu. Sil’s film Byomkesh Gowtro (2018), inspired by Rakter Daag, was released last year.

Apart from these two major initiatives, Rituparno Ghosh directed Satyanweshi (2013) featuring Sujoy Ghosh. Believed to be the last film made by the director before his untimely death, Satyanweshi did not garner much appreciation.

In 2015, Dibakar Banerjee offered a fresh take on Bandopadhyay's immortal creation. His Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, featuring Sushant Singh Rajput and based on Satyanweshi and Arthamanartham, broke from the tradition of films that had been made on the detective so far. The director did not mind infusing his own reception of the character of the detective and of the storylines as well.

In 2015, veteran actor Dhritiman Chatterjee also featured as Byomkesh in Saibal Mitra’s Sajarur Kanta.

While Abir Chatterjee has more or less been accepted by Bengali audiences for his portrayals, Jisshu Sengupta seems a bit more suited with his mature bearing for a character that is deeply ingrained in the Bengali psyche. Rajput, on the other hand, was quite an unconventional choice; however, he succeeded in bringing out the cerebral prowess of Bakshi well.

In the latest instance, Bengali filmmaker Debaloy Chatterjee came up with his own interpretation of the detective featuring Abir Chatterjee in a double role as the aged Byomkesh and his son, in Bidaay Byomkesh (2018). The film focused on the personal life of Byomkesh Bakshi, rather than on his investigations.

While Byomkesh Bakshi is undoubtedly one of the more cherished treasures of Bengali literature, Bandopadhyay’s numerous other works exhibiting equal genius have been overshadowed by it. The literary significance of historical novels such as Kaler Mandira (1951), Gaur Mallar (1954), Tumi Sandhyar Megh (1958), Kumarsambhaber Kobi (1963)  and Tungabhadrar Teere has been recognized, but no significant attempts have been made to adapt those fictional gems on screen, except for Trishagni (1988) based on Moru O Sangha. These novels, which mirror the rich past of the Indian subcontinent, merged with the rasas of classical literature, have the potential to be turned into engaging scripts.