Feluda, more than any other Satyajit Ray protagonist, forges an instant popular connect between the maestro and his legions of fans. There is Goopy-Bagha too, but the magical musician duo’s capers span just three feature films of which Ray directed two. Feluda, or private detective Pradosh Chandra Mitter, has been around as a moviestar for nearly 50 years now since Ray made the first film Sonar Kella in 1974, and has seen over two dozen productions across screens big and small apart from OTT.

The show’s not over. Come Christmas 2022 and the late auteur’s son Sandip Ray reloads Feluda with a new adventure, Hatyapuri. He starts production this month but isn’t officially confirming details just yet. All he is willing to say is the actor playing the iconic detective this time is “someone having a combination of athleticism and sharpness in his look”, according to a recent report in Firstpost.

Sandip Ray’s comment has got the guessing game going. Many aver he is hinting at Anirban Bhattacharya, new-age darling of alt and content-driven Bangla cinema. Other conjectures have included Tota Roychoudhury and Parambrata Chattopadhyay, who have already played Feluda in the streaming space and who also fit the description. Still others insist the filmmaker has pointed at a fresh face.

Among hardcore buffs, there is little room for debate over who the best Feluda ever was. The late thespian Soumitra Chattopadhyay, who essayed the role in the original Satyajit Ray films (Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath) continues to be the overwhelming favourite — though if you grew up in the nineties or later, and your memories of the affable detective were shaped by Feluda films starring Sabyasachi Chakraborty and later Abir Chatterjee, your sentimental pick might just be one of these actors.

From Soumitra’s mild-mannered and understated charisma to the so-far mystery actor exhibiting “athleticism” and “sharpness”, Feluda would seem to have come a long way. However, although physical attributes have seen overhaul over the decades as different actors took up the role, the essence of the Bengali super sleuth has remained the same. This is because Sandip Ray, who took up making Feluda films after his father’s demise, usually maintains the hallmark Ray style in his films. Few other filmmakers have attempted directing a Feluda apart from the Rays. These include contemporary Bangla filmdom biggie Srijit Mukherji, who made the series Feluda Pherot in 2020, and Parambrata Chattopadhyay, who called the shots on a self-starring series three years before that. Neither of these filmmakers tried moving too much away from the Feluda prototype set by Ray.

James Bond had to change in an era serious about course correction. Hollywood needed to get rid of his trademark excesses as the spy who loved living life with a philandering finesse. Sherlock Holmes had to morph from a cerebral genius to a Guy-Ritchie-styled uber action hero to meet box office demands. Closer home, Byomkesh Bakshi has become visibly edgier, darker even, to let the predominantly pre-Independence truth seeker identify with the Bengali audience of today.

Feluda on the other hand intrinsically remained the same person over close to five decades because of the way Ray wrote the character. He imagined Feluda within the template of the Bhadralok, or the distinguished Bengali gentleman. The extraordinary detective remains an ordinary middle-class Bengali man otherwise. His core traits as a worldly-wise crime buster brimming with self-assuredness and yet composed in behaviour is one that has a timeless appeal among fans and provides the key to understanding how and why Feluda thrives in the popular psyche 30 years after Ray’s death. No director attempting a Feluda film post Ray would dream of tampering with the template.

There is another reason why Feluda makers have preferred to retain the Ray essence over the years. Unlike Bond’s world, which long ago moved way from what novelist Ian Fleming originally wrote, Feluda on film or OTT and in TV continues to be based on the books Ray wrote. The advantage here for later-day directors is that Ray was intrinsically a filmmaker, and his Feluda novels were already written like readymade screenplays.

It is fascinating, though, to note how Feluda as a protagonist — from Soumitra Chattopadhyay’s films of the 1970s to Tota Roychoudhury in 2020 — has been defined by traits of each actor that has portrayed the character. Soumitra as the first Feluda was most similar to what Ray the author envisioned in the novels, and therefore closest to perfection. By the nineties, when Sabyasachi Chakraborty took up the role, rebooting the detective meant reinventing him with a degree of intensity. Sabyasachi’s Feluda had an effortless swagger but he was lower on casual charisma than Soumitra. When Sandip Ray introduced Abir Chatterjee as the new Feluda in the 2014 caper Badshahi Angti, the private investigator got a twist of new-age cool. A few years down the line Tota Roychoudhury and Parambrata Chattopadhyay would try reimagining the classic essence of Feluda in their respective web series. Their interpretations seemed like efforts to resurrect the character as Ray wrote in the books.

Two other actors have attempted playing Feluda in all these years. Shashi Kapoor did it in the Doordarshan mini-series of the eighties titled Kissa Kathmandu Mein (based on Joto Kando Kathmandute), which was part of the larger DD serial, Satyajit Ray Presents. Kapoor’s interpretation of Feluda in the Sandip Ray-helmed series was lovable, though the outcome seemed more like Shashi Kapoor of the Bollywood screen than Feluda from the pages of Ray. Bangladeshi actor Ahmed Rubel is the only other actor to have essayed Feluda, in the 2019 TV series Nayan Rahasyo.

The one flak that Feluda books, films and series often receive is the absence of important female characters in the stories. Many detractors have called it cinematic sexism and hegemonic masculinity on Ray’s part to exclude women in prominent roles in these adventures. A quick scan of the stories would reveal the female presence in Feluda films is mostly as a little girl (Chhinnamastar Abhishap) or a young fan (Bosepukure Khunkharapi, Ambar Sen Antardhan Rahasyo, Napoleoner Chithi). Adventures such as Jahangirer Swarnamudra and Shakuntalar Kanthahaar have female characters as womenfolk in households where Feluda arrives to solve a crime.

Ray’s critics have pointed out the only Feluda tale with a female protagonist worth notice is Dr Munshir Diary, where the eponymous Dr Munshi’s wife emerges as an antagonist. Detractors seem to overlook the fact that the presence or absence of female characters doesn’t disturb the flow of the narrative in the Feluda tales.

Besides, there is a far more significant counterpoint. Ray’s films have brought to screen some of the strongest female characters in world cinema ever, with unforgettable and infinitely layered protagonists as Charulata, Sarbojaya (Pather Panchali), Arati (Mahanagar), Dayamoyee (Devi), Tutul (Seemabaddha), Bimala (Ghare Baire), Gulabi (Abhijan) and Monisha (Kanchenjunga) just to name a few. These are characters that shaped mindsets of generations of feminist filmmakers to come. The simple fact is Feluda stories were mainly aimed at kids, at best young adults. He is a detective who mostly busts criminals and gangs that are after rare artifact or family treasures and assets belonging mostly to rich clans. The focus is on adventure and not social commentary in these stories. That legions of Feluda fans continue to include women across age groups underlines the fact that most in the audience appreciate this fact.

Today, the legacy of Feluda continues to survive in works beyond those dedicated to the character. You notice the influence of Ray’s vision in original, new-age screen sleuths as Subarna Sen (of the Guptodhan series) and Soham (Alinagarer Golokdhadha). In the era of course correction, the Feluda influence has been noted in the sleuthing styles of new-age female detectives as Mitin Masi and Damayanti, too.

The fact is Feluda remains a winner because he has seamlessly become a part of the consciousness of his fans. He is a rare fictional hero in India to have a biopic (Feluda: 50 Years Of Ray’s Detective) and a theme song (Kabir Suman, Nachiketa Chakraborty and Anjan Dutt’s ‘Feludar gaan’) unto himself. For the average Bengali, he will always remain a part of the growing-up process.

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By akagami