Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee (Right) with his leading man Sushant Singh Rajput
Anurag Kashyap’s got his work cut out.
Dibakar Bannerjee has just set the benchmark for period dramas with ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy’, a rousing, rollicking, terrifically authentic, edge-of-your-seat thriller inspired by the famous Bengali detective first dreamt up by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay in the 1920’s.
The film follows the young detective – or ‘Satyanveshi’ – Byomkesh (Sushant Singh Rajput) who is approached by Ajit (the fabulous Anand Tiwari) whose father has been missing for weeks.
It marks the start of a friendship that mirrors that of Sherlock and his Watson and a story that is more engaging than any that Conan Doyle created as Bakshi and Ajit grapple with a local politician, a mysterious seductress, Japanese spies, Chinese drug dealers and all sorts, to unravel the truth.
Quite apart from the terrific cast of characters, Byomkesh’s beloved Calcutta plays a not-insignificant role in the film – chaotic, vibrant, beautiful and ominous at the same time.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy is a phenomenally entertaining romp and proves that Banerjee’s is the finest imagination in Indian cinema, an imagination that is matched only by the way he seems to wrap himself around the story – and this is one story that the 45-year-old has lived with for more than thirty years.
In an interview with the UKAsian, Banerjee reveals more.
Poonam Joshi: What was your relationship with Bandyopadhyay’s books?
Dibakar Banerjee: My personal relationship with Byomkesh Bakshi was that it was the lure of the forbidden. That was my first memory. When I was 12 or 13 my parents told me not to read Byomkesh and that I should wait until I was at least 15. And that, sure enough, was an invitation to a 12-year-old boy to read the books! I was just about crossing over to puberty and God knows what dark and lovely secrets these stories had.
So I actually had to steal my first Byomkesh and I read it without anyone else knowing. I realized that the reason why some people were scared of reading the books or didn’t want younger people to read them was because the trope of detective fiction was very, very mature literature.
Byomkesh was much more mature than Sherlock Holmes which I think is a boy’s adventure story for adults. Bandyopadhyay’s stories were about the deeper, darker secrets of humanity. It’s essentially about a 60-year-old man who sits on a bed and writes pornography. He’s a 60-year-old patriarch whose life has been wasted by excess, he’s paralyzed – in many ways – and he sits in bed and writes pornography. The imagery was incredible. The dead body of a 16-year-old girl sitting in front of a hearth, her hair open, but she’s dead with her eyes open. These are immortal images and they delve into the deeper, darker aspects of human behaviour and our society but in a way that is so simple and every day.
PJ: What about the connection Bandhyopadhyay had with Sherlock?
DB: Sherlock is essentially a colonial creature. Watson is heavily colonial. They are all 19th century British colonial exploratory creatures while Byomkesh is an urbane, modern detective who is dealing with post modern issues in everyday life in mid-century Calcutta. Byomkesh is also completely Indian. In spite of the detective fiction genre being a western format, Byomkesh is completely original and Indian in its characterization, its settings, its details and authenticity. Byomkesh chews paan, takes the tram to a crime scene, fights a master criminal with plans for world domination and who is also a Bengali. It’s all delightfully original and does not look over its shoulder in any way. It is completely without artifice and completely unconscious. That’s what I love about Byomkesh. And I loved Bandyopadhyay’s Calcutta – a world of Bengali Addas, coffee houses, gas lamps and a booming Chinatown. In the film, the Japanese are about to bomb Calcutta. The city is on the cusp of history. There are American GI’s on the streets, there are swing bands playing in clubs and cafes on Park Street. It was a vibrant and dangerous time. Chinatown was filled with opium dens and fighter aircraft were parked on one of the city’s main thoroughfares to respond to a Japanese attack. In this dark, teeming world, Byomkesh Bakshi is fighting crime. It could have been set in any major city during the early 1940’s.
PJ: Why did you set it in the time period that you did?
DB: I could have set it in any period but I set it in 1940’s Calcutta because India was in the middle of this titanic tussle between Britain and Japan. India was faced with the question of how it should proceed. Does it remain true to itself or does it side with one or the other. In late 1942 and early 1943 Britain was definitely on the back foot as Japan had come all the way to India’s border through Singapore, Malaya and Burma. Japan was clearly ascendant and Calcutta was at the epicentre of this global struggle. It was being bombed by the Japanese. People had run away from Calcutta in fear and the underworld was running rampant. The black market was booming. It’s god-given territory for detective fiction. There are Japanese spies, there are American GI’s with surplus arms and here is Byomkesh trying to save the world. There is nothing more interesting to a story teller when the central character is trying to save the world at a time of conflicting loyalties. It tests the human character.
PJ: The film’s ambition and scale is phenomenal and quite different to the work that you’re known for. Would you have been able to make a film like this in the Bollywood of 10 years ago? Particularly given that YRF Studios who are known for their big song-and-dance spectaculars is backing this project?
DB: I started shopping this script around soon after Khosla Ka Ghosla was made. There were takers for the film but for one reason or the other it just didn’t get made. I think that was a blessing in disguise because I don’t think I would then have had the maturity and experience to handle a beast like this – particularly to bring about a period like 1943. The whole thing happened over a meeting with Adiyta Chopra who told that he had been following my work and the conversation developed to the point where we were discussing how to give the mainstream audience of India a slightly different taste. We began asking ourselves the question, ‘how can we become tastemakers?’ We may fall flat on our faces but can we at least try? Byomkesh Bakshi was made out of that conversation. You’re right, it’s very unlike a YRF film – it doesn’t have sixteen songs or an item number or titillating sexual content. It is purely a yarn about a man on a quest. It’s a thriller, a whodunit. It’s actually quite a weird animal – a period film set in 1943 with thrash metal and electro-pop. It may work, it may not but it’s an experiment by YRF and my company to see if we can provoke or push Indian audiences to some new kinds of films. It’s an attempt to create the ‘New Mainstream’ out of the niche of yesterday.
PJ: It’s a noble objective but among the obstacles you have to face is India’s notorious censor board. What do you make of the recent controversies around Pahlaj Nihalani?
DB: I won’t comment on that too much because not commenting is the easiest way of not getting impacted by the issue. I feel that if Indian filmmakers have an issue with the censor board, fighting with the board is not the answer. Ultimately the censor board does the bidding of the Information and Broadcast Ministry and the ministry goes by the law of the land, the laws laid out in our constitution. If you really want to tackle this problem of freedom of expression seriously instead of finding scapegoats we need to go back to the laws and change them.