However outrageous it sounds – the waters were muddled by Satyajit Ray himself.
The matter was of making two choices – whodunnit versus thriller as format and athletic Feluda versus cerebral Feluda as cast. In a way the first choice should have decided the second too but for some reason Ray chose to mix-and-match. While making films out of his Felu novels, which were all unputdownably pacy whodunnits, Stayajit decided to script them as adventure-thrillers. That is, unlike in the novels, viewers of the cinema knew from very early up who the bad-guy was. What was lost by this early revelation of characters was intended to be made up by adventure. Acts of daredevil, getting off the beaten tracks (literally) and deploying muscles in equal proportion to mogoj-astro (brain power). But come to think of it, Felu was already portrayed in the novels as athletic (he was a slow spinner when playing cricket) and these two sketches from early Felu novels clearly shows the detective to be no wimp). Then why on earth cast Soumitra Chatterjee as Felu?
Soumitra Chatterjee was born in 1935, so when the first Felu film – Sonar Kella – was made in 1974 Chatterjee was 39 – not exactly a spring chicken. His image, right from Apur Sansar in 1959, was that of a romantic hero. His looks made women go weak at the knees and his intelligent looks added to the appeal. Aha – so it was the intelligent looks that turned the matter in his favor, it seems. No harm done – Felu had to be intelligent above athletic – but then it is impossible to ignore the matter of youth, especially when it did appear that Chatterjee had to use a wig in Sonar Kella to get the slightly long, wavy and jet black hair the ‘young’ sleuth had to sport. By 1978, when Joy Baba Felunath (The Elephant God) was made, Soumitro had added facial fat and the wig was much more conspicuous. Did Ray not have choices in casting? I think he did. I am ruling out Shubhendu Chatterjee since he is almost similar to Soumitra Chatterjee in demeanor and just an year his junior. But there was Shamit Bhanja, with who Ray had worked for Aranyer Dinratri (Days and Nights of the Forest) in 1969. Bhanja was muscular, tall and with suitable coaching could have gone onto make a Felu who was as comfortable in his hunter boot in the hills of Gangtok as he was solving riddles in the forests of Dooars.
Fair enough – Ray had the right to choose his cast and he fielded Soumitra Chatterjee and continued with it until the untimely death of Santosh Dutta – Jatayu – made him stop considering further Felu films. That until his son Sandip Ray took over and decided to continue scripting them as adventure-thrillers. Sandip Ray was presented with a glorious opportunity to change the course of Felu film making by taking a road not walked by his father. He could have chosen the whodunnit genre and made his series distinct from his father’s. Sadly that entailed a lot of hard work, which the junior Ray is not exactly known for.
Felu films now stand at an interesting crossroad. Options of casting credible Jatayus have become close to zero. Sabyasachi Chakrabarty, the actor currently playing Felu has moved from muscular in Bombayer Bombete to portly in Royal Bengal Rahasshya and is vacillating if he should hang those Felu hunter boots. Not surprisingly, the clamor now is for Felu films on novels of pre-Jatayu era. What’s the harm in a round of experimentation – a Lucknow based whodunnit and a 70%-cerebral-30%-Colt Feluda?
A second Felu post in quick succession. This should do it for the time being I think!
On the matter of lack of characters to play Jatayu, here is an option. The resemblance to Santosh Dutta (especially in Sonar Kella) is stunning. I met this gentleman – relative of a friend – at a social function in Kolkata this winter.