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22 Responses to “Images from Detective Byomkesh Bakshi”
After his endearing performance in PK, this film certainly raises expectations of another good one. Two more months to go.
To me this poster (following the trailer) represents everything that is wrong in Banerjee’s imagining of this character and his world. It’s more or less the Hollywood Sherlock Holmes (recent versions) model where you update the character as action figure! The problem isn’t even a radical update but any such reinterpretation should still recreate some of the referential economy of the original work. Bandopadhyay’s works are also cultural histories of Calcutta (by his own admission). They have a very gentle pace to them and are rather witty throughout. Does Banerjee’s film offer another new chapter in those Calcutta histories? I doubt it. Because this is a Hollywoodized model where all the filmic codes he relies on don’t really seem tethered to place. Even period settings can follow certain global formats in this sense. whether it’s then period Shanghai or period London or whatever it might as well be the same thing! Similarly contemporary cities also start resembling others elsewhere. Because the ‘grammar’ (to use this much abused word) never reflects that difference. if anything the filmmaker in question too eager to simply place his or her work within that larger global archive or write its ‘Indian’ chapter as it were. The ‘local’ character or city or whatever simply becomes the excuse to feed that archive. Because a certain globalization politics depends on this. You become part of the fold precisely by bringing your own ‘local’ to the table and thereby getting absorbed into that larger ‘compact’. But the key audiences are always satisfied because they have the same aspirations. And locally these films can be sold as path-breaking. So again I don’t really have a problem with any sort of re-imagining of the source material but it seems empty here. Not unsurprisingly for Bollywood. What might an alternative look like? Lagaan or MP! For starters. But this is why I increasingly find Shankar’s work interesting (I probably find it more interesting than I like it!). Because Shankar too signs onto this entire model but also subverts it in very potent ways. A kind of ‘return of the repressed’ is always there is in his films and of late, specially with his Vikram attempts, he’s brought it to the center. In other words a ‘coding’ of the local, an ‘indexing’ of the local, that cannot be so easily absorbed into those larger hegemonistic global models. Not even in that plastic masala way otherwise so popular these days. When you see a Zoya Akhtar film with everyone relaxing on that ocean liner including the dog you should place a call to Shankar and have him let loose his monsters!
I remembered something about Byomkesh Bakshi. I haven’t read the novels but in the Rajat Kapur’s TV version by Basuda, Byomkesh keeps repeating that he has problem with someone referring him as ‘Detective’ and he don’t like it and prefer himself to be known ‘Satyanweshi – Satya ki khoj carne wala’ instead.
Incidentally, Rituparno Ghosh’s last film had Sujoy Ghosh as Byomkesh Bakshi and titled as ‘Satyanweshi’ (one of the story titles as well).
Now here we have Dibaker Banerjee, who incidentally hails from Kolkata and a huge Byomkesh Bakshi fan making the film and calls it ‘Detective’ Byomkesh Bakshi which is complete U-turn from Satyanweshi image.
Dibakar of course has a Byomkesh prequel. The posters/trailers are impressive. The guiding impulse here seems to be the Hollywood Sherlock Holmes treatment (downey). Essentially the period detective re-invented as action hero and all jazzed up in terms of the visuals, music et al. Now the response from people like Dibakar always is that the purists won’t like it and so on. But there’s something between the extremes of the latter impulse and this sort of treatment. Now I will say that at least in the previews Byomkesh looks way better than Sherlock Holmes. But the right question isn’t whether one should come up with dead, literal adaptations or more creative contemporary ones. This is a false choice that gives too much credit to the present. The larger question surely is about whether the world of Holmes or Byomkesh can be re-interpreted with an analog in the present. With Shakespeare the world is so capacious that you can apply him to a vast series of contexts. Hollywood nonetheless mucks it up most of the time but that’s another matter. There was a version of Richard III done maybe a decade ago or more set in fascist Italy or something and it worked well. But Holmes or Bakshi are not great literature in the same sense (of course not all great literature is as adaptable as Shakespeare either). So for example that Doordarshan version of Byomkesh in the 90s was engaging enough but in a way beside the point because the entire cultural history of Calcutta was lost (Saradindu once said this was his aim much more than mystery). Holmes similarly is housed in a certain set of Victorian contexts often with Eastern European exotica intervening and so on. How does one find the equivalents to those in the present? Now in fairness to Banerjee he’s doing a prequel. He’s trying to put forward the ‘becoming’ of Byomkesh. He himself concedes one of the issues of translation here is that in the stories Ajith is the narrator and Byomkesh is kept at a distance. The reader never quite knows what Bymkesh is thinking till the plot is unraveled. You get some clues throughout the story but you never enter his mind. The film cannot quite do this in the same way. In any case this isn’t a bad way of going about it though I’d argue that Holmes or Bakshi are not necessarily novelistic or Shakespearean characters in the rich sense of the word for their pre-histories to matter all that much. But even if they were it’s not clear that this kind of exercise illuminates anything. The ‘gaps’ make the characters, when you fill these up you lose the enigmatic quality in many ways. So there are all these questions. It’s not about what purists think or not.
The point of an adaptation should not just be to make a good or watchable film in some abstract sense. It is about whether the space of the original can be used to say something interesting without severing any meaningful link with the same. Again in the most recent Hollywood versions of Holmes they simply borrow the signature (the names of the characters, their histories et al) to make fairly regular films. You could make exactly the same works using the names of other detectives.
I am in essence raising 2-3 different but connected questions. The point once again is that an adaptation always has to clear an extra hurdle. It cannot just be alright on its own, it must also be alright as an interpretation (this was something that also came up with the Bachchan remakes, the question isn’t about Don and Agneepath being good or bad films on their own but whether they’re anything other than supremely weak efforts that are parasitic on these iconic films to generate an initial.. of course I’d argue here that these films even otherwise are not good enough but that’s another matter). In any case while there are always purists offended by all kinds of interpretations it is also a bit glib to imply on the other side that other than this problem there is nothing wrong with the film. Not prejudging DB’s film at all. But these questions are important.
I’d lastly say and as a purely personal matter that my impulse with Holmes or Byomkesh would be to suggest that by and large it might be better to not ‘update’ these characters very much. You can certainly bring all sorts of visual values to the material (I like what I see in DB’s trailers in this sense) but with characters that are heavily embedded in certain precise contexts the updating while possible is also much harder. Because quite frankly it requires a certain ‘thought’ on the part of the director. It’s not easy to replicate all the discourses of colonialism, empire, the East-west debates within Europe, all through a Victorian prism. You can retain all these ‘original’ contexts but find a mirror in it for the present. This is how all successful period pieces work anyway. Ben-Hur is not just about Rome, it is also and perhaps more importantly about a post-WWII US. A period piece that does not try and build that bridge to the present could never work! So it’s not as if doing the period piece in some traditional sense automatically means one has been boring. And once more I am not at all against changing many of the contexts but quite often more thought is required to do this. It seems to me that directors perform this exercise without putting in that sort of effort. To be honest I don’t think DB is careless in this sense but he’s also one of many guided a great deal by Hollywood ‘values’. I’m sure he’s thought enough about Byomkesh in certain respects (he talks about some of these things in an interesting way in this interview) but whether he’s thought enough about the Hollywood structure that informs him (let alone those other questions I’ve raised) I’d greatly doubt. Ultimately I’m a great Byomkesh fan and I like the trailers/posters so I am more interested in this DB effort than just about any other previous one of his (incidentally I had a similar sort of criticism with Shanghai and vis-a-vis Z).
I found Sherlock Holmes somewhat boring. It is not that easy to capture certain things in a film. The first hurdle is the breaking of many images formed by many as to how Sherlock Holmes looks and his body language.
You explained lucidly about adaptation and interpretation. A pleasure to read such analysis.
I paste here a comment from a personal email on this subject, that I think is relevant here: “Furthermore, there is a certain fakeness to the whole endeavour: so even at the level of comic book characters (eg Batman), Byomkesh isn’t the sort of character for which we imagine a prehistory (it is, if not inherent to the nature of the comic book, then at the very least a road that was taken relatively early in the history of the form, down which we imagine and realise all sorts of byways for the superhero — “What if Batman had a sidekick? What if that sidekick died? How did batman become batman? What if we retold that story some years later? What if we set up a parallel world where this imagined history had taken a different course? What if the two worlds met?” and so on and so forth). But because of the notion among many today that this is the sort of thing one simply does — because one has seen it done in American culture — the reflex is to just do it where Feluda or Byomkesh are concerned; that is, this is a colonised reflex, and one that does not illuminate either Byomkesh or the American paradigm that is being applied… “
By the way, I feel the same way about James Bond: Hollywood is making a mistake in imagining pasts for James Bond, because he too is not the kind of character who seems like the product of a history (the way Batman is). He is ALWAYS the way he is, fully-formed. He is not, it must be said, a Shakespearean character.
that’s a fair point and I certainly agree with you in terms of what the last one did. I would say though that the books had more of an evolution in this sense. Casino Royale was the first one and it featured a strong romantic angle, then a bit later On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had him marrying someone. In both cases he loses the woman he loves. We don’t quite get this in the movies because they weren’t made in chronological order. But yes your point otherwise stands. There’s really no reason to get into the whole pre-history thing. In an odd sense Bond is being given a more conservative turn. Now he too seems to have dark traumas from the past driving him!
Re: “I would say though that the books had more of an evolution in this sense.”
I suppose I would say that Bond is the kind of character associated with events, one who does things and to whom things happen, but not one who is capable of evolving (caveat: I haven’t seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; the mere idea of George Lazenby as Bond was repellent!).
that’s again fair.. evolution might not be the right word.. he never really changes in any deep sense but he does seem to go out of character if you will on those two occasions. At least when one starts with Dr No (as one does with the movies). In the books it’s a different sequence. On a related note the recent two part Fleming was quite entertaining.
Satyam: Great comments. Thanks for these (and to Qalandar as well for extending the discussion)
BTW have you seen the Detective Dee (especially the first one, had Andy Lau in the lead) films from Hong Kong, directed by Tsui Hark (the action choreography is outstanding BTW, but that’s expected when Hark is at the helm)?! Because those films in many ways correspond to the trailer of Dibakar’s Byomkesh and to the new Sherlock Holmes films (not the least because Detective Dee is also an adaptation of the books). But atleast the first Dee film was very well done. Here is the trailer of the first film BTW