His humour is wry; he doesn’t suffer fools gladly; and his temper makes the Vesuvius look benign. Shabor Dasgupta of Kolkata Police’s Detective Department has no friends or family. All his waking hours — which could stretch to 96 hours without a wink of sleep — are devoted to cracking the bloodiest of murder cases. The further he dives into the mind of a criminal, the deeper he sinks into depression. And when he is unable to sleep in peace, he rushes to a shrink, who prescribes a holiday in the hills. That holiday, however, seems like a distant dream because Kolkata, the city that Shabor lives in, always serves up a new murder case for the weary but dedicated officer.
Teenager Tupur’s Mitin Mashi (Aunt Mitin) loves to travel. And her husband Partho, who runs a printing business, wants everything to be to her liking. They plan holidays in the Saranda forests and the Sunderbans. But the unplanned always catches up with homemaker Mitin (aka Pragyaparamita Mukherjee) and she gets busy with solving cases. Tupur, the niece who accompanies Mitin and Partho on their summer breaks, is an eager assistant on standby while the doting husband is the perennial source of moral support.
Subarna Sen — Sona-da to friends and family — is an Oxford graduate who loves to visit his roots. The professor’s passion is history — more specifically, the history of Bengal. His nose for nostalgia, drawn from the pages of Bengal’s political and cultural history, leads him to unearth mysteries that lie hidden in treasure rooms and tunnels. And his only takeaway from these adventures is the thrill of chaperoning his nephew (Abir) and his best friend (Jhinuk) on a journey into Bengal’s past.
Felu-da or Byomkesh? The question, still said to be an icebreaker in many awkward social situations, underlines the Bengali’s love for goyenda golpo , or detective stories. Felu-da, Satyajit Ray’s sharp-witted detective, and Byomkesh, a Saradindu Bandopadhyay character who won fame across India with a series of television shows and films, have long been Bengal’s answer to Perry Mason or Philip Marlowe. But there have been a great many other amateur detectives as well — from Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s Kiriti, often referred to as the Bengali Sherlock Holmes, to Nalini Das’s Goenda Gondalu, a group of four schoolgirls solving crime, Sasthipada Chattopadhyay’s Pandab Goenda, a local version of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, and Samaresh Basu’s Goyenda Gogol.
But a new generation of detectives has now captured the imagination of thriller lovers in the state. Some, like Sona-da’s adventures, do not emerge from the pages of a book but are restricted to the big screen. The first Subarna Sen film — Guptodhoner Sandhane (In search of the hidden treasure) — was released in April 2018. The second film in the series, Durgeshgorer Guptodhon (The hidden treasure of Durgeshgor) — released a week ago — is being hailed on social media as a summer holiday bonanza by young fans and old.
An extension of the Bengali audience’s unending love for adventure and intellectual stimulation, the stories of Subarna, Shabor and Mitin are creating small but definite waves of excitement in the genre of thrillers.
While Byomkesh and Felu-da productions still run to packed houses, the Bengali audience always keeps an eye out for new figures in the genre. Part of this hankering can be attributed to a section of the young that wants to see thrillers set in the current times. And part of it comes from the excitement of discovering lesser-known detective series. The odd stand-alone film, too, has an audience. A good example is Antarleen (2013), in which a police detective solves a murder mystery in Kasauli, a hill station in Himachal Pradesh.
The beginning of this new chapter can be credited to the release of the first Shabor film in 2015. The Bengali cine-goer’s appetite for thrillers, however, had been whetted in 2013 with film-maker Srijit Mukherji’s Mishawr Rohoshyo , his first title based on author Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Kakababu-Santu novels. The next one, Yeti Obhijaan , came four years later while the last of the film trilogy is said to be slated for an October release this year.
Ebar Shabor (2015), directed by Arindam Sil, established actor Saswata Chatterjee (who played the killer Bob Biswas in Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani ) in the role of the no-nonsense cop. At the beginning of his career in the late ’90s, Chatterjee acted in several Felu-da telefilms as Topshe, the detective’s young cousin and aide. In 2010, he graduated to the role of novelist Ajit Bandopadhyay, the narrator or sutradhar in a Byomkesh Bakshi film series.
While he continued playing Ajit in subsequent Byomkesh productions, the role of Shabor presented him in a new light. It also drew attention to a series of detective novels, by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, that few Bengalis were aware of.
“Shabor fills the gap of a contemporary, urban figure in the Bengali thriller genre,” says Sil, who is also an actor and the film’s line producer. “I have made three films based on Byomkesh Bakshi novels, and then I found Shabor while looking for a detective series that I could set in the current social milieu,” says Sil.
He zeroed in on Shabor after working closely with Kolkata Police through an NGO that he has been a part of. “My interactions with the police officers opened my eyes to a world of investigators who work equally hard but do not enjoy the fame of the private detectives that we Bengalis are so fond of,” he says. Sil looked no further than Chatterjee for the role of the protagonist — “a man who believes in duty and honour, but is not devoid of humanism”.
All Shabor stories are strung in and around Kolkata, with plot lines cutting across class barriers: From slums and rundown garages — where an estranged husband of a rich woman plots his revenge (in the first film) — to the palatial mansion of an industrialist’s son who is unable to erase the memories of sexual abuses he suffered as a boy ( Eagoler Chokh , 2016). In yet another story ( Aschhe Abar Shabor , 2018), a young girl from a middle-class neighbourhood in a town near Kolkata is aghast that her mother wants to sleep with the man that she is in love with. Work on the fourth Shabor film, according to Sil, will start when the author finishes writing the next story.
“Shabor’s success as a human being comes from the fact that he is acutely aware of his own failings and weaknesses. He seeks help to overcome the negativity that his work exposes him to. He uses the perspective he gains from his counselling sessions to help people involved in the cases he is solving,” says Sil. While he never lets the guilty get away on humanitarian grounds, Shabor tries to push some of the characters towards happier, saner lives. His jibes, mostly, are reserved for his junior officer, Nando, who fails miserably in his attempts at improving his English.
The only people allowed to poke fun at Subarna are Abir and Jhinuk. The Sona-da they look up to is not beyond ridicule or criticism. And like Felu-da, his above-average intelligence doesn’t make him intimidating or highbrow (though Felu-da did write his case notes in Greek).
Conceptualising Subarna, according to Dhrubo Banerjee, the director of the series, involved a fun process of putting some well-known and much-loved Bengali traits together. “My co-writer Subhendu [Dasmunsi] and I took three years to create the franchise. And the characters are highly relatable to everyone who is from a Bengali household,” he says.
Sona-da, for example, is the well-read, knowledgeable and talented sibling or cousin that every young Abir or Jhinuk is asked to emulate. Abir, again, is the energetic university-level student who is a foodie, is scared of ghosts and is always in love. And his friend and love-interest Jhinuk is the smart, independent “Bong” girl who also binds her family together.
“This trio is our tribute to the characters that several generations of Bengalis have grown up with. The writers who gave us those men and women are no more, and we felt that it is the duty of our generation to create characters that our children can grow up with,” says Banerjee.
The other target, he adds, was to get the audience back into the theatre. The team’s research work indicated that stories that lead to the history of Bengal — buried in layers across abandoned or decrepit zamindari-, Nawab- and British-era structures — have market potential.
Banerjee and Dasmunsi peppered the scripts with icons and symbols of popular Bengali culture: Durga Puja, cuisine, traditional arts and crafts (the animation videos the two films begin with have elements of Kalighat patachitra and chalchitra paintings) and music (from Rabindranath Tagore’s songs to the catchy History rap by music director Bickram Ghosh). Then, of course, there are multiple references to figures and events from the history of the state: From the governorship of Mughal prince Shah Shuja to the fateful Battle of Plassey in 1757, which led to the fall of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah and marked the political début of the East India Company in the subcontinent.
“The end-product is something that has appealed to all age groups and backgrounds. The Subarna Sen films have become a platform for Bengalis across the world,” Banerjee says.
Abir Chatterjee, the actor who has the unique distinction of being in the shoes of Byomkesh Bakshi, Felu-da and Subarna Sen, is reluctant to choose his favourite from among the three detectives. “Each series has its appeal, but I owe the lion’s share of my success to the Byomkesh Bakshi films,” he says. But he is thankful that the satyanweshi (seeker of truth, in the words of author Saradindu Bandopadhyay) didn’t stop him from accepting the role of Subarna Sen.
The actor was initially reluctant to be associated with another franchise in the same genre. “I changed my decision because of two main factors. First, the idea of teaching and learning history through a series of riddles and adventures is far more attractive than the mugging of textbooks that we did in school. Second, I realised that I was being asked to be the face of a completely new character — one for which there was neither a literary or cinematic reference nor an illustration,” Chatterjee says.
Illustrations, indeed, can always come in the way of a film-maker’s creative eye. Thousands of Bengalis, for instance, still consider veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee as the only one they could think of as Felu-da not just because of Ray’s landmark celluloid adaptations of his novels Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath starring Soumitra, but also because many of the sketches that Ray drew of Felu-da looked like the actor as a young man. As for Byomkesh Bakshi, old-timers still swear by Basu Chatterjee’s immensely popular Doordarshan series of the early ’90s. It had Rajit Kapur and KK Raina in the lead roles.
The Subarna Sen stamp, says Abir Chatterjee, is an immense boost for his confidence and career. “Bengalis love to live in the past. In Subarna’s case, there is an overpowering presence of the past but, at the same time, the audience is giving a new entity a chance to flourish. This is a huge blessing for us,” he says.
The actor is quick to add that films on the same theme — treasure hunt, in this case — can get monotonous and the team is mindful of that. “After two films in two successive years, we think a break will do us good. We should be back with the third production in 2021,” he says.
Mitin’s screen début has been long overdue. But just last week, Sil announced the launch of the first film in the series. The release is slated to be in the first week of October this year, during Durga Puja.
Barring Byomkesh Bakshi and Kiriti stories, the presence of women in Bengali detective cinema and literature has been peripheral. Bakshi, in fact, is said to be one of the rare examples of a male detective falling in love, getting married and even encouraging his spouse, Satyabati, to participate in his adventures and deductions.
The Bengali woman as an investigator, despite a profusion of strong female protagonists in other genres, is a rarity. In 2003, Rituparno Ghosh took a small step in breaking this mould with his film Shubho Mahurat , in which a widowed aunt (Rakhee) of a journalist (Nandita Das) solves a murder mystery on the sets of a film without even visiting the scene of crime.
Bengali television shows have displayed more confidence in portraying women as solver of crimes. Notable among them was Goyenda Ginni , which was aired on Zee Bangla for more than a year from September 2015. In the show, Paroma Mitra (Indrani Halder), a busy housewife, balances her responsibilities at home with her penchant for cracking cases. The same pattern runs through Jai Kali Kalkattawali on Star Jalsha, in which Abhaya Mukherjee (Ananya Chatterjee) takes time out of her domestic duties to help Kolkata Police track down gangsters and serial killers. She is also shown as being prone to accidents — with her injuries ranging from fractured bones to loss of vision.
In the role of Mitin Mashi, actor Koel Mallick will portray a young housewife without kids. “She has the time and the qualities to be a good detective, and her husband encourages her to do things on her own,” says Sil, who will also direct the Mitin Mashi series. The first case she will solve on screen is of the kidnapping of the son of a Parsi businessman in Kolkata. “For her future adventures, we will take her out of the city — like Mitin’s creator, Suchitra Bhattacharya, did,” adds Sil.
The one common thread that ties Sil’s version of Mitin Mashi and the tough-as-nails Shabor is the social inferences they make from the crimes they solve. Even when arresting the killer, Shabor recognises the deep sense of rejection that drives a former husband to murder his ex-wife. He also advises a desperate single mother to leave sex work for a safer profession. Mitin Mashi’s child kidnapping case, says the director, will throw light on the loneliness of children in nuclear families.
“These stories do not stop with the announcement of the names of the guilty. They give people something to mull over, to analyse,” he adds.
And for the audience, the stories also prop up new detective-icons. After all, there is nothing quite like the excitement of waiting for the next episode in a new goyenda series.