I knew the world created by his grandfather long before I stepped into the world of Satyajit Ray (2 May 1921 – 23 April 1992). As a child I had memorized many of the books by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (URC) because I had read them over and over again. URC was an accomplished writer, painter, violin player and composer, technologist and entrepreneur. He was the grandfather who wrote story books for children. Tuntunir Boi with its illustrations, coupled with the version of Ramayan and Mahabharat that he had written for children were some of the earliest books I read. The children’s monthly magazine Sandesh that URC started in 1913 always had the best of stories and drawings. I got introduced to Ray’s iconic sleuth Feluda through the pages of Sandesh magazine.
All Bengalis have nick names. So did the detective Pradosh Chandra Mitter. We all know him better as Feluda whose stories were narrated by his sidekick “Topshe” short for Tapesh Ranjan Mitra. I knew all the trivia around this detective. Feluda was tall, ambidextrous, a quiet brooding man who smoked Charminar cigarettes and had a sharp eye for details. He wrote his notes in English but used the Greek alphabet. His weapon of choice was the Colt .32 snub nosed New Police Detective Special, manufactured in 1958. Each story was set in a different city, full of historical trivia and wonderful sketches done by Ray. The third character in the story was Lal Mohan Ganguly better known as “Jatayu”. While Feluda was the sleuth who solved all the unsolvable mysteries, Topshe and Jatayu were integral characters without whom Feluda’s charm would be lost. He joined Feluda in the sixth adventure and remained there till Indrajal Rahasya. That was the last adventure of Feluda penned by Ray.
Ray was meticulous in his documentation. The Feluda stories were all written in notebooks bought at the Oxford Bookstore set in Park Street of Kolkata. That was his routine. When the tall, lanky 6’4” Ray would walk in to the store, the routine was familiar. He would pick up a few books and then ask for the dark hard cover note books which had the word “Notes” embossed in gold. Everyone in the shop recognized that tall man with a deep baritone. The Feluda stories were all written in these note books until 1991.
The first Feluda story appeared in these note books in 1965. From 1972, Ray started putting the date when he started a new story and also marked the date when he would complete the story. A short story would be completed in anything from two to five days. A novella would take as little as three days and a full length novel would need six days of writing or at most about thirty three days.
The Feluda stories first showed up on celluloid with Sonar Kella made in 1974. The sixth adventure of Feluda was written by Ray in 1971. The film was set against the backdrop of the fort in the city of Jaisalmer that was built in the twelfth century. Feluda chases the two villains who have abducted a young child who recalls living in a golden fort in his previous birth. The yellow sandstone walls of the Jaisalmer fort glow in the light of the setting sun camouflaged in the yellow desert. What an unforgettable cinematic moment.
The second cinematic adventure of Feluda was Joy Baba Felunath. It was set in the city of Varanasi. Complete with the shots of the bathing ghats, sadhus and the serpentine lanes, Benaras seemed like the most logical setting for the villain Maganlal Meghraj’s den. The villain employs a geriatric knife thrower to drive fear in the heart of the viewer. Utpal Dutt’s performance as Maganlal Meghraj is understated and unforgettable. The moment you see him on screen you need to hide behind Feluda who is the only one who is staring back at the villain as he engages in a battle of the mind. Just as Gabbar Singh the character will always be associated with only one actor – Amjad Khan; Maganlal Meghraj is inextricably linked to Utpal Dutt. Feluda to me will always be personified by Soumitro Chatterjee.
Ray directed 36 films, including feature films and documentaries. He was also a fiction writer, publisher, illustrator, calligrapher, graphic designer and film critic. The Apu Trilogy appears in the Time magazine’s All-Time 100 greatest films made since 1923. He was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1985 and received the Bharat Ratna and an honorary Oscar shortly before he passed away on 23rd April 1992. Enough has been written about his impact on world cinema. I have been deeply influenced by his approach to telling stories and his sketches that accompanied each one of the adventures of Feluda. Twenty one years ago Feluda stopped telling us about his adventures. Summer vacations have never been the same.
My blog with Times of India <click here>