From Faster Fene's Banesh to Sacred Games' Sartaj Singh: The coolest desi sleuths
A close look at India's eccentric homespun sleuths that have been weeded out of the country’s rich literary landscape and unleashed upon the big screen.
Bringing alive a comic book hero from the 70s successfully on screen, the Marathi sleeper hit Faster Fene has opened the gates for other eccentric homespun sleuths to be weeded out of the country’s rich literary landscape and unleashed upon the big screen.
I haven’t read a single Faster Fene comic, though I vaguely recall the artwork of the series that was sold alongside Tinkle and Chandamama in my childhood. Else, it’s just an embellished memory from the wee years. But I didn’t need a background on the RR Bhagwat’s legendary teenage detective to watch the mystery thriller produced by Ritesh Deshmukh last week. The Amey Wagh-starrer (an enthusiastic septuagenarian sitting next to me in the theatre said the baby-faced, lithe actor reminded her of Shahrukh Khan in his youth) pulled one in from the get go, steering clear of distracting rubbish like songs and romantic interludes to tell a straightforward, engaging story of a relentlessly curious, restless and daring young Banesh Fene. The film also cleverly wove in the comic book hero’s writer BR Bhagwat into the story’s contemporary version. It was the sort of homespun storytelling with a shuddh desi hero – aided by spunky sidekicks – that cries out for sequels and other colorful characters to be wring out from our country’s vast and deep literary landscape.
The Bong connection
Faster Fene’s makers were clear about making a film that doesn’t pander to a single community with one too many insider references. A big bonus of bringing a comic alive in a contemporary avatar is the chance to make a story that’s been restricted in popularity to one region, much more inclusive. One of 2015’s most criminally underrated films was Dibakar Banerjee’s Byomkesh Bakshi, a terrifically stylized version that faithfully followed the period milieu and background of Bengal’s most famous literary sleuth created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay in the 30s. The suave, lateral-thinking Byomkesh has been no stranger to the screen though. One of his first celluloid outings was a 1967 Satyajit Ray film starring Uttam Kumar as Bakshi babu. In the early 90’s, Basu Chatterjee brought the iconic Bong to small screens with his television series starring Rajit Kapur in the lead role. Five years before Dibakar’s Sushat Singh-starrer, Anjan Dutt made a film on the exploits of the detective and his sidekick Ajit, starring Abir Chatterjee and Saswata Chatterjee (that’s Kahaani’s menacing everyman Bob, for those not in the know).
The Bong fascination with crime and mystery continues its unrivalled run through the decades with a brand new web series that doffs its hat to yet another iconic Bong detective, Satyajit Ray’s iconic Feluda. For a swish, contemporary take on the thrilling tales of Prodosh Mittir and his narrator-sidekick, the webs series stars Parambrata Chatterjee who’s snooping around for a scientific discovery and its mysterious creator in the hamlet of Ghurghutia in the very first episode.
A gentleman sleuth
While Byomkesh laid the founding stone for a fully desi, sharp and suave sleuth, a host of colourful characters have sprung from the vivid imaginations of regional writers. Chief amongst these is the idiosyncratic Ahmad Kamal Faridi (aka Inspector Faridi, later Colonel Faridi, also known as Colonel Hardstone) a fictional spy and crime-fighter, and the lead character of the Urdu spy novel series Jasoosi Dunya created by Ibn-e-Safi back in the 50s. The aristocratic Colonel is described as a man who appears to look like a sleepy, lazy, careless businessman but who just happens to possess the most alert mind of the century. He lives in a plush mansion, loves luxury cars (his beloved fleet includes a Cadillac, Lincoln and Austin Mini) and domesticates exotic dogs and venomous snakes in his free time. A man of principles and tightly coiled emotions, Faridi leaves plebeian matters of the heart to his able aide Captain Hameed. Should you care to read more about this fascinating sleuth, four out of the 125 of the Faridi mysteries have been translated from the Urdu original to English by the well-known writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi for Chennai-based Blaft Publications.
Iron bras and gory ganglords
From suave men to bloodthirsty avenging women, the 80s typically took a turn for the worst, but also refreshingly introduced Indian crime fiction in English, set within the increasing urban murkiness of India. The decade also birthed a somewhat dodgy but daring female sleuth, Sheila Ray in Ashok Banker’s The Iron Bra. Never mind the seedy title (it was the 80s; everything’s forgiven)! Sheila was a tough nut, a private eye-cum-fearless Nadia taking on Mumbai’s underworld and powering through plenty of violence to avenge her father’s death. Continuing the tradition of pulp crime thrillers pointedly aimed at the masses, Shashi Warrier’s thrillers explored contemporary themes like terrorism and the nexus between godmen and politicians with the sleuths turning more realistic than aspirational. Warrier’s latest literary ‘hero’ is Bangalore-based Bloodhound Bala, an alcoholic television journalist trying to get a second lease on his washed out career by snooping around a godman’s ashram near Mangalore, in The Man Who Wouldn’t Be God (2016).
Possibly the most suave modern-day Indian sleuth is Inspector Sartaj Singh, protagonist of Vikram Chandra’s 2006 tome, Sacred Games. The seasoned yet cynical Sikh sleuth — delving into the city’s intricate web of organized crime, corruption, politics and espionage — is the subject of Netflix’s first original Indian webseries. With Saif Ali Khan playing Sartaj and Nawazuddin Siddiqui as his gangster nemesis Ganesh Gaitonde, it’s most likely that this desi duet will set our small screens on fire.
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