“Naam Keno, Bodnaam Bolen…”

Ray was as much fond of alliterations as his comic relief character, the crime novelist Lalmohan Ganguly – Jatayu – was. Sometimes it becomes difficult to tell if the author of Koilashe KelenkariBombaiye Bombete and Gangtoke Gondogol is not the one who also wrote Gorillar GograshHounduraser Hahakar and Koral Kumbhir. So it was not unusual that he settled on Maganlal Meghraj as name for this villain – one he would install in more than one of his famous detective stories. Unveiled in his novel Joy Baba Felunath, Maganlal became the villain who did not require detection. In a way, to bring nuance in taxonomy, Magalal was the villain while the story had a different criminal. Smuggler he was to start with – after all it was heady days of the profession when Ray wrote the book in the 1970s – but later graduated to crimes more befitting the status of international criminals. It was in connection of acquiring – illegally of course – and smuggling out a Ganesha figurine three inches tall that we first meet the man. An earthy criminal who went to college in Benaras, dropped out and hopped over to the darker side of life. He was not an expert at Mathematics and Astronomy as Professor Moriarty was. He engaged much more in brawn than in brain his rival, the super sleuth Prodosh “Felu” Mitter

Utpal Dutta playing Maganlal (left) and Ray's sketch (right)

Utpal Dutta playing Maganlal (left) and Ray’s sketch (right)

Bengali novelists have eschewed the idea of creating a super  villain like Conan Doyle did with Professor Moriarty. I guess it had to do something with predictability, which is a natural bane for a crime novel plot. Undeterred by tradition, Ray broke away from this arrangement with a flair that a master story teller like him only could muster. Maganlal Meghraj, in his full glory, appears in two novels and in both his character helps develop the part of the plot that is predictable and in a final twist intersects the interests of the criminal who gets detected (and identified) at the climax. The phrase “full glory” is important as Maganlal made a third appearance in a later novel – Golapi Mukto Rahashya. I wonder what made Ray introduce him in that story – like Ray’s story telling ability, Maganlal too by then was a spent force (very interestingly another Bengali crime novel legend, Saradindu Bandopadhay, creator of Byomkesh Bakshi, brought one of his villains back after four years. Anukul, the cocaine dealer of “Satyanneshi” reappears again in “Uposhanghar“. Curious coincidence between two generation of crime writers in Bengali literature). But back to Maganlal

Maganlal exudes the feeling one gets touching a block of steel in winter. He rarely gets angry – except at his own people. For a smuggler operating from his gaddi in Benaras he has a pretty decent sense of humor. His threats are not those that bring roofs down and yet in both appearances he manages to put across not just a verbal threat but actually caused not physical but deep psychological damage to the detective. In both occasions he does not pick the detective – Felu – to inflict the wound. Why pick someone same size? This is crime, not some egalitarian make belief world where all battles have to be fought to a code. This is the winding dark alleys of Benaras and dimly light rooms – be it his own (Joy Baba Felunath) or a suite in a five star hotel (Joto Kando Kathmandute). The intent is to maximize damage, hitting out a debilitating blow at an emotional spot of vulnerability. Topshe, Felu’s cousin got into this business being his assistant out of his own desire to be associated with adventure. He is young, energetic, sharp. Lalmohan Ganguly on the other hand does not belong to the family and yet his dedication to Felu borders on reverence. He is elder to Felu, not the athletic kind and has that docile North Calcutta middle-class attitude that only middle aged North Calcutta middle-class citizens of the 1970s would relate to. It is set up such that Felu is almost expected to protect the elderly novelist in his adventures – like he would sleep on the floor of a train and offer the seat to Jatayu when he knew they would be attacked that night (Shonar Kella). What better target then than “unkel”, as Maganlal would call Lalmohan? Call it premonition or clairvoyance, Lalmohan was also the one who was convinced that Maganlal was plotting something evil – like poisoning their cool drink. Hit the vulnerable man – in front of his protector. Maximize damage. Point a gun at the helpless detective and have a geriatric, arthritic, retired knife thrower throw six consecutive rusty blades at the man, who we come to know had fainted somewhere midway through the grotesque experience. Some years later, as Mr. Meghraj gets out of jail and shifts operations to Nepal, a small bit of Lisergic Acid Dithylamide (or LSD) goes via a sugar cube into the tea that he serves to the elderly novelist at the hotel suite of this cult villain of Bengali literature, leading to a night of hilarious hallucinations and pain for Lalmohan Ganguly. In the first instance the detective was rendered helpless and in the second clueless as the mastermind executed his devious plans. But all crimes have retribution. Revenge is often advised to be savored cold. Felu did not believe in that doctrine – for him getting even was a matter of restoring balance in the equation between the good and the bad. It also was about restoring faith in the simple man who was unnecessarily wronged

Utpal Dutta immortalized the cult villain on screen

Utpal Dutta immortalized the cult villain on screen

Interestingly, revenge was never part of the script in the book that marked Maganlal’s debut as a villain. It was simple in Joy Baba Felunath – the known villain (Maganlal) is caught and handed over to the police and then there is this all-hands climax meeting where the bad-guy-in-veils (Bikash Sinha) is identified. When Ray made a film out of this story, it called for more drama. Maganlal was pinned with his back to a wall and Felu Mitter, disguised in a menacing red robe as the fraudulent Godman (yet another significant departure from the book) pulls out his Colt and fires six shots around the villain much like how the knives had been hurled at the elderly novelist earlier. And like Jatayu, Maganlal faints halfway through this ordeal adding to the sense to balance that the detective wanted restored in his world. This gave Ray a template to play with. By the time he wrote Joto Kando Kathmandute, his readers all had seen the film (some several times over). There was nothing wrong for Felu to now punish his arch rival right there in the book, in a manner identical to how his friend Lalmohan was attacked by Maganlal. Thus just before the climax, Felu makes a dash to Pig Alley, one of the drug underbellies of Kathmandu, procures something that he makes Maganlal consume right after he has unmasked the mystery. Prudently, the detective seals Meghraj’s mouth with tape after inserting the sugar cube laced with the same LSD that Jatayu was fed a few days previously. Revenge might be nice when served cold but some dishes make for better eating when piping hot

No chronicle of Maganlal Meghraj can be complete without mention of the actor who immortalized him on screen. Utpal Dutta worked with Ray for only a handful of his movies, starting with Jana Aranya in 1976. Two years later, in 1978, Utpal-babu played Maganlal Meghraj in Joy Baba Felunath. Quite adept at playing overt villains in both Hindi and Bengali mainstream films, Utpal-babu brought the character to life. His diction – speaking flawless hindi and bengali with an overt twang of hindi – was just what one came to expect from a crook with operations in Barrabazar and Benaras. Utpal-babu reappeared again in 1986 as Maganlal when Ray’s son, Sandip, made Joto Kando Kathmandute as a television serial in Hindi, named Kissa Kathmandu Ka. Less said about that the better – clearly even royal villains have their sell by dates

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