Visiting ‘The Zoo’
Posted by bangalnama on April 19, 2009
Even before I attempt to start the review of ‘Chiriakhana’, let me give the following disclaimer: I am a big fan of Byomkesh Bakshi, Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, Satyajit Ray and Uttam Kumar. And I think the only time these four Bengali stalwarts (albeit one of them fictional) came together, it resulted in a flawed but fascinating film – perhaps the first Bengali cult film.
(An aside: I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritties of what a “cult film” is, at least in this review. Cult films merit an entire write-up for themselves, which I may start on if my lethargy permits me to.)
The film begins with an interior shot of Byomkesh Bakshi’s apartment, the camera looking out through an open window towards a bustling Calcutta street. As the titles start to appear, the camera begins to move lovingly over the room, picking up a bizarre accumulation of macabre and offbeat knick-knacks, including an entire human skeleton (why would a private detective… oops, a “Satyanweshi” need a skeleton, anyway?) and some weird posters on the wall like ‘POCKETMAAR HOITE SABDHAN’, ‘FIXED PRICE’, ‘PRAPTOBOYOSKO-DER JONYE’, ‘NO VACANCY’, etc. In no interview I’ve read had Ray been asked the significance of these slogans, so I can only guess: does Byomkesh moonlight as a sign-painter when the crime business goes slow? Are these banners samples of his practice sessions with the brush? Alas, such fanciful conjectures are all we have.
Anyway, on to the movie. During these gliding shots of the room, we hear a telephone ringing, and the voice of Byomkesh Bakshi (Uttam Kumar) answering it. Now, this is a very witty touch – and one of the few Ray-isms I really like in this movie – that the call is not for the detective. It is actually a wrong number – Ray’s subtle way of telling us that characters like Byomkesh are out of the mainstream, and are only contacted by people when they need them (as we shall see soon afterward), or by mistake.
Finally, we see Byomkesh Bakshi himself. Clad in a white kurta-pajama, he’s slumped on a chair, playing with his pet baby python ‘Basuki’. And here lies my first beef with this movie: as symbolisms go, this is too crude. We know that Byomkesh is another name for Shiva, but to drive the point home by putting a snake in his hand is silly. This is an extraneous element added by none other than director Ray himself (doubling as scriptwriter, like in all his other films). And not the last one, either.
From the conversation between Byomkesh and his friend/chronicler Ajit (another good performance by the underrated Shailen Mukherjee), we get to know that no case has come Byomkesh’s way recently. Of course, such premonitory dialogue usually means that a case will soon be hatched – or else, we won’t have a story.
As expected, just minutes later a client arrives – and straight out of a 1930s’ Hollywood film noir, wearing a raincoat and dark glasses. He is Nishanath Sen (played by filmmaker Sushil Majumdar), a retired judge and the current owner of a nursery-cum-dairy farm in the countryside, known as ‘Golap Colony’. To emphasize this fact, Ray makes him present a fresh rose (“golap” in Bengali) to Byomkesh – yet another crude touch. (What would he have given Byomkesh if he were the director of a leper colony?) After the usual chit-chat, he leaves. And Byomkesh has a case. Before delving into that, I present two more oddities that arise out of this scene:
– Byomkesh mentions Ajit’s surname as ‘Chakraborty’ (in the books by Sharadindu, he’s autobiographically ‘Bandyopadhyay’), and mentions him as married (in the books, he’s not). Why these two minor changes that add nothing to the story?
– We see Ajit making coffee for their guest, and Byomkesh mentions this as the norm in their place, yet we see later that they have a servant – the legendary Pnutiram – whom Byomkesh sends outside for buying snacks. Why doesn’t he make the coffee for them, then? Yet another mystery (but not the kind we’d like to see).
Anyway, the case; rather, there are two cases. Firstly, Mr. Sen wants Byomkesh to visit Golap Colony for a reason he doesn’t disclose, and he also asks Byomkesh to dig out the details of the song ‘Bhalobasar Tumi Ki Jaano?’ (What Do You Know Of Love?), which was a popular film soundtrack some seven years back.
(All this is very good. But there are touches that Ray has put in here to prove Byomkesh’s versatility as a detective, and they come off as nothing but stupid. For instance, Byomkesh tries to startle Mr. Sen by exclaiming that he must have been a Lucknow-resident at one time, and from what? A big maker’s tag on the inside of the latter’s raincoat. Is this a joke?)
Next, Byomkesh visits Ramen Mallik (Jahar Ganguly), who is known as “The Encyclopaedia Of Cinema” in certain circles, to get info on that song. Mr. Mallik, as in the story, is one of those descendants of “Baboo-Culture” – in other words, a chubby North Calcutta aristocrat, with a taste for (in his own words) “good wine, good films, and good women”. Clichéd, and shoehorned in just for the script’s sake. In the novel, he served another crucial purpose (more on that later); but in the movie, Ray removes that angle and renders him just as an expository narrator. He tells Byomkesh all that he knows about the song, including the story of the actress Sunayana who had sung it herself and was involved in the murder of Mr. Mallik’s friend Murari Dutta, a jewellery scion. Byomkesh confesses that he doesn’t remember the case (A detective doesn’t remember a sensational murder mystery happening in his city only a few years back? Conan Doyle must have been turning in his grave by this point.), and thanks Mr. Mallik for his cooperation. He also shares a glass of whiskey with him, while Ajit meekly sips lassi. What does this prove? That Byomkesh is liberal a la ‘Young Bengal’, while Ajit is traditional? If yes, why? If no, what?
The next day, Byomkesh sets off for Golap Colony disguised as a Japanese horticulturist named Okakura, while Ajit (in a very theatrical beard) tags along as his interpreter. This would have been ideal in a farcical story, but here it looks pathetic. And Uttam Kumar’s jerky way of walking doesn’t help matters either. Anyway, as soon as they arrive at the station, they start meeting the Colony’s inmates, and Byomkesh starts clicking their pictures with a box-camera (though the photographs we see later don’t suggest that they were taken from the angles shown here).
Byomkesh and Ajit reach the Colony in a horse-drawn carriage steered by the resident coachman Mushkil Miyan (Nripati Chatterjee), and immediately get a run-through of the inmates. Most notable among them are Damayanti Devi (Kanika Majumdar), Mr. Sen’s wife, Bijoy (Shubhendu Chatterjee), his nephew, Professor Nepal Gupta (Prasad Mukherjee), a scarred ex-scientist, Banolokkhi (Gitali Roy), a wayward woman, and Dr. Bhujangadhar Das – the villain of the story. Unlike in the novel, where he was a smooth criminal with a ready wit and charming manners, he comes off as a very unimpressive man here (as played by Shyamal Ghoshal who, ironically, was a police officer in real life). And here we get the second mystery: somebody has been sending Mr. Sen pieces of an automobile engine for some weeks now. An attempt by Byomkesh to pin it as blackmail is pooh-poohed by Mr. Sen himself.
And from that night, the murders start.
As Mr. Sen talks with Byomkesh on the phone, he is killed by a cosh-wielding black-gloved person straight out of a Dario Argento movie. A drastic change from the murder as written by Sharadindu – but admittedly, the original modus operandi, as spine-chilling as it looks on paper, would have been even cruder on film.
The next day, Byomkesh visits the Colony again – but this time in his own identity. Ajit’s with him also, which to me looks suicidal: the bearded interpreter and the normal self of Ajit look totally similar (not to mention that Okakura and Byomkesh Bakshi look suspiciously similar, too). Anybody with a little grey matter (let alone a super-criminal) would be instantly on his guard to see the same man visiting his home on two subsequent days – once in disguise. Ironically, for a movie that stresses on disguises and hidden identities (by both the good and evil characters), the make-up jobs are pretty loud.
The second murder takes place that night: that of Panugopal (Chinmoy Roy), a mute cowhand of the Colony, just as he starts writing an incriminating letter to Byomkesh about the first murder (a coincidence straight out of Bollywood). Although he’s killed in the same way as Mr. Sen, I like the depiction of this murder more for one particular shot: just before the murder takes place, the camera tracks in on the close-up of the frightened eye of a buffalo tethered nearby. A classic noir touch – and the best shot in the movie. But this sequence raises its own questions:
– Why would a killer go around with a weapon in the colony, with police-posting all around?
– How come a common cowhand like Panugopal (an invalid, nonetheless) writes such excellent Bengali? His handwriting is enviably good.
Then all the expositions come flooding in – first Brajodas (Bankim Ghosh), another Colony man, reveals to Byomkesh that Damayanti is actually a Punjabi woman, and is not even the wife of Mr. Sen, but the wife of Laal Singh (Shekhar Chatterjee in a superfluous cameo), a person sentenced by Mr. Sen. Apart from the fact that this incident doesn’t have any bearing on the crime (except for the blackmail subplot, which is handled awkwardly), the flashback sequences are shot and acted woodenly, straight out of a Sukhen Das film.
Then comes a lengthy interrogation scene, where Byomkesh gets his first clue. As clues go, this one is straight out of a Shilling Shocker. Just from an out-of-place word spoken by Banolokkhi, Byomkesh deduces that she’s not what she seems to be. However, I like the way Byomkesh adopts a rural accent while interrogating Mushkil Miyan’s wife Nazar Bibi (Subrota Chatterjee) to put her at ease. Another good Ray-ism, rare in this film.
Then, Byomkesh dons a second disguise to follow Dr. Das through the streets of Calcutta. And what get-up does he use? That of a Kabuliwallah! How effective a disguise would this be in the streets of 1960s’ Calcutta, given that Uttam Kumar’s face is not at all Semitic? And Kabuliwallahs may be common, but not commoners. I mean, everyone notices a Kabuliwallah – especially Tagore fans. Let me digress here for a moment, as this is my biggest pet peeve at the movie: in the original novel, Sharadindu made Byomkesh dress up as an Anglo-Indian in a threadbare suit, which was a perfect blending look in the post-World War cosmopolitan Calcutta of the 1940s. By changing the disguise to that of a Kabuliwallah in a latter chronological period, Ray does all Byomkesh fans a disservice. And worst of all is the scene where Byomkesh gets rid of his disguise behind a shack, and comes out wearing shirt and trousers. You mean he was wearing all that under the Kabuli’s costume? And why did he throw them away? Aren’t the clothes expensive (not to mention the false beard)? And for what? So that he can seduce a prostitute – a tenant in a house owned by Dr. Das. All this exposition is conveyed to us via some extremely wooden English dialogue between Byomkesh and the said prostitute. There’s a scene here which hints at mild BDSM (wonder if the contemporary censors noticed it), and the camera-work is positively pedestrian. And the “pickpocket” sequence is too comic to be even mildly thrilling.
Now comes the obligatory climax – a scene common to every whodunnit where the detective assembles everyone involved, and explains how the crime was committed, and who committed it. And here, the novel’s romanticism is replaced by a petty cynicism. In the original story, Dr. Das and Banolokkhi (a post-plastic-surgery Sunayana), who’s actually his wife, supported each other through the end, and committed a double suicide in front of everybody to escape the law. I admit, this scene is over-the-top even on paper (Sharadindu himself uses the term “Hollywoodish” as an weak excuse), but what do we get in the film? The man and the woman start blaming each other – like any bickering middle-aged Bengali couple. Come on, this is a thriller, after all! No one likes the villain of the piece to be smaller-than-life. This final mutilation of the persona of the novel’s über-antagonist is simply unpardonable.
Okay, here comes the final and the most important question: why did Ray mutilate an wonderful whodunnit to such an extent? A detective story is like a house of cards, with the events being the cards themselves. Remove one of the initial cards, and the whole house comes crashing down – which has happened here. Let me jot down a few changes that have worsened the result:
– In the novel, Mr. Sen was killed not because Byomkesh visited the Colony, but because Ramen Mallik went alongwith. The villains knew that Mr. Mallik was the friend of one of their victims; hence the hasty murder. In the film, the reason for the killing simply doesn’t exist. Why kill the patron after the visit of a Japanese horticulturist? Or did Dr. Das see through Byomkesh’s disguise? That again hints at Byomkesh’s incompetence.
– In the novel, Laal Singh was already dead, but both Mr. Sen and Damayanti were unaware of this. The villains were taking advantage of this knowledge to blackmail Damayanti. In the film, we can see that Laal Singh is alive and well, and is merrily blackmailing his own wife. And then……….. he gets caught. What’s the purpose?
– In the final incrimination, Byomkesh states that since he cannot prove the Mr. Sen and Panugopal were murdered by Dr. Das, he will see them tried for the earlier murder of Murari Dutta (with the help of evidence collected from Dr. Das’s house). Here, Ray wisely sidesteps the issue by letting the killers babble out their culpability in a final spousal betrayal. A cheap shot, I must say.
Finally, I conclude by saying that this film reminds me of Michelangelo’s magnificent fresco ‘The Last Judgement’, which was overpainted by latter artists to “improve” it. But where they left it untouched, Michelangelo’s genius shines through. Replace ‘Michelangelo’ with ‘Sharadindu’, and ‘latter artists’ with ‘Satyajit Ray’, and you shall get my feeling towards ‘Chiriakhana’ the movie.
-by Avik Kumar Maitra