Saturday, March 16, 2013

Royal Bengal Rahasya [dir. Sandip Ray]

Bengalis and in general fans of Indian mystery / adventure stories will be aware of the famous detective character Feluda (1965-92), created by Satyajit Ray. Written primarily for children / teens, the Feluda tales are inspired by the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Tintin. Many of these adventures take place in different parts of the country, thereby also providing a bit of a travelogue and general knowledge within the narrative. My first brush with Feluda was when as part of the Satyajit Ray Presents series on DD, they had a multi-episode Feluda adventure called Kissa Kathmandu Ka, of which I mainly recall Shashi Kapoor in the lead role and Utpal Dutt as Feluda's arch-nemesis, Maganlal Meghraj.
Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to come across an English translation of the complete Feluda stories in 2 volumes published by Penguin. I was soon sucked into the world of Feluda, his constant companions Topshe and Jotayu, his love for Charminar cigarettes and twisted conundrums. While the stories are not very brilliant in terms of their construction of mystery (the second volume of the Penguin series in particular had some rather sloppy ones), they are brisk-paced and fun boys' adventures, with interesting nuggets of information about various Indian places and customs. Also, since they are written with younger audiences in mind, they eschew the more sordid elements of other detective franchises, making for a nice palate cleanser between other genres. Hooked by these I also got hold of two Feluda film adaptations directed by Satyajit Ray himself - Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress) and Jai Baba Felunath (Victory to The Elephant God, also a play on Feluda's name). It was interesting to see that Ray's shooting scripts, especially for Sonar Kella, deviated significantly from the way the plot is unfolded in the source story, presenting it in a more cinematic way and keeping the proceedings fresh even for fans familiar with it. I'm a sucker for sleuth films and TV series and both these films were entertaining.
RBR is part of a newer series of Feluda films, directed by Satyajit's son Sandip Ray (who also directed episodes of the Satyajit Ray Presents series). Sandip has had a very checkered career and the burden of living up to his ancestors' legacies must be weighing heavily upon him. While I have fond childhood memories of his TV series, it appears that he has not made a distinct name for himself as a film director. Sometime in the 2000's, he began his updated Feluda series with Sabyasachi Chakraborty as the detective. While the general perception of these films has been that they are not in the same league as Satyajit's own films, they were still popular and of these, RBR appears to have a higher degree of approval from those that can compare the different Feluda versions. Hence it is my first entry in to the updated series.
In the story, Feluda and his companions are invited by the famed hunter Mahitosh Singha-Roy to his house in the forest bordering Bhutan to solve a mystery in the form of an old family riddle possibly leading to a treasure (Musgrave Ritual, anyone?). But hardly has Feluda settled in than Mahitosh's private secretary is found to have been killed in the forest at night. Feluda must now unravel the riddle as well as find which of several possible suspects may be responsible for the secretary's death. The jungle setting of the film allows it to eschew modern amenities like mobile phones and the internet, bringing the style more in line with the period of the original stories (Amusingly enough, even letters are written and not typed, the excuse given that the computer does not support Bengali script). The screenplay and dialog stick scrupulously close to the events and chronology of the tale, almost to the point of not having any originality in themselves. Perhaps, Sandip is too wary of fans that will decry any liberties taken with the source. To his credit, the proceedings remain brisk and interesting so long as you know what to expect in a Feluda narrative. Sabyasachi does a fine job in the lead, although my favorite is still the previous Feluda, Soumitra Chatterjee. In my mind Soumitra better embodies the amateur detective aspect while Sabyasachi looks more hardened and professional. One definite letdown is Bibhu Bhattacharya as Jotayu. Of course, anyone that has seen comic actor Santosh Dutta portraying Jotayu in the Satyajit Ray films can never picture another actor in the role, but Bhattacharya's performance is wholly forgettable, which is a big minus for the character. The other supporting actors fulfill their parts well and the technical aspects of the film are decent, with some nice jungle photography. The use of certain computer graphics is hit-and-miss but acceptable enough in the context of the film. On the whole this is a very decent Feluda adaptation, perhaps a little too faithful to the source, but well executed and easy to sit through...maybe even more than once.

The DVD by Sangeet India network actually features pretty good video, better than I have seen for several recent Hindi movies. Colors are natural and stable and the image has decent texture. The main flaw is a prominent orange logo near the top left of the screen, which unfortunately is present throughout the film. Sound is alright too. There's a bonus disc with extras, which I have yet to go through.

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