When Bengali acting legend Soumitra Chatterjee died on November 15 last year, my Feluda died with him. In his long career, Chatterjee had been in more than 210 films, played characters without sell-by dates, took heroes from classic Bengali literature, and immortalised them on the big screen. But for me, he was always Feluda.
Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s filter-less Charminar-smoking, yoga practising, clean-shaven, nattily dressed private investigator who could disarm the enemy with the perfect karate kick or whip out his Colt.32 snub-nosed pistol, but chose to use his “mogoj-astro” (brainpower) more often.
Growing up in Kolkata in the 80s, Feluda was for me, like he was for most of my friends, what Bengalis aspired to be: brilliant, erudite, physically fit and mentally agile. A perfect counter to his side-kick Lalmohan babu, the balding, plump, nonsense-speaking, author of best-selling detective novels. Well-meaning, but a comic relief to Feluda’s electrifying presence.
Feluda was perfect. He could even smoke countless cigarettes and be fit with yoga and karate!
Ray had introduced Feluda in the Bengali children's magazine Sandesh and eventually through slim-volume, hard-backed, Feluda novels transported readers from Feluda’s home address at 21 Rajani Sen Road, Ballygunge, Kolkata, to Kathmandu, Egypt, and where not. Then he did the films. And he chose Soumitra Chatterjee. Chatterjee became Feluda and Feluda became Soumitra Chatterjee organically. And that became a problem.
Feluda (Soumitra Chatterjee in picture) was perfect. He could even smoke countless cigarettes and be fit with yoga and karate!
After Chatterjee stopped being Feluda, it became almost impossible for the Bengali mind to imagine somebody else as Feluda. Many actors have played Feluda after Chatterjee, an ageing Shashi Kapoor in a television series directed by Ray’s son Sandip Ray, Sabyasachi Chakrabarty in many films after that, and other actors as well.
But no one owned Feluda as Chatterjee did. Was it because of Chatterjee’s acting chops or Ray’s directorial brilliance? It was both. But I would argue that Chakrabarty didn’t do a bad job as Feluda even though the films where he played the private investigator left much to be desired.
Now, national award-winning filmmaker Srijit Mukherji has brought Feluda back in a web series on addatimes. Titled Feluda Pherot (The return of Feluda) it has two stories —Chhinomostar Obhishaap and Jawto Kando Kathmandute. The first is being streamed now. And critics are divided. Do we love this Feluda (played by actor Tota Roy Chowdhury) or trash him? Do we let Feluda die with Soumitra Chatterjee or welcome a new one?
The struggle of bringing Feluda back for Srijit is the struggle of memory against forgetting (to quote Kundera out of context). How do fans who grew up knowing Soumitra Chatterjee as Feluda accept another actor, any actor, to essay the role?
Do we love this Feluda (played by actor Tota Roy Chowdhury) or trash him? (Photo: Addatimes)
But let’s keep that debate aside for a while. Decades have passed since Chatterjee was Feluda and with subtitles in English, Feluda Pherot can be viewed by non-Bengalis as well, most of whom may not have any idea of the books from where the stories are drawn. In cinematography and screenplay structure, Feluda Pherot scores. From Kolkata’s busy streets to Hazaribagh’s wilderness, from city houses to jungle lodges and forgotten palaces, from present-day whodunit to past crimes unsolved, Srijit manages to hold viewer attention.
But now the Big Question: How is the new Feluda? Tota Roy Chowdhury looks more like Feluda from Satyajit Ray’s sketches (which also became his book covers) than Chatterjee did. But I got the feeling that in the first two-three episodes, the burden of slipping into Soumitra Chatterjee’s shoes got to Tota. It is only towards the end of Chhinomostar Obhishaap that one saw Tota coming into his own.
Tota Roy Chowdhury looks more like Feluda from Satyajit Ray’s sketches than Chatterjee did.
If you are not a Bengali in his middle age or a critic who has to find flaws with everything, you may not even notice all this and finish all the episodes in one go. But here’s a bit of unwanted advice to Srijit Mukherjee who is a gifted filmmaker. Sometimes, when the struggle between memory and forgetting is so powerful, it helps to completely reimagine an iconic character or a movie (Srijit himself started his filmmaking career by reimagining Satyajit Ray’s Nayak in his debut Autograph).
Like what Guy Ritchie did to Sherlock Holmes by making Robert Downey Jr play the detective as part-clown, part genius with a hint of homosexuality thrown in. Maybe, just maybe, tinkering with Ray’s material and making Feluda more physical would make it work better.
There is a teaser at the end of Chhinomostar Obhishaap of the second story Jawto Kando Kathmandute. It shows Tota deliver a perfect side kick from up in the air. That should take care of the critics.