Sonar Kella: How Satyajit Ray brought a much-loved Feluda mystery to the big screen

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Aug,20 2017 10:59 25 IST

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 once remarked that he never earned nearly enough money from his work as a filmmaker, and that, as a matter of fact, it was his income from his books that allowed him to run his day-to-day household expenses. Ray’s popularity as a writer of young adult’s literature may not be as widespread as his popularity as a filmmaker, but within the state of West Bengal, his stature as an author is no less important.

Still from Sonar Kella

Still from Satyajit Ray's Sonar Kella

Ray wrote several independent Bengali short stories, a series of science fiction adventures with a protagonist named Professor Shonku, and another series of short stories depicting the fantastic adventures of an old man named Tarini Khuro (or Tarini Uncle) who, during his youth had had several remarkable and often supernatural experiences in various parts of India.

But the one body of work that had made Ray a shining star in the literary scene of Bengal through the '70s and the '80s was the series of mystery adventures of his immortal creation — detective Pradosh Chandra Mitra, more popularly known to young and old simply as Feluda. The adventures of Feluda became so popular, that Ray decided to make not one but two films based on two of his most famous Feluda novels. In this article, we are going to talk about one of these films — Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) — which won Ray as many as two National Awards.

Mukul Dhar is a seven-year-old boy living in North Kolkata who can remember events and scenes from his past life, when he used to live in Rajasthan hundreds of years ago. He talks about a fortress made of gold, and of precious gems and stones which were buried in the ground in his house. When two seasoned criminals learn about Mukul from the local papers, they try to kidnap him, hoping that he would be able to pinpoint the location of the buried treasure to them. But they soon find out that they have kidnapped the wrong boy, and that the real Mukul has gone off to Rajasthan in search of the golden fortress with renowned parapsychologist Dr Hemanga Mohan Hazra, who is researching reincarnations. When Mukul’s father learns of the kidnapping-gone-wrong, he seeks the help of detective Feluda. And then, Feluda and his cousin Topshe embark on a cross country chase of the two criminals in a bid to nab them before they can get to Mukul.

Although Satyajit Ray liked the story of Sonar Kella as a possible subject for a film, he was not too keen on making a whodunit. He was of the opinion that in general, whodunits do not make for suitable cinematic subjects, thanks to the long speech at the end of the story where the detective reveals all and explains how the crime was committed and how he managed to catch the culprits. How was he to make Sonar Kella then? Ray had a solution for that. He changed the story a little while writing the screenplay, and revealed the identity of the two criminals right at the beginning of the film. The rest of the film thus became a purely Hitchcockian affair — with the audience knowing what the detective doesn’t — thus making it more of a suspense adventure film than a whodunit. But the taking away of the mystery element from the story did not, by any means, diminish the beauty of the film. In fact, for the cinematic medium, it worked out wonderfully well, because the audience could now stop worrying about the identity of the culprits, and instead focus on the splendours of Rajasthan, the keen intelligence of the protagonist and the comic relief brought in by Feluda and Topshe’s co-passenger — a popular but bumbling thriller writer named Lal Mohan Ganguli, who wrote under the pen name ‘Jatayu’.

As expected, Sonar Kella was one of Ray’s most commercially successful films, because fans of Feluda were now seeing him on screen, that too being played by one of their most beloved actors, and Ray’s go-to man, Soumitra Chatterjee. Ably supported by the young Topshe (Siddhartha Chatterjee) and Lal Mohan Babu (veteran Bengali comic actor Santosh Dutta, after whose death, Ray announced that he would never make another Feluda film ever again because ‘Jatayu was no more’), Feluda literally goes on a bumpy ride through Rajasthan in pursuit of the criminals. In what is widely considered to be the most iconic scene from the film, the trio go on a high speed, breath-taking camel ride through the Thar desert in order to catch a train that would take them to Jaisalmer, where a fortress made of yellow limestone had been revealed to be the golden fortress of Mukul’s past life.

Full of witty and intelligent dialogues, the film is a treat for those who are interested in puns, spoonerisms, malapropisms and various other forms of word play that Ray (and his father before him) were so well known for. In one scene, when Jatayu shows an old Nepali Kukri to a man claiming to be a globe-trotter, the man responds by asking — “What’s this unsafety razor for?” In another scene, when the same globe-trotter flattens the tires of Feluda’s car, Jatayu unwittingly remarks — “Someone has collected all the broken bottles from all over the world and put them on the road here”, to which Feluda calmly responds by saying — “Which makes it easier to guess who could have done it, right?”

Sonar Kella might just be one of Satyajit Ray’s most entertaining films. It has all the elements of a typical masala potboiler  a case of reincarnation, a smart, intelligent, and pistol-totting ‘hero’, abundant comic relief, beautiful folk music, the thrilling element of a chase, the scenic backdrop of Rajasthan, everything — and yet, it is not pedestrian at all. It is an intelligent film, that is enjoyed by everyone. Satyajit Ray strongly believed what great storytellers have always said — that entertainment and intelligence can co-exist without affecting each other in a negative way. Feluda’s Sonar Kella is the perfect example of that belief. It is perhaps one of the most intelligent and entertaining thrillers to have ever come out of the Bengali film industry.

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.