Friday, March 16, 2012

Sleuths on Screen

Uttamkumar as Byomkesh in Chiriyakhana
Cinema, and by this I mean both the big screen as well as the small, has virtually replaced the book as a medium of storytelling. Movies are being made from all genres of fiction and virtually nothing seems out of reach for them. Movies like Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings have demonstrated what technology can achieve, while numerous great directors have demonstrated time and again what can be achieved without technology. In view of all this, it seems a pity that few directors, if any, understand how detective stories work.

By detective stories I mean detective stories, not thrillers. I do not mean Robert Langdon, Jason Bourne or James Bond. I mean the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. And our own Byomkesh and Feluda. Is it too hard to understand? A director may have made great films and yet, he often messes up a on a detective story. Why? I think the answer to that question is straightforward. One simply has to understand why those of us who love detective stories do so.

What is so special about Sherlock Holmes or Feluda? What makes Hercule Poirot unique? Is it the story? A novel plot is only novel the first time. Then why do we go back and read those books again and again, even when we know who the murderer is?

Elementary, my dear Watson. We love our detectives. We know them inside out and love their every fault, their drug addictions, their lethargy, their arrogance, their obsession with cleanliness and symmetry. We are not bothered about who the criminal is. We want to predict how our detective will react in a given situation and then see if our predictions come true.

We want to learn up their dialogs, mon ami, we want to laugh at their mannerisms. We are not simply interested in seeing a crime being solved. We want to see the man (or woman) we know solving the crime. This is what the directors fail to see. 

The name's Bakshi. Byomkesh Bakshi. 
Sandip Ray, for instance, does not understand that we don't want to see Feluda punch somebody to a pulp. We would rather have a Feluda who gets occasionally intimidated by knife throwers or beaten up by thugs. We know his time will come and we patiently wait for that moment. Feluda in a fistfight? Come on, that's like asking Rahul Dravid to prove his worth by wrestling. Not that wrestling is bad - its simply not his game. It took the junior Ray three amazingly bad films and one moderately bad one to finally realize that. His father, of course, didn't do much better when handling Byomkesh. Uttamkumar may have been the biggest superstar of his time, but he was no Byomkesh. Byomkesh never had a pet snake. Couldn't a man like Satyajit Ray see that it mattered? Of course, it is quite another matter that the poster of the upcoming Byomkesh movie by Anjan Dutta (right) hints that Ray's Chiriyakhana may not have been the worst Byomkesh movie ever.  And yet, it has nothing to do with budget. Most Indian fans will agree - and not just Bengalis - that Basu Chatterjee's small screen Byomkesh has never been bettered. How did that happen with a small budget?

Look at the hair, not the moustache
Supposedly the 1974 classic The Murder on the Orient Express was the best representation of Poirot on screen till then. Really? Ladies and gentlemen, what you see on the left is the best representation of a man who would die before he parted his hair asymmetrically. Do they really take us seriously? Sherlock Holmes is the fictional character who has been depicted on screen the most number of times. I have seen many of those, and never liked them. Firstly, the representation was either too literal and bookish which combined with the old London sets made the movie unrealistic-looking. Secondly, they failed to get the essence of the stories. In the version of The Sign of Four that I saw, Watson's fiancée finally finds her treasure. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the criminal was found and arrested. When Warner Brothers announced their multi-starrer big-budget Sherlock Holmes movie, I thought they would finally get it. I should have known better. This is what Sherlock Holmes in that ninety million dollar movie turned out to be:

Not shown: bullet-time punches and Jude Law as Watson

The reason why I am ranting about this here is that I recently came across a BBC TV series called Sherlock which is based on Holmes, but puts Doyle's detective in present-day London. He uses a laptop and a smartphone, maintains a website and searches the Internet when needed to solve crimes. Watson is an army doctor back from Afghanistan who blogs about Holmes' cases. Compare this with Sandip Ray's Feluda who, even after having time-traveled from the 1970s to the 2010s, does not own a cellphone or a computer. Ray does not even make an attempt to explain this anomaly, let alone try to modernize the story-lines and incorporate the changed technology realistically.

Strangely, this modern Sherlock is the best Holmes I have seen on screen so far. This is the man I have known and loved since the day my father gave me the Complete Sherlock Holmes in two volumes. He has the same arrogance, the same disregard for rules, same spite for the Scotland Yard and the same thorough knowledge of the world he lives in. The real Sherlock Holmes was a man of science. This one is no different. His instruments have changed, but he is still the master of the best methods. He uses texting instead of running errand-boys now. He uses Google search instead of going to the library. He still beats up dead men at the morgue because he wants to see how corpses bruise. He talks lightning fast, thinks faster, and when he speaks he is usually obnoxious and conceited. In short, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes exactly how he would have been if he lived today. Here's a trailer for the first season of this mini-series.

Of course, I have only seen the first season (three episodes) and I don't know yet how this has turned out in the future episodes. I have seen great movies ruined by bad sequels before, and it may well happen here too. However, from what I have seen, this first season is good enough to teach Sandip Ray a lesson about handling Feluda in the 21st century. He could, of course, choose to stick to 1970s like the original stories, but that would only increase his budget. If something must change, why change the character's personality and make him fight thugs? Why not make his deadliest weapon deadlier with the help of smartphones and cameras and laptops and the Internet? A tablet would serve the purpose of his blue notebooks perfectly. He need not even write in Greek - he can simply password protect it. He can still smoke his Charminars, and he can still switch off his phone when he needs to disappear for a few hours. As long as he does not look like a behind-the-times anachronism, anything works for me.

As far as Byomkesh is concerned, I do not need to give suggestions. With Anjan Dutta as the director, the movies are going to be like... piles of ash, as Byomkesh himself would put it. Only, there wouldn't be any treasure to uncover underneath.


  1. khub bhalo ebong thik thik likhechhen. eksho shotangsho ekmot.

  2. Ok,now I have time to express my elaborate opinion about why we like detective stories. You are right. I do not like Miss Marple stories because of the plots, the psychological analysis, the rural England setting. I love them because I love Miss Marple. I want to be her when I grow up. I like Feluda because he is tall, intelligent, can quote Sukumar Roy and never ever wears tight t-shirts. I don't like Sherlock Holmes because I don't like addicts and I don't like Byomkesh because I find him (and his creator) slightly (quite a bit actually) chauvinistic.

    Still I like you and your writing.

  3. Always a pleasure to meet a fellow Sherlockian :)

    I too have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since my childhood. Have you tried the Russian adaptation with Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes. His Holmes is quite faithful to the canon as well.


  4. @Kuntala: All of us have our likes and dislikes. But the main thing is, you cannot make Holmes "better" by giving him a pleasant personality. It would be someone else.

    @buddy2blogger: No, I haven't! Thanks for letting me know, I will look for it.