Some say that Feluda is the Indian equivalent of fictional British detective Sherlock Holmes while others say that he is the alter-ego of his creator, legendary writer and filmmaker Satyajit Ray. While this beloved character started out as a children’s favourite but over the years he has become one of the most iconic fictional characters in India
Strikingly handsome, intellectual, reserve yet witty, charming and chivalrous, with a photographic memory and a knack for portraits, a music lover who occasionally hums a few lines of popular Bengali numbers and has his fingers set on the key-board of a harmonium. Such is the description of the famous detective Feluda, a fictional character, created by legendary Indian film-maker, fiction novelist and Oscarawardee, Satyajit Ray.
Between 1965 and 1991, Ray wrote a total of 35 Feluda stories, featuring the 27-year-old, a Kolkata-based private investigator, Prodosh C Mitter (the anglicised version of Prodosh Chandra Mitra aka Felu Mittir); his thirteen and a half years old cousin Tapesh Ranjan alias Topshe and Lalmohan Ganguli, known as Jatayu, a clumsy yet funny character who writes thrillers that sell like hot cake.
The character has drawn not only popularity but critical acclaim as well. It has grabbed the attention of intellectuals who have gone to the extent of analysing it and developing their own theories about the character.
Many scholars, associates of Ray including his son Sandip Ray, have opinions that Feluda was modelled on Satyajit himself. “Feluda likes everything my father liked, and hates everything my father hated. He most definitely based the character on himself. To be precise, he is my father’s alter ego,” says Sandip, while Bengali cinema actor Soumitra Chatterjee, who acted in 14 films directed by Ray has the same view.
He says, “Feluda, who is not only a private investigator, an explorer of truth as well, is a reflection of Manik Da (Ray’s nickname) himself.” Rabi Ghosh, one of Ray’s favourite actors, who worked under his direction in films like Mahapurush, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Aranyer Din Ratri, Jana Aranya, Hirak Rajar Deshe, Agantuk, etc., once wrote in his column, “Feluda is the second projection of Satyajit Ray.” Feluda is an equally voracious reader like his creator, which is evident in rows of books on several subjects we find in his study.
His interest in literature, epics, geography, science, conservation of nature and hunting, indoor games, magic, tricks of cards, criminal investigation, numerology, extraterrestrial influences on early human culture, etc., were all the things that Ray himself was interested in.
“It should be mentioned that despite his extensive knowledge on several subjects, Feluda doesn’t show it off. He would rather share it with Topshe and Jatayu without posing as an erudite scholar. This trait of his character makes him so endearing to his readers. This was exactly how Baba soon became a friend to his child artists and viewers,” Sandip adds.
KEEPING IT GROUNDED
Ray wanted to project Feluda, as a very wellinformed person who contributes to the general awareness of the young readers, yet he never wanted Felu to become an imposing figure with some special qualities which might render him out of the reach of the children who love him. “The children should not be overawed at his brilliance. To them Feluda should be like a ‘popular elder brother’ in the neighbourhood who has a soft-spot for them. Initially, Satyajit put some of his special attributes in Feluda, but later removed them consciously,” says Ujjal
Chakraborty, an eminent Ray-scholar of India.
In ‘Feludar Goendagiri’, Prodosh C Mitter can identify the newspaper from the font Tinkari Mukherjee had cut-pasted to compose the threatening letter to Rajen Majumder. Similarly, in ‘Kailash Chowdhurir Pathar’ (Kailash Chowdhury’s Jewel: 1967), Topshe saying, ‘Feluda has an amazing ability to quickly make a sketch of a person, he had seen even once.
Feluda’s love for music is evident in ‘Samaddarer Chabi’ (The Key of Samaddar:1973). He practices Sa-Re-Ga-Ma; he even hums Jab Chhod Chale Lucknow Nagari … in ‘Badsahi Angti’ (The Emperor’s Ring: 1966), while travelling in a train to Bareilly. These were only a few talents highlighted by Chakraborty of an otherwise multi-talented Feluda.
“Satyajit realised that so many special qualities in one man would make him a bit unrealistic for the young readers to accept. His brilliance might make him distant from the readership’s immediate reality. So he decided to prune these attributes in Felu to make him more relatable and enduring for the young readership. After ‘Kailash Chowdhurir Pathar’, Feluda was never seen doing sketches, nor did he sing even a line of any popular number after Badsahi Angti or hum lines from the Thumri of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah,” Chakraborty adds.
Satyajit was born in a family with strong academic, art and cultural background. Among two renaissance families in the then Bengal, the Ray family was one of them. While Upendrakishore, a follower of the Brahmo movement (that spearheaded the cultural rejuvenation of Bengal) played violin and organ; wrote lyrics and composed music, Sukumar, his son, pioneered Bengali literature, illustrated books for children, and, as an eminent scholar of Physics and Chemistry, popularised science among youngsters. Satyajit Ray, Upendrakishore’s grandson, started as an artist par excellence, designed new fonts of Bengali and also in Hindi, in Roman (Ray Roman), composed music, wrote short stories for the children and serious essays on different topics and eventually emerged as the great creator of world cinema.
“My great grandfather Upendrakishore, launched and edited Sandesh, a children’s magazine in 1913. It was an attempt to nourish young minds, especially the adolescent group. It deserves a mention that the Rays lived a culturally happening life, which they wanted to share with the upcoming generation. My forefathers always wanted to kindle flames of creativity in children.” Sandip says.
While the Rays raised the magazine with parental care, many other greats in the field lent the periodical hues of humour and fantasy. Even Rabindranath Tagore wrote poems, illustrated them and designed the layout of the magazine. Grown in such an intellectually charged atmosphere, Manik came up with ideas, most befitting for the changing time, as the baton reached him.
It was in December 1965 when ‘Feludar Goyendagiri’, the first story of the Feluda series appeared in Sandesh, it became an instant-hit. The 27-page long story was carried in three successive issues (December 1965 – February 1966) of the magazine, considering the retentive capacity of children. It’s nothing unexpected that Satyajit’s taste, refinement, curiosity and even physical attributes would reflect on the character of the fictional detective.
Though he hadn’t yet fancied doing a fullfledged series on Feluda’s adventure, success of the first story was so big that he couldn’t ignore demands of his countless readers. Inspired by the success, he wrote ‘Badshahi Angti’ (The Emperor’s Ring) in a single attempt, which came out again in Sandesh in 12 installments (May, 1966 –May 1967). Hereafter, almost every year he wrote at least one story – some years even two – on Feluda for the readers who awaited arrival of a new illustration supporting the story – each a feast for readers’ eyes – a milestone in the history of book illustration. The practice continued till May 21, 1991, when he wrote his 35th story of the Feluda series – ‘Robertsoner Ruby’.
Meanwhile, two things happened during 10 years (from mid-1960s to early 1970s) that changed the scenario of Bengali juvenile literature. ‘Professor Shonku’ – a collection of nine science fiction short stories by Ray was published in Sandesh (1961-1965, 1967), in the autumn 1966 issue of Ascharya and also in the form of a book published by NewScript Publications, Calcutta, in 1965 followed by the death of Saradindu Bandopadhya in 1970.
RAY TO THE RESCUE
With the demise of Bandopadhyay, an iconic name in the field of Bengali detective short stories who created Byomkesh Bakshi, the publishing industry of Bengal suffered a massive shock. Sagarmoy Ghosh, the then editor of Desh, was looking for a writer who could replace Bandopadhyay. Coincidentally, Ghosh had read ‘…Shonku’ by then and found it as a brilliant piece of work by Ray.
However, Ghosh approached Ray, who, extremely busy with the production of his forthcoming film Pratidwandi (The Adversary), didn’t take Ghosh’s request seriously. But Sagarmoy, an intimate friend since their days at Shantiniketan, didn’t give up cajoling Manik and finally made him agreeable to write for Desh. ‘Gangtokey Gondogol’ (Trouble in Gangtok) happened and readers gorged on the story in Sharadiya Desh of 1970. And the rest is history. Feluda went on to become one of the most beloved fictional characters both on the written page and on the big screen.
Text: Partha Mukherjee & Priyanka Mukherjee