Editor’s note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
It is widely known that filmmaker Satyajit Ray was also the creator of one of the most popular detectives in Bengali literature — private investigator Prodosh Chandra Mitra, or Feluda — and that he went on to make as many as two films based on Feluda’s adventures. But those unfamiliar with Ray’s filmography probably may not know that he had also made a film on the other popular sleuth of Bengal — detective Byomkesh Bakshi. That film, made in 1967 and starring the legendary Uttam Kumar was Chiriyakhana (The Zoo). While all the ingredients seemed to be in the right place — a fascinating story, a popular detective, the greatest matinee idol of Bengali cinema playing said detective, and the master of the craft himself directing him in that role — Chiriyakhana has since earned the dubious reputation of being considered by Satyajit Ray himself as the weakest film in his own body of work.
A retired judge named Nishanath Sen approaches Byomkesh Bakshi on a rainy day. He tells Byomkesh that he has a nursery and a dairy farm in the suburbs of the city, and that several ‘inmates’ live in his colony and work for him. These inmates are not ordinary people — each of them have either some sort of physical deformity, or a dark past. Nishanath tasks Byomkesh with finding more information about a certain song from an old Bengali film, because he suspects that the actress who sang the song might be hiding in his colony under an assumed identity. Nishanath also tells Byomkesh that of late, someone has been sending him various motor parts at his office, although the objective of such a strange exercise was a complete mystery to him. Byomkesh and his friend Ajit visit Nishanath’s colony, and meet the strange and suspicious characters inhabiting it, but before they can investigate any further, Nishanath is murdered. It is now on Byomkesh to find out who the killer is and how he is related to the song or to the mysterious motor parts.
Veteran crime writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s story serves as a wonderful setting for Uttam Kumar to work his magic as Byomkesh Bakshi, which he does with commendable flair. But Ray’s lack of attention to detail, and the generally rushed flow of the film is for every film fan to see. The scenes hardly ‘hold’ together. The background music is in shambles. The audio is of very poor quality, the dubbing is worse. There are issues with continuity. And despite some genuine efforts, the characters sometime descend into caricature. The screenplay is not even remotely close to the high standards of Ray’s usual works, and some of the scenes, like a sequence in which Byomkesh shadows one of the inmates of the colony to a seedy Anglo-Indian neighbourhood in the city of Kolkata, are frankly childish. The film does have some good camera work in certain scenes though — for instance the one in which Byomkesh interrogates the deceased judge’s wife. And although Uttam Kumar brings just the right mix of sharp wit and carefree spirit to the character of the sleuth, he alone can’t save the film from being a disaster.
A bit of background might help one understand why some of these errors might have crept into the film. Right from the beginning, Chiriyakhana had been riddled with one problem after another — ranging from Ray’s usual financiers backing out at the last moment, to problems with schedules and dates when Uttam Kumar bagged a role in a Hindi film in (then) Bombay, to problems with crowd management during outdoor shoots, to coffers running dry while the film was being made, and finally, the unexpectedly impossible task of finding distributors once the film was somehow completed. Ray kept his patience and stuck with the film, going to the extent of improvising with the film’s background music when he ran out of money. It is said that he locked himself in a hotel room with nothing but a tape recorder and whatever musical instruments he could find lying around in his house. When he stepped out of the room the next day, the film’s background score was ready.
Of course, objectively speaking, these are not reasons enough to justify the poor quality of the film, because Ray had faced much greater hardships and far worse obstacles in making the absolutely marvellous film which we all know him for — Pather Panchali. But every creative artist has to have one black spot on his otherwise impressive resume. For Satyajit Ray, it turned out to be Chiriyakhana. There is no doubt that it is a poor film, by all standards. But what is really strange to note is what happened after it released in the theatres. In a scene early on in the film, Nishanath Sen asks Byomkesh Bakshi, ‘Do you watch Bengali films?’ — to which Byomkesh immediately responds in the negative without a trace of hesitation, reflecting Ray’s strongly critical views on the quality of Bengali films of those times and their audience. It is perhaps a strange twist of irony then, that the same audience made his film Chiriyakhana — which was, by his own admittance, the worst he ever made — into a box office success!
Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.