Joy Baba Felunath: Satyajit Ray's second Feluda film is not just a motion picture, it is an emotion
Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
Satyajit Ray’s immortal creation, detective Prodosh Chandra Mitra — more popularly known in literary circles as Feluda — often said that money was never a big enough motivation for him in accepting cases. For Feluda, the lure of a baffling puzzle, one that offered him an opportunity to exercise his brains, was far more interesting. And if, on top of that, he had the chance to duel with an extremely shrewd and intelligent adversary while solving such a puzzle, then nothing like it.
Interestingly enough, Feluda did get an opportunity to do both, and against the backdrop of the picturesque location of Satyajit Ray’s favourite location in India — the ancient city of Benaras (Varanasi). In his extremely popular novel Joy Baba Felunath (The Elephant God), Ray makes Feluda pit his wits against a sly and wealthy Marwari businessman named Maganlal Meghraj, who was to appear in as many as two more novels to rightfully earn the position of Feluda’s archenemy, much like Professor James Moriarty was to Sherlock Holmes. It was perhaps this contest between Feluda and his nemesis that made Ray follow up his immensely popular adaptation of Sonar Kella with the razor-sharp, crisply edited and beautifully written film Joy Baba Felunath.
The year is 1975. Feluda, his cousin Topshe, and their friend — the popular Bengali thriller writer Lal Mohan Ganguly (also known as Jatayu) — have come to Benaras on a holiday during the Durga Puja. There, they are introduced to a gentleman named Umanath Ghoshal, whose family has been residing in Kashi for almost six decades. Umanath tells Feluda that a precious Ganesh idol that belongs to the family has recently been stolen from his father’s chest, and requests Feluda to catch the thief and find the idol for him. Meanwhile, a sadhu by the name of Machhli Baba has arrived in the ghats of Benaras, claiming to have swam the holy river directly from Prayag all the way to Kashi. Needless to say, various eminent people — the ‘cream of Kashi’ — have started gathering at the ghats to listen to the Baba’s sermons. Among them is Maganlal Meghraj, whose shady dealings and involvement with a racket of art and antiques smugglers, are not unknown to the local police. Maganlal was keen on buying the Ganesh idol from Umanath, but Umanath had refused. A few days later, the idol had been stolen. Feluda investigates, but soon realises that the idol is not with Maganlal. Where did the idol vanish? Who had stolen it? And how does Maganlal hope to get his hands on it? When Feluda ignores a chilling warning from Maganlal and continues his search for the stolen idol, he soon finds himself investigating a much more heinous crime — the murder of an innocent old man.
Just like the previous Feluda film was set amidst the beautiful and arid deserts of Rajasthan, Joy Baba Felunath is set in the age-old ghats of Kashi and its winding lanes and by-lanes that still capture the very essence of India’s heritage in the middle of the twentieth century. Almost every building shown in the film is more than a hundred years old, and there is an old-world charm about the atmosphere that acts as the perfect setting to a mystery thriller. In a brilliant and daring scene, for instance, Feluda follows a man bathing in the river all the way to his home in an old and abandoned palace on the ghats, only to realise that it’s the hideout of none other than Machhli Baba himself. In another scene, as the three musketeers are taking an after-dinner walk along the dimly lit and eerily desolate lanes of the city, they see the silhouette of a man staggering out of the mouth of a by-lane ahead of them, only to realise that the poor man has been stabbed. Almost every frame in the film seems like a painting, coming alive on screen, straight out of the canvas. The camerawork, the cinematography, the art direction is of extremely high quality, and they all help build a fittingly sinister atmosphere for the crimes.
The performances are all spot on, with the right doses of comic relief coming in at the right points of time in the film. Soumitra Chatterjee is once again brilliant as the smart and sharp-witted detective Feluda and Utpal Dutt’s performance as Maganlal Meghraj is, of course, one of the salient features of the film. But stealing the show from both the hero and his worthy adversary is the performance by Santosh Dutta, as the much-loved Jatayu, who earns the wrath of Maganlal Meghraj, and is made a target for a knife-throwing show by an impossibly old artist employed with the shrewd tycoon’s private circus. That one scene, in itself, is worth a million bucks, as Jatayu’s nervous optimism at being martyred for a good cause leads to a highly comical situation within the dark confines of Maganlal’s home. Feluda, of course, does not take matters lightly, and vows to avenge the insult to his friend. And he does that, in true Feluda style, as he re-stages the private circus show in the thrilling climax of the film.
Joy Baba Felunath is certainly not one of Satyajit Ray’s most important films. Nor is it one of his best. But just like the previous Feluda adaptation, it is a beautifully told story, with a brilliant twist at the end, and with all the ingredients that make for perfect entertainment at the movies. For millions of Feluda fans all over the world, then, Joy Baba Felunath is not just a motion picture — it is an emotion. It is a gentle pluck at the strings of our nostalgia, a throwback to the good old days when life was simple, Topshe’s unwavering devotion towards his cousin brother meant something to us, Jatayu’s grit and courage towered way over his buffoonery, and the smart, sharp and incorruptible Feluda was our one true hero.
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.