By Siddhartha Krishnan . 5 min read
Let me begin by admitting, that I still watch episodes of “Byomkesh Bakshi”—the much-loved Indian detective TV series of the 90s on YouTube. And, I am pretty sure, that many like me, who have grown up in the 90s in India, are also secretly doing so.
But never have I ever critically analysed the show, until now. Hence, a rather obvious question comes to mind—What makes me watch this TV serial even today? The question is relevant, and cannot be dismissed by attributing everything to nostalgia because unlike in the 90s we now have a range of options to choose from, particularly in this genre.
For starters, this is not an easy question to answer, especially if you begin by comparing this show with the ones available today. Come to think of it, here was a serial which had very little production value (in terms of its sets, locations and costume design), lacked subtlety or nuance (when it came to its screenplay) and to make things worse, featured unknown actors (many of the side actors, I am sure, were non-actors). In short, a perfect recipe for disaster!
Yet here I am, enjoying this supposedly lesser work of art, over a cup of coffee, on a lazy Sunday evening.
After giving it much thought, I concluded, that perhaps its these little flaws which made the show lovable. Moreover, for all you know, this might have been a well thought out strategy on the part of its writer to keep the audience engaged.
Confused? Well, to understand this aspect better, we must delve a little into the history of the TV show.
The TV series “Byomkesh Bakshi” is based on the stories of the prolific Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. During his lifetime, Sharadindu wrote all different kinds of prose—novels, short stories, plays and screenplays, of which detective “Byomkesh Bakshi” was his most famous creation, atleast among a Pan India audience.
A critical analysis of his “Byomkesh Bakshi” stories reveal that Sharadindu had the habit of describing an incident or a character through an unusually straight forward narrative. To illustrate this point better, as a reader or audience you are not given much in terms of the background of its lead characters, namely Byomkesh or his partner Ajit.
What were their family backgrounds? Where did they come from? … really didn’t matter. There are hints that are doled out, but a lot is left to the imagination of the audience.
Hence, one had to read between the lines and draw his or her own conclusions. But that said, there was no compulsion to do so because the story itself was so engaging and unique, that it had ability to keep the audience hooked till the end. Moreover, the character of the lead – “Byomkesh Bakshi”, was so well written, that you as the reader or audience is thoroughly invested in his journey to solve a case.
Sharadindu’s “Byomkesh Bakshi”, just like any other detective used his skills of observation, logical reasoning and understanding of forensic sciences to solve the most difficult of cases, but this is where the similarities end because he was no Sherlock or Poirot!
Byomkesh’s lack of self-adulation, non-elitist demeanour and love for simple living, set him apart from any other detective, we had known earlier.
He was the quintessential guy next door, who wore simple clothes, lived in a rented apartment at Harrison Road, Kolkata (now called M.G Road) and loved drinking “Chai” (tea) especially when he had his thinking cap on. The man refused to be recognized as a detective and called himself “Satyanveshi” (truth seeker) as he was more interested in the truth than the law. Hence, many a times, he would use unconventional methods (not always playing by the rule book) to get to the truth. He also had his own flaws and vulnerabilities.
Perhaps, it is this characterization which made Byomkesh both relatable and aspirational to the young Indian audience of the 90s. Hence, we all wanted to be as intelligent and street-smart as “Byomkesh Bakshi”.
With this context, if you now start analysing director Basu Chatterjee’s version of “Byomkesh Bakshi”, things slowly start to make sense. His strategy, it seems, was to stick to the original text of Sharadindu. Thus, he does not waste time on unnecessary nuance and presented the story as it was written. This explains the use of non-actors to play the roles of inconsequential side actors. But for him to have taken that risk, he must have had enormous faith in the power of these stories written by Sharadindu. And, the strategy worked!
In many ways that is the beauty of storytelling isn’t it? There is no single ordained way of telling a story. Each to his own and you never know what might work?
Chatterjee, however, ensured that the main characters in these episodes were played by experienced actors because they had a pivotal role to play in the storytelling and to drive the narrative forward. Apart from the lead actors Rajit Kapoor (as Byomkesh Bakshi), S.K Raina (as Ajit Kumar Banerjee) and Sukanya Kulkarni (as Satyabati), each episode had its own set of talented actors like Utpal Dutt, Govind Namdeo and Aditya Srivastava, to name only a few.
Another interesting fact, worth highlighting, is the casting of the lead actors. At the time when the serial was released in 1993—the lead actors Rajit Kapoor (Byomkesh) and S. K. Raina (Ajit) were unknown faces to the larger Indian audience. Although, Rajit Kapoor is now a renowned film and theatre actor, he was a fresh face in 1993, despite having acted in “Suraj Ka Sathvan Ghoda” directed by Shyam Benegal, considered an artsy film at that time.
This casting worked brilliantly because for a Pan India audience there was no reference point. In other words, they had no expectations.
Before the serial hit our TV screens, “Byomkesh” itself was a character unfamiliar to most Indians, even though many Bengali actors, including the likes of the great Uttam Kumar (in Satyajit Ray’s “Chiriyakhana”) have essayed the role in the past. For Bengalis, “Feluda” (a famous detective character created by Satyajit Ray) and “Byomkesh” were part of their popular culture, but for an Indian kid of the 90s, staying elsewhere in the country, he offered something new.
In that context, he was our very own Indian version of Sherlock Holmes.
Also, Rajit Kapoor’s portrayal of “Byomkesh Bakshi” was a standout as he was able to connect to the average Indian by expertly depicting a person who was simple yet quietly confident of his abilities. For this reason, despite all his later successes as an actor he is still remembered today, especially among the kids of the 90s, as “Byomkesh Bakshi”.
Sharadindu penned 32 Byomkesh Bakshi stories between 1932 to 1970. “Satyanveshi”, which was a Byomkesh story, was the writer’s first work. Interestingly, he had abruptly stopped writing Byomkesh stories in 1938 and had left for Bombay to write film scripts. But such was the popularity of these stories, that he resumed writing them in 1951 and continued doing so, until his untimely death in 1970. He also created other memorable fictional characters like “Boroda” and “Sadashib” and was lauded for the humour, wit and satire in his writings. His stories were generally short and had an unexpected twist in the end.
The TV series directed by Basu Chatterjee was first aired in 1993. Season 1, comprised of 14 episodes and Season 2 which was aired in 1997, comprised of 20 episodes. Prior to making “Byomkesh Bakshi”, Basu Chatterjee was already a celebrated director in the Indian film industry with iconic films like Rajnigandha (1974), Chotti Si Baat (1975) and Chitchor (1976)—to name only a few, to his credit. These films along with his celebrated TV series, is still watched in India because they are regarded as classics.
Finally, I’d like to end by saying that it is ironic and frustrating, that India is blessed with such good literature written by celebrated authors in multiple Indian languages, yet somehow, today we are struggling to find good content for television and films. We have had great writers in the past who have left us a treasure trove to choose from, yet it seems there is a dearth of good content. Why?
Adapted screenplays, based on the writings of celebrated writers, make it to the Oscars every year and they are an important part of the filmmaking culture of many countries. But why aren’t we doing the same, especially in mainstream cinema?
For some mysterious reason, our filmmakers have conveniently stayed away from the literature available at their disposal and stuck to a formula of milking the same cow, again and again! The audience are also to be blamed for this because they are happy to dole out 300 to 400 rupees in a multiplex theatre in the name of “mindless escapism”, as if to suggest that they are the only “stressed out” people in the world, while the rest of the world, according to them, sleeps for a living!
What’s more, these very people will then wake up at the end of the year and complain about how Indian films are not making it to the Oscars list?
Well, “you become what you consume” and until things change, I will stick to watching “Byomkesh Bakshi” on a lazy Sunday evening and reminisce about the glory days of Indian Television of the 90s.
Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of “Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories“. He is also an enthusiastic blogger and on his website www.whatsonsidsmind.com, he regularly puts out his essays, articles, travelogues and film reviews.
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