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Cinema || Har Har Byomkesh (Death in the land of Faith)

Mysteries in matters of faith are certainly not as uncommon as celluloid adaptations of mysteries centred in the great city of faith; the religious capital of India, Varanasi.

Director Arindam Sil’s imagining of Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s classic Bengali sleuth Byomkesh Bakshi, Har Har Byomkesh is no doubt affected by Satyajit Ray’s classic mystery ‘Joy Baba Felunath’. While the predecessor derived its name from its source – the novel of the same name by Ray himself, Har Har Byomkesh is based on Bandopadhyay’s ‘Banhi Patanga’ (Firefly), set in Patna. The title is an effective nod to the Ray film as well, both phrases being plays on Hindu religious chants in the name of Lord Shiva, Har Har Mahadev and Joy Baba Biswanath. There is also, of course, a penultimate sequence which is a delightful homage to the work of a master.

That is where the affectation comes to a stop, however, if one discounts a strange coincidence embedded in the nature of mysteries themselves. Both Ray’s celluloid adaptation and Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s story (and thus, Sil’s film) are guilty of using human life as collateral damage without blinking an eyelid. The murder of elderly artist Sashi Babu in Joy Baba Felunath for stumbling upon what would eventually turn out to be a cheap copy of a priceless artefact is echoed in the climax of Sil’s film, where a surprising lack of proper detective (or as Mr. Bakshi would prefer, truth seeking) work results in lack of foresight and a reckless move on the part of the seeker. It results in the unmasking of the criminal, yes, but also the death of a woman who could as well have been more a victim than a co-conspirator and, more importantly, the demise of an unborn child.

Cruelty in works of art is easy to explain away in the name of realism but the best use of this trait by any ‘creator’ can often be traced to follies inherent in the characters involved, rather than any preconceived tendency to be macabre on the part of the creators themselves. Bandopadhyay’s text can be read in terms of the post-Independence euphoria that expressed itself in hues not exactly suited to the human eye. Expressions of over-aggressive, assertive freedom manufactured a sense of apathy towards law and order, especially among those prone who were prone to criminal activities. It had, in turn, affected the figures of law and propagators of truth, toughening them up to an extent where every solving every single crime was part of a bigger, post-independence war –  the war to establish democracy and the rule of truth in a burgeoning nation-state. Collateral damage is nothing but a grim reality in such a war.

Adil Hussain and Nusrat Jahan in the film

Sil’s Byomkesh is in the midst of this war still, but he also happens to be on his honeymoon. A honeymoon in Varanasi (with writer and dear friend Ajit Bandopadhyay tagging along) is a rather charming plot device to not only explore themes of love without discounting religion, and where they overlap and lose themselves in each other. The frequent allusions to Sanskrit poet Joydev’s epic poem Geet Gobinda (an ode to the romance of Radha and Krishna, elevating the former over the latter) act in the background of Byomkesh and Satyabati’s blossoming romance while the tragic element in classical Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa’s Abhijnanashakuntala serves to expound upon the plight of Shakuntala Devi, pregnant and trapped in an adulterous setting with a merciless man waiting outside lying outside in wait.

The failure of Sil’s Byomkesh to realise the true nature of Shakuntala Devi’s lover, co-conspirator and (quite possibly) the mastermind of the crime could easily be attributed to primal distractions but it could as well be a different matter altogether. Byomkesh’s inability to comprehend the darker aspects of love for the time being could also be a result of him being saturated in newfound conjugal bliss and the deeper resonance of Joydev’s depiction of divine love.

Sil’s version of the popular, largely overdone Bengali sleuth is the fourth film of 2015 to feature Bandopadhyay’s ‘truth-seeker’ Byomkesh Bakshi. All three, however, have featured three different actors sporting Byomkesh for the first time. Sil, however, has on board the man who has played the character more times than any other actor on the silver screen. Reinventing Byomkesh was a task cut out for both Sil and Abir Chatterjee but they managed to hit the note that worked without making it seem as if Chatterjee was simply teleported from an archetypal Anjan Dutt-chamber drama’s set to the diametrically different setting of Varanasi.

The trio of Byomkesh, Satyabati and Ajit: (from left): Abir Chatterjee, Sohini Sarkar, Ritwik Chakraborty

The exquisite production design and Soumik Haldar’s delicate sense of cinematography sets this particular production apart from its predecessors. The script, even though it could do with a little less repetition of particular allusions, manages to instil visual coherence to a multi-layered narrative involving a bevy of characters. Sohini Sarkar as Satyabati and Ritwick Chakraborty as Ajit manage to carve out significant places for themselves even within the extant frenzy of Byomkesh adaptations. While Sarkar, a significant actor of tomorrow, brings the precise amount of poise and vulnerability to the character, Chakraborty craftily reimagines Ajit as a ‘modern’ writer and observer showing subtle traits of a bohemian first, before being a friend, confidante and associate of Byomkesh Bakshi.

The supporting acts, especially those of Harsh Chhaya as Inspector Purandar Pandey and Shadab Kamal as Inspector Ratikanta Chowdhury are worth noting. Also impressive is Adil Hussain in a rather small cameo. The music by Bickram Ghosh, influenced by North Indian classical traditions, is particularly noteworthy for the dimension it lends to the narrative.

Crafting a film on crime detection may have become an act in vogue but that has not taken the novelty out of creating mysteries on screen. Sil continues the work he had commenced in ‘Ebar Shabor’, his previous ‘crime’ film which was applauded largely for its sheer ingenuity of storytelling. He has not shied away from using Hindi as a primary language and has even come up with an interesting dream sequence that delves deeper into the process inside a searching mind whose subconscious appears to hint at the truth. Yet, the closed format of Bandopadhyay’s tales and the fact that Sil chose to do a mostly straightforward adaptation instead of something more adventurous such as Dibakar Banerjee’s Bollywood conception of Byomkesh Bakshi, largely kept him within a structure that has been a staple of nearly all mysteries produced in Bengal in the past few years.

However, Har Har Byomkesh does happen to be one of the most impressive Byomkesh Bakshi films made till date. A distinct care to the craft is apparent in nearly every little treatment that the film has to offer to the audience. Beautifully designed and rendered with unmistakeable passion, Har Har Byomkesh is a commendable successor to Ray’s classic, which also had a little mystery to unravel and a dangerous criminal to unmask in the Indian capital of faith. []

Film: Har Har Byomkesh
Directed by: Arindam Sil
Story: Saradindu Bandopadhyay
Language: Bengali
Release: December 8, 2015


First published in Issue #3 of CultureCult Magazine (Winter 2015-16)

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