Sunday, April 24, 2011

Free Book Giveaway: Flight of the Hilsa.

Who doesn't like free books?

On the occasion of World Book Day (23rd April), Bookreview and Book Readers Lounge jointly bring to you, an exciting, Flight of the Hilsa Giveaway Contest.

Win Author signed copies of 'Flight of the Hilsa' by Amit Shankar. It is a book that explores and demystifies the definition of happiness.

What do you need to do?

Head over to this link for details:

As per Democritus, (460? - 370? BC) "Happiness resides not in possessions and not in gold, the feeling of happiness dwells in the soul."

Therefore, no one is in control of your happiness but you.

And as Hafiz of Persia said, "Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you." Who knows?

Enjoy the Hilsa and don't fish for happiness. Be the Hilsa instead!

Photograph: The book jacket cover of 'Flight of the Hilsa'. Picture courtesy: link.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Flight of the Hilsa by Amit Shankar.

When Booklover enquired if I would like to read and review "Flight of the Hilsa", I was more than glad... and the Hilsa bit had nothing to do with it, I assure you! Do not be misled by the book title. It is not about fishes and there is nothing fishy about it either.

This is advertising professional-turned-author Amit Shankar's debut novel. While Hilsas don't fly, "Flight of the Hilsa" took off on the 28th of October 2010, and in less than 5 weeks, headed for a re-print. Blame it on the pujo season (Durga Pujo and Kali Pujo) and the insatiable affinity of Bengalis towards fish! For the "Bangals" (i.e., Bengali folks whose ancestors trace back to East Bengal, present Bangladesh) the Hilsa or Ilish Maach is the only way to Nirvana. And only they know how to negotiate their way through this tasty mine-field of fish thorns. But then, it is the thorns, which imparts the lessons, not the rose. But I digress.

Hilsa is the metaphor for happiness and satisfaction. What is happiness? How does one achieve it? And more importantly, keep it? How does one measure happiness and satisfaction? Isn't personal satisfaction closely linked with happiness? Does success spawn satisfaction? A successful career, an astronomical paycheck, regular page 3 and media appearances, flaunting branded stuffs - clothes, perfume, shoes, and handbag - does all that lead to the elusive satisfaction? Or is happiness and satisfaction a state of mind for which we have to look deep within our souls? Aakhir satisfaction kis chidiya ka naam hai? Well, read the book to find out.

Published by Vitasta, the book is called "Flight of the Hilsa" because Amit finds inspiration in the fish flowing against the tide to lay eggs in fresh water and then returning to the sea. "It does its job to the best of ability but doesn't crave for 'results'." Well, nothing else can better exemplify Lord Shri Krishna's immortal words from the Bhagavad-Gita (Chapter II-47):

"Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani."

Meaning: "Thy business is with the action only, never with its fruits; so let not the fruits of action be thy motive, nor be thou to inaction attached." In short: "Do your duty and leave the rest to God."

How simple and how relevant, even today! I think if Bhagavad-Gita is universally renowned as the jewel of India's spiritual wisdom, it is because of Karma Yog. You rarely find books (including spiritual texts and discourses by Gurus) laying emphasis on doing one’s work/duty. That's exactly what Shri Krishna says here. Always do your best without expecting the results and you will be happy. Beautiful words indeed, no?

The Storyline: "Flight of the Hilsa" explores and demystifies the definition of happiness while tracing the story of the protagonist, Avantika Sengupta. This is her journey. Avi to her friends, she is the quintessential bohemian artsy-type complete with purani jeans, Fabindia khadi kurtis, kajal, jootis and a jhola. A graduate of Delhi School of Art she aspires to be a renowned painter. But even her best efforts fail to generate the footfalls in exhibitions or conjure up enough interest among buyers, critics and art connoisseurs... except for 2 people who unfailingly buy them.

A decade of painting and no success frustrates her and nicotine from the navy cut provides some relief... apart from keema-pav and cutting chai. She doesn't eat Hilsa but relishes prawn, which makes her a full-blooded "Ghoti" (i.e., Bengali folks who are originally from West Bengal) I tell you! *wink*

She is dating her Punjabi boyfriend Sunny Khurana, the scion of a business magnate, for 8 years. Khurana Sr. is quite decent while Mrs. Khurana - a socialite - who attends expensive seminars in Switzerland for the upliftment of the poor and the needy, has a very condescending attitude. She reminded me of Kareena Kapoor's fiancé in '3 Idiots' - the one she dumped for Phunsukh Wangdu.

Avantika comes from a dysfunctional family headed by a gallant VSM, AVSM father. Her childhood experiences have made her cynical, volatile... and a non-believer in the institution of marriage. While her best friend cum agony aunt Shweta is married into yet another well-heeled business family - to the owner of the kaddu like lower-half Prashant Khemka, and finds Sunny to be 'perfect husband material'. Avi hates 'Panjoos' - slang for 'Punjabis' - with a vengeance. Bengalis aren't so rabid about 'Punjabis' - they wear them instead! Yes, the kurta worn by Bengali men on special occasions is called 'Panjabi'. It does not figure among Fabindia merchandise of course!

Most of the chapters are named after popular English song titles... perhaps to mirror Avantika's love for music. She is crazy about Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Led Zepp and Deep Purple. She is addicted to the iPod that helps her to shut out the shorsharaba of the outside world most of the time. But a Bengali - even a 'probashi Bangali' - who does not worship at the altar of the great poet laureate Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore! Not done Avantika! Bengalis - both "Bangals" and "Ghotis" will shake their collective heads and say "Shobbonash" in unison. [Actual: Shorbonash. Meaning: utter disaster] *wink* Especially, since we are in the midst of celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore. [Note: Probashi Bangali: Bengalis who stay a few grass fields away from Bengal; may be in Delhi, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Orissa, Assam or thousands of miles away in New York, London and Berlin].

As the story rolls along, Avantika goes through a whole gamut of emotions and experiences (with a variety of whales and sharks nattily dressed in business suits) and begins to understand the difference between a good painter and a successful one. Which one does she prefer? What choices does she make? Does she learn to use and abuse people or is it the other way round? How far is she ready to go to realize her dreams? How far are we ready to go to realize our dreams?

It's the choice that we make in our lives which goes on to define our existence. True. But do we make those choices or vice versa? There is truth behind the saying that it's lonely at the top. But it's not just lonely at the top; it can be 'disengaging,' too. What happens when one lacks or loses inspiration? Does one all but retire on the job? After all, one of the first rules of success is to do what you enjoy. It's taken for granted that top executives have found the magic, or surely they would have flamed out somewhere short of the summit. One may put in the time, but not the heart. What happens then?

The conversations between Avi and the design expert Francois Lancolne are quite engaging and insightful. Especially the one about 'falling stars'. What happens if the spark is missing?

Then, one fine day Avi meets the mysterious 'boat guy' - Captain - 20 years her senior, curly haired - more salt than pepper, weather beaten face and bright shining eyes. He becomes her mentor and guide - her Captain - too. Their interactions will hold your attention. For they are simple yet deep, profound yet philosophical and provide a lot of management and life’s lesson succinctly. Their relationship is not difficult to fathom but difficult to put a name to (like that of Sid and Tara Jaiswal in the path breaking 'Dil Chahta Hai').

Perhaps it has shades of Amrita Pritam and Imroze too. A bit.

Captain was there for her when she needed him - during her health scare, when she was broke financially and emotionally, when she lacked confidence... all the time, every single time. Caring and affectionate, providing her the strength and advice, holding her hand and gently steering her through her troubles. He left everything for her without a second thought. Avantika pays him back handsomely of course. She takes him for granted, abuses him with words and deeds and hurts him to his core, immeasurably. Is success blind? Or does it prefer to have a blinkered vision?

But then what goes around comes around, no? The bubble bursts, the dream turns into a nightmare and the ground shifts from beneath her feet. A shocked, shaken, teary eyed and remorseful Avantika turns to her Captain. Will he answer her frantic "O Captain! My Captain!" cries? Will Avantika Sengupta aka Avi triumph over Ms. Sen? Read the book to find out.

Suggestions: Few characters/events could be pruned out of the plot, e.g., Partho Sengupta. The whole Naxalite angle serves no purpose except for eating up space. The shenanigan of Prashant and Shweta's decision was a straight lift from the movie 'Page 3'. It does not add anything to the plot except a sense of déjà vu. Colonel Sengupta and his mistress Simi are painted pitch black. Some shades of gray would have been better. Though Col. Sengupta gets some redemption, only a wee bit, he is too violent for my taste. Avantika comes across as too cynical, too brusque and too volatile. Perhaps even as an opportunist. A selfish one at that! [See! More 'fish', she certainly is a Bengali *wink*]. She reminded me of the legendary Suchitra Sen's character in 'Saat Paake Bandha' (1963), regarded as one of the all-time great films of Bengali cinema. It was re-made in Hindi as 'Kora Kaagaz' (1974) but the original is definitely cinematically superior.

Also the whole hypno-therapy and past life regression bit is underdone. The Queen and the general part piqued my interest and for a moment raised visions of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Methinks... Liz Taylor had she not moved on in the afterlife would have definitely sued Avantika for being the pretender! After all, Avi being Avi still goes ahead and does what she did to the Captain in spite of being aware of their past life connection. So, this Kismet Connection bit fails to connect. And the last page reminded me of 'Lagaan'. Not sure why though. Also Avi's 'evolved Bengali genes' seems to have missed the strain of romance. Cholbe Na! Errr... Ratan Tata might prefer 'Cholbe Nano' instead!

My Rating: 3.75/5. A great debut novel! But a little less cynicism, a dash of romanticism, less violence, pruning out of the unnecessary events and characters... would have fully satiated the fiction loving epicurean in me. Enjoy the Hilsa and don't fish for happiness. Be the Hilsa instead.

The book feels good to hold and the printer's devil has not been able to do much damage. The language flows smoothly; exuding a languid charm and pulls you into the narrative while the book jacket cover is vibrant and radiates a cool energy. It makes you want to read the book.

I look forward to Amit's future writings with interest.

Details of the book: Flight of the Hilsa/ Author: Amit Shankar/ Publisher: Vitasta Publishing/ Edition: 2010/ Language: English/ ISBN: 9380828138 / ISBN-13: 9789380828138, 978-9380828138/ Bookbinding: Paperback/ Price: Rs. 245 (Rs. 208 on Flipkart)/ No. of pages: 336.

Photograph: The book jacket cover of 'Flight of the Hilsa'. Picture courtesy: link.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review: The Long Road by Dr. Vivek Banerjee.

'The Long Road' is the debut novel of Dr. Vivek Banerjee who also writes on Rediff blogs where he is known as Ben. It is a tale of doctors, by a doctor but by no means exclusively for doctors.

The protagonists are all doctors who are studying to acquire higher qualifications. That the good doctor is a Hindi movie buff is amply clear given the mention of a famous water tank scene from an iconic movie. Two of his protagonists are namesakes of actors - Dr. Rahul Roy (remember the 'Aashiqui' guy?) and Dr. Priyanshu Chatterjee (remember the doe-eyed chap from 'Tum Bin'?) It is another matter that yours truly feels that the 'Tum Bin' guy can fit into the role of the super sleuth - Feluda - a creation of the versatile genius Satyajit Ray, provided he lost some weight and underwent a makeover. But I digress.

The book feels good to hold; the language flows smoothly and at only 176 pages makes for a breezy read. The chapters are short... much like the pages of a diary... and give the impression that one is reading the book faster than one actually is. However, some tighter editing would help keep the printer's devil at bay and make the journey smoother.

'The Long Road' tells the story of 5 residents with high ideals, passion, and energy... in a difficult and demanding profession. Each has a different motivation to choose this profession and the area of specialization. The story talks about how these 5 young doctors face several trials and tribulations to fight a constant battle against diseases and death of patients... while winning some and losing some and the subsequent psychological highs and the mental lows associated with them. There are romantic subplots yet it attempts to bring out the lives of people who are regarded as God's representatives on earth - but who are actually only too human, with families, lives, dreams and emotions of their own. So, if you think doctors remain unaffected by their 'cases' errr 'subjects' (remember Munna Bhai MBBS?) - think again.

All the blood and gore of operations fade away while they rejoice in the heady feeling of having conducted their first surgery. A joy felt by non-medicos too. For a techie it is having completed a project or the first product release, for example.

The fact that the author himself belongs to the medical fraternity gives him the edge to write authoritatively and knowledgeably about procedures and diagnosis while using the right medical terminology. To his credit he does all that in a language simple enough for a non-medico like me to understand and does not overwhelm the reader with medical jargon. TLR gives us a peep into the world of doctors - a glimpse of the pressures of being in a medical college and the long and grueling hours - studying and working - that doctors need to dedicate... to be an expert in their respective fields. It certainly makes our respect for the people in the white coat go up a few notches.

The first 60-70 odd pages where the characters were introduced and subsequent events narrated are quite well done. Thereafter the plot turns a bit too simplistic, too pristine, too clinical, and too antiseptic. Blame it on Dr. Banerjee's profession! *wink* And titles like 'A surprise encounter', 'An unpleasant encounter', 'Prof. Patil to the rescue'; 'An unexpected shock', 'Hina gives up' just kills the suspense and dilutes the interest. Which is not done. There is even an 'All is well'. The perfectionist Khan would be happy, for sure!

The latter part of TLR gives a feeling that the author was trying to attempt a Karan Johar gharana with this book. Everything is picture perfect and well choreographed. Difficult times and times of distress included. Ummm... very KJo-ish I would say. The American dream is too clichéd and there is no surprise element as to why it no longer remains a dream/turns into a nightmare for Dr. Sagarika. Her reaction when she 'finds out' is very, very filmy and one fails to sympathize with her 'naïveté'. Actually TLR reminded me of 'Dill Mill Gayye' - a TV serial (on Star One) that follows the lives of interns and resident doctors of Sanjeevani. And 'Sanjeevani' is the name of a hospital in the book and the prequel to 'Dill Mill Gayye'!

Much like the serial, the book starts off with the introduction of 5 residents. Dr. Rahul Roy, son of Brigadier Roy is the happy-go-lucky type who has been dumped after a nearly 5-year romance by Dr. Sarika Mehra. Dr. Roy is traveling to Mumbai and Grant Medical College with a mission. Dr. Sarika is ambitious, focused and totally career oriented, or so she thinks. Dr. Hina Sheikh is a misfit... coming as she does from a lower middle class family living in a one roomed house above a mosque in the bylanes of Bhiwandi. Dr. Ranjiv Pathak is the total opposite - very upper class and a rebel without a cause who too is on a mission in Grant Medical College, Mumbai. We do not get much info on the 5th resident - Dr. Sagarika Ghosh except that she isn't very ambitious, belongs to a middle class family and has an American dream. She appears intermittently in the plot... and mostly through her emails.

Does opposites attract? Sure it does! Much like 'Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Naa'. Yet they all manage to remain friends. Which is fine.

What I was unable to understand is how Irfaan - Hina's elder Bhaijaan - barely literate and working in a local cotton loom is able to support her through medical college. While we are told that the family lived in a one-room house above a mosque and barely managed to make ends meet. Perhaps an education loan or a grant from some trust may have sounded more credible. [On page 22 we get to know that Irfaan who volunteered to pay Hina's tuition fee for four and half years of medical college - MBBS - had just started working. While on page 21 we read that he is married as well. Errr... did I miss something?]

Hina's quick transformation is believable but her reaction after her Bhaijaan's outburst is very Bollywoodish. We find that she did not go home for several months... to avoid facing her family... who would have justifiably been shocked at her metamorphosis. But apparently the siblings have been very close all their life. So, it is strange that Irfaan discovers her one fine day riding pillion with her 'good friend' while it never occurs to him to pay his beloved younger sister a visit in so many months!

That a family like that with rigid thoughts, values (Hina walked to her school covered from head to toe in a Burkha), little education and whose head of the family worked as a Maulvi in a mosque - calling the faithful for prayers five times a day - accepts Hina's decision without much ado (read: without any equal and opposite reaction) is (according to moi) akin to 'golper goru gache choreche' as they say in Bengali. Meaning: Cow in stories climb trees as well. That is, too much of a fairy tale or too far-fetched and very hypothetical to be true.

The book has some witty dialogues and the description of the goings on in the OT do not tax the brain - which is a feat in itself, but the drama, conflicts, surprise elements - to hold your attention - are underdone. They end quite abruptly and too quickly... leaving you biting into a somewhat soggy biscuit while expecting it to be crunchy.

Baba Ramdev finds a mention and so does Dr. Ben... perhaps taking a leaf out of Subhash Ghai's book! *grin*

Methinks... the receptionist bit was somewhat amateurish. Receptionists, secretaries, nurses and personal assistants have all been stereotyped for better or for worse, courtesy our films. It is simply too predictable. Dr. Sagarika's character could be pruned out of the plot... or it could be reworked to provide some intriguing third angle or a surprise element in the story. Even the 'potentially fatal accident' lacks emotional connect. With 26/11 as the backdrop a lot more could have happened/been done.

With the right mix: some taut drama, conflicts, surprise elements and a few heart tugging moments and by cutting out the deadwood - clichés and predictable events, this one could turn out to be a very good read. May not be in the league of the Erich Segal classic 'Doctors' but a very good read in its own right. A much meatier read.

My rating: 2.5/5. It is a feel good story and makes for a breezy, light read and at just Rs. 150/ it is light on the wallet too.

'The Long Road' should have been longer with some more content added to it and the journey need not have been so straight. But, for a debut author it is a fairly good attempt. Writing a story about doctors is not an easy matter but TLR held a lot more promise than it actually delivered. Dr. Banerjee can do much better. If you are a fan of feel good stories without complex twists and turns and are looking for a light read you could pick this one. KJo and Bollywood... where are you?

Details of Book: The Long Road/ Author: Dr. Vivek Banerjee/ Pages: 176/ ISBN: 8122311636/ ISBN-13: 9788122311631, 978-8122311631/ Publishing Date: 2010/ Publisher: Cedar Booka - Pustak Mahal/ Price: Rs. 150/- (paperback).

Photograph: Pic courtesy: link.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Feluda: Gorosthane Sabdhan!

Author's note: To read 'The Complete Adventures of Feluda (Vol I) by Satyajit Ray' please click here.

A disturbed grave in a centuries-old cemetery, a ciphered message and a mysterious 'repeater'... On a visit to the Park Street cemetery (founded in 1767) in Calcutta, Feluda and his friends chance upon an old grave that has been dug into. Slight clues lead them into the heart of a mystery that is both complex and fascinating. When the jigsaw that involves Marquis Godwin's dilapidated flat in a scary and gloomy old building on Ripon Street, a séance, a singer in a restaurant, a ruthless rich collector and a midnight vigil at the graveyard is put together, what emerges is one of the most intriguing mysteries Feluda has ever been faced with.

This is also the latest Feluda film to hit the marquee, and walks you through some glorious history of Calcutta (including showcasing the city's oldest photographic studio - Bourne & Shepherd, Gorosthan [the Park Street cemetery that has around 2000 graves but has not had a single burial for many years], the mausoleum of Job Charnock, traditionally regarded as the founder of the city of Calcutta, the tombs of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, the fiery Anglo-Indian teacher, poet, a radical thinker and freedom fighter who lived a rather short but a memorable life and played a major role in ushering modern ideology among the young generation of Calcutta; William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society, John Hyde, a judge famous for his papers and Rose Aylmer who inspired the poem of the same name by Walter Savage Landor and other heritage venues of Calcutta - not Kolkata mind you). It also introduces you to the 'Perigal Repeater'.

Sabyasachi Chakraborty once again essays the role of Feluda admirably - sophisticated, intelligent, sharp and mildly yet fashionably arrogant... in his own way. Bibhu Bhattacharya is back as Lalmohanbabu aka Jatayu. While chocolate-faced actor Saheb Bhattacharjee - son of famous footballer Subrata Bhattacharjee who is now a well-known football coach - is Topshe (previously played by Siddhartha Chatterjee, Saswata Chatterjee and Parambrata Chatterjee). Yes, all three Topshes were Chatterjees until Saheb arrived! While another Feluda series fixture veteran actor Haradhan Bandopadhyay is seen as 'Sidhu Jyatha'. The first Topshe who partnered Soumitra Chatterjee was Siddhartha Chatterjee - now a financial analyst in his own right. The next Topshe were Saswata Chatterjee and Parambrato Chatterjee. When Parambrato grew out of the character, director Sandip Ray's choice was the young and fresh-faced Shaheb Bhattacharjee... and he has done a great job.

The sparkling cameos performed by some of the best veteran actors boost up the ratings of the acting cast... with top marks going to Tinnu Anand as Godwin's gone-to-seed great-great-great grandson Marquis Godwin who, like his ancestor, has gambled away everything but a beautiful ivory casket that holds the secret to Thomas Godwin's grave. Pradip Mukherjee as Naren Biswas is subtle in his understatement of an important role, underwritten by feelings of failure and guilt. Subhashish Mukherjee as Girin Biswas, his younger brother, has a layered role and performs it to perfection. This actor who is usually seen in comic roles has packed an impressive performance that underlines his versatility and indicates his range as an actor. Dhritiman Chatterjee as Mahadeb Choudhury is theatrical and flamboyant but that is just what the character demands - showy, conceited, slighting of others and cold.

Satyajit Ray wrote this Feluda story in 1977. Sandip has relocated it by flashing it forward to 2010 and making the slightly necessary changes to the script... to fit it into the present time frame. The city has completely changed in the last 40 odd years. So a large number of descriptions from the book had to be suitably changed in the film. Thus, Blue Fox, the landmark restaurant, had to be replaced with another equally old restaurant on Park Street and the signature Ambassadors and Fiats on the city's streets have been replaced with modern cars.

The camera wanders around Kolkata. One discovers that the city of Kolkata with warts and all has evolved into a significant character in the film. Despite the time leap from story to film, the flavour of an old Kolkata comes back like an old gramophone record forgotten in some old shelf. But this Calcutta-Kolkata incorporates a sophisticated hospital, modern gizmos, a band playing at Trincas the old restaurant on Park Street that is still around, an Internet café Feluda steps into to Google-search some info, Seagull Bookstore in the southern parts of Kolkata, lunch hogged in a hurry at Chung Wah, a once-famous Chinese restaurant in central Calcutta, ending along the banks at Raichak, a new addition, and so on. All this is wonderfully portrayed with bytes of information flowing in naturally through Feluda's encyclopedic knowledge. The magic cinematography is never in a hurry to reach a destination before it needs to... just as the editing decides to call it quits when it should.

'Gorosthaney Shabdhan!' has an extremely impressive and original opening on the original Park Street graveyard. The credits are engraved on the gravestones, the camera panning slowly to catch them in circles. The sound design is fantastic in all the night scenes in the graveyard - eerie sounds of bats, dogs, owls and frogs dotting the silence, or, muffled sounds of someone being pulled and hit, or, the planchette table tapping above that shakes Marquis Godwin's ceiling and last but never the least, all the 250 clocks chiming together on the dot of six when Feluda, Topshe and Lalmohan Babu come to meet Mahadeb Choudhury in his opulent apartment (with its red-carpeted staircase) for the first time. Sandip Ray's Gorosthane Sabdhan! informs, educates and entertains without dragging its feet over its almost lyrical closure. It blends some thrills, a bit of suspense and doses of action and adventure to take the audience on an entertaining trip through the city of Kolkata.

Thanks are due to Sandip Ray for bringing this magnificent story to life. Read the story - in Bengali or English and grab the DVD.

The film has been a huge success prompting the director - Sandip Ray - to announce plans to work on two more Feluda films in the coming years, namely, 'The Royal Bengal Rahashya' ('The Royal Bengal Mystery') and 'Joto Kando Kathmandutey' ('The Criminals of Kathmandu'/ a novella, 1980). The days of suspense will be back soon.

When Satyajit Ray wrote Gorosthane Shabdhan! in 1977, the process of renaming streets and locations in Calcutta had already started. Of course, this reached a frenzied pace in recent years with the renaming of the city itself to Kolkata and the prime location of the novel, Park Street, to Mother Teresa Sarani. Nonetheless, in the story we find signs that change had already started. Dalhousie Square had become B.B.D. Bag in honour of the revolutionaries Binoy, Badal, and Dinesh. Topshe even had difficulty remembering that Ochterlony Monument had been renamed to Shaheed Minar! (Most people born in my generation have no clue who David Ochterlony was and what he did to deserve a monument).

Old timers used to (and still do) refer to places in Calcutta (or Kolkata, if you prefer) by their original names. They would always say Dalhousie Square, "Monument", Theatre Road, Camac Street, Harrison Street, and Circular Road. Many of these names are still present in Gorosthane Shabdhan! but others are gone. However, Chowringhee and Strand Road have managed to make it this far and are still quite popular. In any case, I will not be surprised if Esplanade is also "Indianised" soon... since that is the best and the most potent solution to all infrastructure related problems! What?

Feluda is said to be a cross between Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Hergé's Tintin and George Lucas' Indiana Jones... and the films have been popular too. The global popularity of the sleuth is also enviable, as Feluda stories have been published in full in English and in part in many other major international languages (French and Spanish included). The charm of Ray's Feluda stories lie, among other things, in their skillful mix of mystery and humour. It is good that his works are being translated into other languages - especially English. It'll help bring on a larger readership. I think they have been translated into Marathi and Hindi too.

The original Feluda - Soumitra Chatterjee - was ageing while the mid-1980s saw the demise of the hugely talented Santosh Dutta (the original Jatayu) due to cancer. The latter prompted Ray to decide never to film a Feluda story again, although he went on writing them at a phenomenal rate till the end of his days.

Ray felt Santosh Dutta was irreplaceable as Jatayu. However, Ray Jr. looked at it differently... and felt one has to move on and that the show must go on.

Sandip Ray announced in the late 1990s that he was working on a new Feluda film with new faces for the trio - Feluda, Topshe and Jatayu - and fans were curious to know who would be cast in the roles. Soumitra Chatterjee and Santosh Dutta had been perfect as Feluda and Jatayu, but now Chatterjee had become too old for the part, and Dutta had passed away. Chatterjee had in fact said to the media that he would play no more Feluda roles. People argued that no one could replace him, and that it was equally impossible to replace Dutta as Jatayu. But many others pointed out that the iconic Sherlock Holmes has been played by so many actors, and so has been James Bond aka Agent 007, so why not Feluda? Just because Satyajit Ray, Santosh Dutta and Utpal Dutt (Maganlal Meghraj) were no more, and Soumitra could no longer play Feluda, it was not justified to archive the super-sleuth Feluda forever.

Thus, to a mixed response, Sandip Ray chose three new actors: Sabyasachi Chakraborty as Feluda, Saswata Chatterjee as Topshe and veteran actor and comedian Robi Ghosh as Jatayu. Although Saswata was a new face, Sabyasachi was an experienced TV actor and fans looked forward to seeing him as the new Feluda. Soumitra Chatterjee, the original Feluda, was also overjoyed. He took it sportingly, agreeing to the fact that he was too old now to be Feluda. In one of the 5 films from the "Feluda 30" series directed by Sandip - to commemorate 30 years of Feluda - was a story 'Ambar Sen Antardhan Rahasya' ('The Mysterious Disappearance of Ambar Sen'). The story was set in Kolkata - 'the City of Joy'. It dealt with the 'kidnapping' of Ambar Sen and a theft. Feluda fans were in for a surprise in the very first scene itself. None other than Soumitra Chatterjee, the original Feluda, played Feluda's client, Ambar Sen.

The first film (directed by Sandip for the television series) was 'Baksha Rohoshya' ('The Mystery of the Kalka Mail' aka 'A Mysterious Case'/ filmed: 1996), which had already been presented as a radio play by Satyajit Ray. The story is set in Kolkata, Delhi and Shimla, and deals with a stolen diamond and a priceless unpublished manuscript.

The film was supposed to be televised on 2 May, Satyajit Ray's birthday, but red tape led to delays, and Sandip went for a showing of the television version in a cinema in Kolkata. The Feluda magic pulled in the crowd. Although Robi Ghosh was a veteran and a great actor, he was no match for Santosh Dutta as Jatayu. However, Sabyasachi did a pretty decent job, and although he had a lot of areas to work on in order to suit the role, the viewers accepted the new Feluda.

Ray is said to have not been fond of the only Byomkesh mystery he ever directed - 'Chidiyakhana' ('The Zoo'/ 1967); he derided it as being a whodunnit, which in his opinion, never was a good idea for films. The denouement was invariably tedious, and the whole concept of finding out who did it tended to become boring.

Satyajit Ray had decided, and Sandip Ray agreed, that a big-screen film could not be made in a 'whodunnit' format, as it reduces the chances of repeat view while some spoilsport can kill the story/film and the thrills by disclosing the identity of the criminal. On the other hand, it is a good idea to follow the 'whodunnit' format on television, as there is less chance of repeat viewing. As we see in 'Sonar Kella' ('The Golden Fortress'/ a novella, 1970/ filmed: 1974) and 'Joi Baba Felunath' ('The Mystery of the Elephant God'/ a novella, 1975/ filmed: 1979), the thriller format had been adopted in filming, although 'Sonar Kella' was written in a 'whodunnit' format like other Feluda stories. However, for all the other films, which were made for the TV, the 'whodunnit' format was retained.

With 'Baksho Rohoshya' perhaps Sandip Ray wanted to experiment with the thriller format on TV before going for the big screen... and he met with reasonable success too.

The Feluda stories continue to waft their magic fragrance through the books/novels and films - over 45 years after they were first written - and literally whet our appetite, the way the bitter starter is meant to do in Bengal. Feluda was and remains fatafati!

The Official trailer of Gorosthane Sabdhan! HERE.

Photograph: Poster of the film 'Gorosthaney Shabdhan!' aka 'Beware in the Graveyard!' Pic. courtesy: Link.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Complete Adventures of Feluda (Vol I) by Satyajit Ray.

'Feluda' is the creation of one of the greatest auteur of 20th century cinema - Satyajit Ray. Somehow people including analysts and movie aficionados tend to pigeonhole him into 'Pather Panchali' ('Song of the Little Road') - one of his seminal works... for the making of which he sold all his possessions. But, Ray was a genius and left behind a rich legacy of work... that went much beyond 'Pather Panchali'. Standing 6'-4" tall, he was a towering figure in the world of cinema... both literally and figuratively.

But chances are that... if you are an Indian but not a Bengali... you may not have heard of 'Feluda'. But you would 'know' Satyanveshi Byomkesh Bakshi - Bengal's contribution to the detective genre, superbly portrayed by actor Rajit Kapur and written/created by the celebrated Sharadendu Bandopadhyay in 1932. Incidentally Ray had directed his only Byomkesh mystery - 'Chidiakhana' ('The Zoo' in 1967) - starring the legendary Uttam Kumar - the matinee idol of Bengal, as Byomkesh. By his own volition it was his weakest work... but fetched Uttam Kumar his Best Actor award and Ray a Golden Lotus at the first ever National Film Awards (in 1967)!

It is generally believed that Byomkesh was Sharadendu's alter ego. There are other fictional detectives/sleuths popular in Bengal: Kiriti Ray, Indranath Rudra, Colonel Niladri Sen aka Colonel, Kakababu, Neil Bannerjee, Narayan Sanyal's Barrister P.K. Basu (from the 'Kanta series' - heavily inspired from the Perry Mason series by Erle Stanley Gardner and a few of Agatha Christie's works) to name a few. The peerless Satyajit Ray's contribution was 'Feluda' - a sleuth for all seasons, sharp, handsome, witty and 6 feet tall. 'Feluda' became a phenomenon. But then, it is difficult to say who is more popular - Feluda or Byomkesh. It's a tie... I guess.

Yours truly was introduced to both as a schoolgirl (including the Byomkesh TV series directed by Basu Chatterjee and the Feluda movies directed by Ray himself) and have been under their spell ever since. Thanks to 'Kolkata Book Fair' I have the entire collection of Feluda and Byomkesh - in Bengali.

Not to worry. The language barrier can no longer prevent you from being a part of Feluda's world. All the Feluda stories that Ray wrote are now available together - in English - in an omnibus edition of 2 volumes, of which this is the first. Feluda stories, though essentially Bengali in character, are universal in nature as he keeps traveling from place to place solving mysteries that involve intrigue, action and adventure and therefore appeals to all kinds of readers and is not limited to the young teen.

Volume I of this omnibus features 16 gripping tales (short stories and novellas) of suspense and mystery arranged in their chronological order of composition. This is the definitive Feluda collection - a treasury that all fans of detective fiction will want to possess. Originally written in Bengali (by Ray), this translation in English has been accomplished by Gopa Majumdar and Chitrita Banerji (no relation to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, I think).

Between 1965 and 1992, Satyajit Ray wrote a total of 35 Feluda stories, featuring the 27-year-old, sharp and bright-eyed Calcutta based amateur detective Prodosh Chandra Mitra who uses the anglicized name Pradosh C. Mitter, his Watson - his fourteen-year-old cousin Tapesh Ranjan Mitra (Mitter) fondly referred to as "Topshe", and Lalmohan Ganguli aka Lalmohan Babu alias "Jatayu", a comical, bumbling writer of cheap popular thrillers with funny names. "Felu" is the nickname of Pradosh Mitter. The suffix "da" (short for "dada") means elder brother in Bengali. The plots involve murder, intrigue and adventure, narrated in a racy, humorous style. The locales range from Gangtok and Varanasi to Jaisalmer and Ellora, from Kedarnath to Kathmandu, and from Puri to London apart from Feluda's hometown of Calcutta, of course. All of this makes for enormously entertaining fare - and it is no wonder that each Feluda book has been a best seller.

Pradosh C. Mitter is called Feluda in the novels, as the narrator Topshe - something of a Watson to Feluda's Holmes - is his younger cousin. He is called Felubabu by Jatayu (tr: Mr. Felu), is just called Felu by his elder family members, friends and relatives and, more endearingly, Feluchand by Sidhu jyatha.

Though Feluda often teases his young cousin, he is extremely fond of Tapesh and is very protective of him. He lives with Topshe's family at 21, Rajani Sen Road, Kolkata-700029. Although there really is a Rajani Sen Road in Kolkata, if one were to walk along that road, one would find it ends at #26, Rajani Sen Road, and there's no #27. Not unlike 221B, Baker Street. Feluda's father Joy Krishna Mitter was a teacher of Mathematics and Sanskrit in Dhaka Collegiate School, had a worked out physique and was adept in playing football, cricket, swimming and wrestling. He used to take out fox-cubs by inserting his hand in their furrows. He died at an early age, when Feluda was just 9 years old. Since his parents passed away when he was a small child, Topshe's parents brought him up. Feluda's father were three brothers. The eldest was a good Thumri singer, who left the household at the young age of 23 to become an ascetic and never returned. Joy Krishna Mitter was the middle brother. Topshe's father, the youngest, is 25 years younger to the eldest brother.

Feluda smokes only one brand of cigarettes - Charminar. He can easily stay without smoking for 10-12 hours if required. Goes to sleep late, but is an early riser. Wakes up before sunrise and starts his day with yogasana. Never sleeps deeply. He is also a connoisseur of good food, popular movies and books. Is choosy about tea. Prefers tea from Makaibari Tea Estate in Kurseong.

Feluda is into martial arts - judo, karate and is an avid reader. He reads everything - about photography, travelogue, current affairs, the art and science of magic, space travel, geometry, etc. He has a vast knowledge about: architecture, botany, typography, automobile, etimology or history of sounds. He knows the names of all the Ragas and Raginis. Has a good hand in drawing. Can make a sketch of a person after seeing him just once. He is an expert with his .32 Colt revolver yet relies mostly on his 'mogojastro' - his incisive mind, and remains open to anything that can further his knowledge. Ray's interest in puzzles and puns is reflected in his stories; Feluda often has to solve a puzzle to get to the bottom of a case.

Satyajit Ray thought of 'Google' long before 'Google' existed. Google's creators were not yet born when Ray created 'Sidhu jyatha' whose formal name is Shiddeshwar Basu. Feluda describes him as 'the walking encyclopaedia' and Sidhu-jatha describes himself thus: 'Sherlock Holmes had an elder brother, Mycroft Holmes. Although he was very lazy, he was really a big brother to Sherlock in intelligence. Even Sherlock often used to pay visits to Mycroft for his help. Similarly, I am the Mycroft to Felu.'

Sidhu jyatha lives in Sardar Sankar Road, Lake Market, Calcutta. He is a bibliophile and has an extensive base of general knowledge, current and historical affairs. He was a close friend of Feluda's father, being neighbours in their ancestral village. Feluda's jyatha (uncle - "jyatha" is the endearing word for father's elder brother in Bengali) is said to have a photographic memory and is a vast source of information and comes in handy when Feluda is in need of some. His vast knowledge comes from his collection of varied kinds of newspaper clippings that he has accumulated over the years. The role was played by Harindranath Chattopadhyay in 'Shonar Kella' ('The Golden Fortress'), Ajit Bannerjee in 'Baksha Rohoshya' ('The Mystery of the Kalka Mail') and by Haradhan Banerjee in 'Kailashe Kelenkari' ('A Killer in Kailash') and 'Gorosthane Sabdhan' ('Caution in the Graveyard'). Harindranath Chattopadhyay was also seen in the Hrishikesh Mukherjee directed classic and Rajesh Khanna starrer 'Bawarchi'.

The word 'potential' is a big favourite in Bengal and Bengalis are big on all the unsung geniuses (heroes or otherwise) who could have made it but didn't. The workaholic Ray too reveals a soft corner for the unsung genius; in the way he wrote Sidhu jyatha (played brilliantly on screen by Harindranath Chattopadhyay). When complimented by Felu ("If you had been a detective, we would have been out of work"), Sidhu jyatha responds: "If I had done a lot of things, a lot of people would have been out of work. So, I don’t do anything. I just sit here and keep the windows of my mind open... "

The Feluda stories involve mysteries/adventures largely set in India, with titles such as 'The Golden Fortress' ('Shonar Kella'/ a novella, 1970), 'The Anubis Mystery' ('Sheyal Debota Rohoshya'/ short story), 'The Curse of the Goddess' ('Chinnomostar Obhishap'/ a novella, 1978), 'The Emperor's Ring' ('Badshahi Angthi'/ a novella, 1966), 'Trouble in Gangtok' ('Gangtok-e Gondogol'/ a novella, 1970), 'The Locked Chest' ('Ghurghutiyar Ghatana'/ short story), etc. The stories are refreshing and yet manage to retain the local/Indian flavour. That Feluda matures from an unknown amateur detective in the first few stories (starting with 'Feluda's Investigation' ['Feludar Goendagiri'/ short story, 1965]) to a serious/professional, successful and reputed private investigator can be seen as the book rolls along. Some of the stories like the 'The Royal Bengal Mystery' ('Royal Bengal Rohoshya'/ a novella, 1974) and 'Caution in the Graveyard' ('Gorosthaney Shabdhan'/ a novella, 1977) are just absolute classics. You race through each story, the plot pulling you into a hypnotic rev, until somewhere the crime fiction and adventure loving epicurean in you, stops to savour the tasty morsels of thrills and adventure on offer. Ah! Bliss!

'Badshahi Angthi'... set in Lucknow is one of the earliest stories (the 2nd to be precise) and one of my favourites. I also like 'Royal Bengal Rahasya' and 'Chhinnomastar Abhishap'. 'Gorosthane Sabdhan' is a great favourite too. I love the Calcutta that Ray had written about in it. It's a different Calcutta, with a completely different feel. The atmosphere is different. The Park Street cemetery was such an intriguing place. But things have changed now... thanks to 'development'.

All Feluda films where Soumitra Chatterjee played the detective character - in 'Shonar Kella' ('The Golden Fortress'/ filmed: 1974) and 'Joi Baba Felunath' ('The Mystery of the Elephant God'/ a novella, 1975/ filmed: 1979) are a treat to watch and re-watch. Though mainly targeted towards children and young adults, both 'Shonar Kella' and 'Joi Baba Felunath' found a large number of loyal followers... cutting across generations.

Ray made the first Feluda film based on his novel 'Shonar Kella' ('The Golden Fortress') in 1974. It was set against the backdrop of Rajasthan, strewn with desert, forts and royal stories, heroic deeds and folklore. The story deals with the kidnapping of a child, a treasure hunt, an attempted murder, identity theft and also explored the concept of reincarnation. This is also the story in which Jatayu is introduced.

Next came 'Joi Baba Felunath' ('The Mystery of the Elephant God') in 1979. This story was set in Benares, the holy city of India. It explores religious exploitation, and the crime of stealing, or procuring by unfair means up to and including homicide, of art objects of ancient India and selling them to rich foreign collectors. The inimitable Utpal Dutt played the villain Maganlal Meghraj, who returns to appear in two more Feluda stories. Both these films had Soumitra Chatterjee, Siddhartha Chatterjee and Santosh Dutta playing the roles of the trio of Feluda, Topshe and Jatayu.

'Baksho Rohoshya' ('The Mystery of the Kalka Mail') - was presented as a radio play by Satyajit Ray. The story is set in Kolkata, Delhi and Shimla, and deals with a stolen diamond and a priceless unpublished manuscript.

'Sheyal Debota Rohoshya' ('The Anubis Mystery') revolves around a statuette of Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-god. Set in Kolkata, the story explores eeriness, greed, lust and deception. This story did not have Jatayu as one of the characters.

'Kailase Kelenkari' ('A Killer in Kailash') is an exciting thriller, starting in Kolkata, then moving into the outskirts at Siddiqpur, and on to Aurangabad in Maharashtra and finally to Ellora, famous for cave temples carved in the Rashtrakuta era of ancient Indian history. Even the film (directed by Sandip Ray) was a feast for the eyes. The story explores vandalism, the looting of historical monuments and temples for stone statues to be sold off to the West. The glimpses of architectural monuments in Aurangabad and the carvings at the cave temples in Ellora make the film a must-watch.

But I hope to see 'Badshahi Angthi' on screen someday. Actor Sabyasachi Chakraborty has been playing Feluda for 15 years now, under the directorial baton of Satyajit Ray's able son Sandip Ray. These are: 'Baksha Rohoshya', 'Bombaiyer Bombete', 'Kailashe Kelenkari', 'Tintorettor Jishu' and 'Gorosthaney Shabdhan'. But he is ageing... which means Sandip Ray will have to scout for a younger Feluda... if he were to direct 'Badshahi Angthi'. And that will be one hell of a job. Who do you think could take up the mantle next? Methinks... Milind Soman would have fit in perfectly... but not sure about his acting skills. Priyanshu Chatterjee (of 'Tum Bin' fame) maybe... provided he lost some weight and underwent a makeover. Perhaps even a newcomer like Abir Chatterjee... the latest Byomkesh Bakshi to hit the screens. What say?

This is a must-have book. If you're reading this, do yourself a favour and buy the book!

Details of the book: The Complete Adventures of Feluda (Vol I)/ Author: Satyajit Ray/ Paperback/ pp: 785 pages/ Price: Rs. 450 (Rs. 338 @ Flipkart)/ Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd./ Publishing date: 11/30/2004/ Language: English/ ISBN: 0143032771/ ISBN-13: 978-0143032779.

Photograph: Pic. courtesy: Link.