Detective stories, or goenda golpo, as they are called in Bengali, have always been popular with Bengali readers of fiction. Whether in books or magazines or Pujabarshikis, good detective stories have occupied a lot of the mindspace of Bengali readers for decades.
Some of the best were inspired from the fictional father figure of detectives, Sherlock Holmes. Like Byomkesh Bakshi by Saradindu Bandopadhyay or Feluda of Satyajit Ray. Others were original or inspired by other Bengali detectives.
Popular detectives in Bengali fiction can be divided into two groups – the group consisting of the Jayanta-Manik duo, Byomkesh Bakshi, Kiriti Roy and Feluda, explicitly influenced by Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, and a few others, and the more recent group, consisting of people like Arjun, Colonel, Pandab Goenda, among the more popular ones. However, in terms of overwhelming popularity the classical adventures of Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi still dominate the landscape of Bengali detective fiction and would in the future, too.
Byomkesh Bakshi is one of the oldest created yet most read and most enacted of Bengali detectives.
This dhoti-clad satyanweshi (‘finder of truth’), as Byomkesh called himself, was created by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay over 80 years back, in 1932. He first appeared in the story ‘Pother Kanta’, and carried on through the 1930s, 50s and 60s (the late 30s and 40s being spent as a scriptwriter for Hindi films). Byomkesh Bakshi is one of Bengali literature’s most enduring characters, an exceptional criminal investigator with his own moral code, who lives a genteel life.
With his razor-sharp intelligence, he always thinks a little ahead of the others around him, including his loyal assistant Ajit, and that’s how he is able to get at the core of the problem. Byomkesh has been memorably played by Rajit Kapoor in the Basu Chatterjee-directed tele-series in 1993, where all the stories were shot. In recent times, Anjan Dutt chose Abir Chatterjee to act as Byomkesh for his two films. Rituparno Ghosh’s last film, Satyanweshi, was also a Byomkesh whodunit.
Next, Byomkesh is going to be made in Hindi by Dibakar Banerjee. With his acute intelligence and sense of humour, Byomkesh can still make for a popular detective.
Unlike Byomkesh, Bengal’s love for Feluda is as much, if not more, about the films as the novels and short stories.
This tall, fair, dashing crime-solver with an immense knowledge (sometimes supplemented by the encyclopedic Shidhu Jyatha) and sharp eyes, capable of aiming equally sharply with his pistol, was the result of Satyajit Ray’s wish for a detective character whose adventures can be enjoyed by children. Though, the genius that Ray was, adults are equally enamoured by Prodosh Chandra Mitter, aka Feluda. His assistant is his nephew Topshe. Among Bengali detectives, Feluda has a one-of-its-kind co-voyager – a successful and well-off thriller writer, an adventure-seeker, yet weak and nervous in real life, which aspects together make for uniquely comic interludes – Lalmohan Ganguly aka Jatayu, who accompanies him and Topshe in all the cases except the initial few. Feluda burst onto the scene in Feludar Goendagiri, serialised in Sandesh magazine from December 1965 to February 1966. There was no looking back. The Feluda series regaled generations and continues to do so.
Feluda is one character who is known to many just through films and teleserials too. Satyajit Ray immortalised Feluda through his film, Sonar Kella (1974; ‘Golden Fortress’), where the master detective was played by Soumitra Chatterjee. To this day, to many, Feluda is synonymous with Soumitra. He reprised the role in Jai Baba Felunath. A Hindi teleseries was shot in the 1990s where Shashi Kapoor played Feluda. In Bengali, Feluda returned to screen again when Sandip Ray chose Sabyasachi Chatterjee to play the role, which he did commendably, both in films, the latest being Royal Bengal Rahasya in 2011, and serials.
The stunning mysteries, brilliant crime-solving and sparkling wit in Feluda stories has ensured his fame for posterity, both among the young and the not-so-young.
Satyajit Ray, the creator of Feluda
Kiriti Roy is one of the most Sherlock Holmes-esque of the famous detectives in Bengali literature. He was created by Nihar Ranjan Gupta.
With a long coat and cap, and a pipe hanging from his lips, he is the perfect Bengali Homles. Like Holmes, he also carried a magnifying glass with him most of the time. His stories have a sense of adventure, of stalking criminals in the night, in general, a certain blood-curdling quality. He solves crimes with the help of his associate, Subrata Roy. Kiriti was launched in the novel, Kalo Bhromor, also Gupta’s his first detective novel. Nihar Ranjan Gupta wrote eighty odd stories featuring Kiriti. The first Kiriti Roy story introduces him as follows: “Kiriti Roy is six and a half feet tall, fair and stout. His curled hair is mostly combed back, and the black celluloid spectacles make his clean-shaven face highly attractive.”
Kiriti Roy’s mysteries are available in collected editions and are still popular. However, being too similar to Sherlock Holmes, that is, Eurocentric, there is less appeal of his character in modern times, and his popularity is more from the historical perspective. Nihar Ranjan Gupta was a prolific writer, and many of his non-Kiriti novels are also classics, some of which have been made into brilliant films too.
Nihar Ranjan Gupta
Jayanta was one of the first detectives to earn widespread fame, and was popular for a long time, though now he and his assistant, Manik hold more historical value than anything else.
Hemendra Kumar Roy was one of the most prolific and one of the best writers of children’s literature from the 1930s to the early 60s, when he died. He wrote as well as translated from English many adventure, mystery as well as ghost stories. Two of his then very popular creations for children were the detective Jayanta and his assistant, Manik. He was heavily influenced by western detective classics. The duo made their appearance in the 1930s. One of the recurring characters in his stories and novels featuring Jayanta-Manik was Inspector Sundarbabu, a chubby and weak hearted police officer with an insatiable appetite who was also a good friend to the detectives.
His story 'Nishithini Bivisikha' was adapted for Bengali movie named Jighansha (1951). The superhit hindi film Bees Saal Baad was also based on the same story.
Hemendra Kumar Roy
Among the more modern detectives, the more famous are Colonel, Arjun and Pandab Goenda.
Colonel Niladri Sarkar
Colonel Niladri Sarkar is one of the most popular Bengali detectives of recent times, having enjoyed a long run mostly through stories published yearly in Durga Puja numbers of Anandamela magazine.
As is evident from the name Niladri Sarkar is a retired colonel from the Army, and is now engaged in crime detection as a private investigator. He is the creation of Syed Mujtaba Siraj. The retired colonel, with a big white beard and moustache, is an eccentric sleuth. His stories are narrated by a lazy journalist, Jayanta, who accompanies him on his missions. The colonel is a butterfly collector and ornithologist, smokes pipes and has a Santa beard. He is also jovial and likes quoting Bengali proverbs and nursery rhymes.
Though Siraj died in 2012, the stories of Niladri Sarkar are still popular, and have a dedicated fan following among the young and the old. Siraj was a prolific writer of about 200 novels and about 300 short stories. Actor Chiranjeet plays Colonel Niladri Sarkar in Raja Sen's yet-to-be-released film, Colonel.
Collected stories of Colonel
Arjun is a handsome young detective created by Samaresh Majumdar, and is extremely popular among children.
Arjun is unique in the sense that he is not based out of Kolkata, but Jalpaiguri. There is a reason behind this. The author hailed from North Bengal and so it was natural for him to base his character in a place he is familiar with. However, that has not stopped the detective from solving cases all over the world, and his stories have an inherent sense of adventure, one of the prime reasons they are so popular amongst children.
The first film featuring the detective Arjun was released recently, Kalimpongey Sitaharan. It is a combination of two Arjun stories — Khunkharapi and Kalimpongey Sitaharan.
Another set of very popular detective stories are the ones featuring the Pandab Goenda by Sasthipada Chattopadhyay.
As the name suggests, they are a set of five young children who go about solving mysteries. These young detectives are on the lines of the popular western teenage detectives created by Enid Blyton, called the Famous Five. The five are Bablu, Bilu, Bhombol, and two sisters, Bachchu and Bichchhu. The first story was called Pandab Goenda, and was published in 1981. The stories are mainly published in Anandamela magazine. Sasthipada is an avid traveler, and his experiences of travelling all over the country are reflected in the adventures that Pandab Goenda undergo.
The adventures of Pandab Goenda were made into a series of animation films in 2007. Pandab Goenda stories continue to regale children interested in Bengali detective fiction.
Cover of a Pandab Goenda book
The detective story has been a very popular genre in Bengali literature for almost a century now. Most detective stories have been written with children in mind, though many are enjoyed by people of all ages. After all, Bengalis are known to be avid readers of literature of all kinds, and over the years, Bengal has produced some of the best writers in India.
A few years back, Sujoy Ghosh’s whodunit-cum-thriller, Kahaani, set in Kolkata, became a countrywide hit and was also acclaimed critically. Mira Nair is soon to make a film set in Kolkata called The Bengali Detective. Thus, the Bengali’s love affair with detectives continues.
Written by: Anushtup Haldar for M3.tv