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The Perils of Adaptation: Feluda Pherot

09 Jan, 2021 | Short Features by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri
Tota Roychowdhury, Anirban Chakraborty and Kalpan Mitra as Feluda, Jatayu and Topshe in Feluda Pherot: Chhinnamastar Obhishaap

Srijit Mukherji’s take on Bengal’s most loved fictional detective is an enjoyable ride that harks back to the childhood memories of an entire generation even if it fails to blaze a new trail. Cinemaazi editor Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at the film and the pitfalls of adapting Feluda…

I have been struggling with this for a while, putting it off, trying to work out in my mind what this latest adaptation of a Feluda story signifies – apart from bringing back the franchise six years after Sandip Ray’s Badshahi Angti (2014). The task is made even more difficult given that everyone and their grandmother is an expert on Feluda and has an opinion on how the stories should be adapted, and the challenges that entails. The reactions to Feluda Pherot Season 1 have ranged from the one extreme of unbridled excitement and hyperbole about one of Bengal’s most successful contemporary directors, Srijit Mukherji, adapting a Feluda story to a lot of hand-wringing about him ‘playing it too safe’ to be able to break any new ground. 

To begin with, one needs to bear in mind that it’s not just Srijit who has ‘played safe’ with Feluda. Sandip Ray himself, in the course of his seven Feluda films – starting with Bombayer Bombete (2003), almost twenty-five years after Satyajit Ray’s Joi Baba Felunath (1978) – rarely went beyond the text. Despite his attempt to contemporize the stories – questioning the relevance of Sidhu jyetha in an age of Google search, more tokenism than a genuine belief in the need to update the series – I never quite took to his adaptations apart from Bombayer Bombete and Badshahi Angti, and those too primarily because of the prospect of seeing Sabyasachi Chakraborty and Abir Chatterjee as Feluda. The films were too staid, too conservative, too respectful in their approach to the original text to excite enthusiasm once the novelty of a new actor playing Feluda had worn off. It is as if the filmmaker, even though he is Satyajit Ray’s son, was wary of making even the kind of changes Satyajit Ray himself had made to the novels Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath, or for that matter, in his cinematic adaptations, say, Charulata or Aranyer Din Ratri, to name just a couple. I wonder how much of this reluctance to attempt a makeover of Feluda stems from a perceived backlash from the core fan base of Satyajit Ray’s iconic detective. (This disinclination to go ‘beyond the text’ is what marred Sandip Ray’s adaptation of the first Shonku story to be filmed, Shonku O El Dorado – which remained a straightforward and unimaginative rendition of the text at best.)
 

A poster of Sonar Kella from the Cinemaazi archives
 
Putting a Feluda story on screen comes with a lot of constraints. For one, Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath cast long shadows. It is almost a given that nothing will ever top those (and unless there’s an imaginative reworking of the character and the stories, nothing will). Two, the Ray estate is wary of anyone attempting a Feluda.
Putting a Feluda story on screen comes with a lot of constraints. For one, Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath cast long shadows. It is almost a given that nothing will ever top those (and unless there’s an imaginative reworking of the character and the stories, nothing will). Two, the Ray estate is wary of anyone attempting a Feluda. Sandip Ray has been on record about this: ‘You never know what would happen if it falls into other hands.’ No wonder his own adaptations have seldom been more than an exercise in working on the Bengali’s nostalgia for Feluda. Third, what this creative control means is that anyone attempting to film a Feluda story has to by default look at the ones written by Satyajit Ray, which dates the stories to a certain era, making them period pieces, which Feluda Pherot is too. There is, it seems, no way anyone can imagine Feluda in a contemporary setting – taking in the new social, political, economic and, most importantly, technological changes. Then there’s the aspect of Feluda being ageless – unlike, say, a Sherlock Holmes or a Hercule Poirot, or even a Byomkesh Bakshi (Debaloy Bhattacharya’s Abir Chatterjee starrer Bidai Byomkesh [2018] was an interesting, albeit flawed, attempt at imagining an old Byomkesh). 
In the end what makes Feluda Pherot: Chhinnamastar Obhishap enjoyable, despite its unwillingness and inability to create a new template, is Srijit’s feel for and obvious delight in the original. Each frame seems composed with a quiet reverence for a master – often echoing sequence in both the Satyajit Ray films.
Mind you, I am no fan of Guy Richie’s hyper-kinetic, brawny Sherlock Holmes in the two films. Give me the gentle pleasures of Jeremy Brett any day – I think this also has something to do with human psychology holding on to memories of adolescence (good old days and all that, even when they may not have been all that good) – but there’s no denying the excitement of seeing Holmes reimagined. That is what made Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshi interesting too – its ability to break out of the mould even when setting the film during the Second World War.
 
Both Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath cast long shadows
If there’s one filmmaker who could have given us a new Feluda, all shaken and stirred, it is Srijit. But as he himself has been at pains to underline, his devotion to the original is total.
Coming to Feluda Pherot, it’s nothing short of a miracle that another director actually gets a shot at Feluda, though the tight control the Ray estate holds on the adaptation, and Srijit’s own reverence for the original, is visible every bit of the way. With his penchant for going for the jugular, if there’s one filmmaker who could have given us a new Feluda, all shaken and stirred, it is Srijit. But as he himself has been at pains to underline, his devotion to the original is total – it is Ray’s sketches that provide him the visual look for the film. Right from the film’s theme song – written by Srijato and sung by Anupam Roy, Rupam Islam and Rupankar Bagchi – to the title credits and the overall feel, this is more in the nature of a tribute to Ray, making it probably the most atypical film in Srijit’s oeuvre.
 
Tota Roychowdhury as Feluda in Feluda Pherot: Chhinnomastar Obhishaap
I for one loved the film’s languid tempo – probably Srijit’s most leisurely paced film – a throwback to a more genteel cinema devoid of special-effects pyrotechnics, animated cuts and sensationalism, which again is dictated by the original material. Also commendable is the way he creates the period. Tanmoy Chakraborty’s production design is one of the film’s highlights.
That in itself is not a bad thing. I for one loved the film’s languid tempo – probably Srijit’s most leisurely paced film – a throwback to a more genteel cinema devoid of special-effects pyrotechnics, animated cuts and sensationalism, which again is dictated by the original material. Also commendable is the way he creates the period. Tanmoy Chakraborty’s production design is one of the film’s highlights. I also enjoyed Joy Sarkar’s background score – which actually dares to break the signature Satyajit Ray mode. But by far Srijit’s biggest contribution to the film – and which makes it infinitely better than any of the other Feluda films in the last couple of decades – is his choice of actors in the roles of Feluda and Lalmohan Ganguly. Tota Roychowdhury gets all the mannerisms one expects of Feluda right – from the way he holds a cigarette to the way he drapes a shawl and even the way he articulates ‘Topshe’ at the end of a sentence. And in Anirban Chakraborty we at last have a Lalmohan Ganguly to root for after Santosh Dutta’s iconic take on the character. 

In the end what makes Feluda Pherot: Chhinnamastar Obhishap enjoyable, despite its unwillingness and inability to create a new template, is Srijit’s feel for and obvious delight in the original. Each frame seems composed with a quiet reverence for a master – often echoing sequence in both the Satyajit Ray films. His almost childlike enthusiasm in ‘recreating’ the text cannot but infect you so that you give up expectations of any reinvention and willingly go with the flow. 

In an era of SUVs and snazzy cars, GPS and iPhones, five-star holiday resorts, PlayStation as hobbies, the world of Feluda Pherot is a throwback to a more innocent time. Till the time we have the nerve and the imagination to give Feluda a complete transformation, making him grow out of his adolescent fan base, explore his psychology and (why not?) sexuality, till the time we realize that a reinterpretation is probably a better tribute than a faithful rendering, Feluda Pherot – with its Ambassador cars, ornate telephones, a travelling circus, the romance of circuit houses and bungalows in mofussil towns, philately, riddles and word games – is just the comfort food you would love to munch on. 
 

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About the Author

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is either an 'accidental' editor who strayed into publishing from a career in finance and accounts or an 'accidental' finance person who found his calling in publishing. He studied commerce and after about a decade in finance and accounts, he left it for good. He did a course in film, television and journalism from the Xavier's Institute of Mass Communication, Mumbai, after which he launched a film magazine of his own called Lights Camera Action. As executive editor at HarperCollins Publishers India, he helped launch what came to be regarded as the go-to cinema, music and culture list in Indian publishing. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema and the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. He also commissioned and edited some of India's leading authors like Gulzar, Manu Joseph, Kiran Nagarkar, Arun Shourie and worked out co-pub arrangements with the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives, apart from publishing a number of first-time authors in cinema whose books went on to become best-sellers. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has been a regular contributor to Anupama Chopra's online magazine Film Companion. He is also a published author, with two books to his credit: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin Books). 

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