Chiriakhana (1967)

Sharmi has been reviewing one brilliant Bengali film after the other over at her blog. I ended up begging her to slow down, because I can’t possibly keep pace when it comes to obtaining—with subtitles, mind you—and watching so many great films. So what do I do? I watch and review a Bengali film of my own.

Chiriakhana (‘The Zoo’) is based on the famous crime novel of the same name by Saradindu Bandopadhyay. It features the detective Byomkesh Bakshi (which those of you who watched Doordarshan during the early 1990’s might remember from the superb TV series starring Rajit Kapur). The film was directed by Satyajit Ray, and though most feel that this is Ray’s worst film, it isn’t as bad as all that. It even won Ray a Golden Lotus at the National Film Awards.

The zoo in question isn’t literally a zoo; just a flower-cum-dairy-cum-poultry farm called Golap Colony, which is inhabited by a very odd assortment of people. The founder of Golap Colony is Nishanath Sen (Sushil Majumdar), a judge who retired 10 years earlier at the age of 47, after being told by his doctor that his high blood pressure could drive him into an early grave.

On a rainy day, with trams going by in the street below, Mr Sen comes to visit Byomkesh Bakshi (Uttam Kumar) at his flat. The room where he’s received is crowded with symbols of Byomkesh’s eclectic interests: a skeleton, a baby python, books, a cluttered desk with a soft board above it on which are pinned various phrases written in Bengali and English…

Also staying with Byomkesh at present is his friend and chronicler (“Your Dr Watson?” says Mr Sen), Ajit (Shailen Mukherjee). Mr Sen, having introduced himself and told Byomkesh about Golap Colony, gives a hint of why he’s come. There’s a song, he says – Bhalobashar tumi ki jaano (“What do you know of love?”) – which had been sung in a Bengali film made 7 or 8 years earlier. Mr Sen wants to know the name of the film, who produced it, and most importantly, who sang the song.

He wants Byomkesh to do that for him; and he wants Byomkesh to visit (with Ajit) Golap Colony. Why, he doesn’t say. But Byomkesh guesses correctly that all is not well at the farm. It’s a reform community of sorts, says Mr Sen; in his tenure as judge, he sent 22 men to their deaths. Now he’s trying to repent of that by sheltering a motley collection of people who would otherwise be social outcasts.

That evening, Byomkesh manages to wangle—through a friend of Ajit’s—a meeting with Ramen Mullick (Jahar Ganguly), the ‘Encyclopaedia of Cinema’.  The encyclopaedia delivers. The song, says Ramen, was sung (and picturised on) an actress called Sunayana, in a film named The Poison Tree. Later, Byomkesh even gets to see a clip of The Poison Tree—the song in question; the screen shot below is from that.

Ramen also shares some sordid facts about Sunayana. Nobody knew who she was or where she came from, or even where she lived. She worked only in The Poison Tree; and during the filming of it, she had an affair with a jeweller named Murari Dutta, though she was married. Murari Dutta showered her with jewellery, and one morning, in a room behind his jewellery shop, Murari Dutta was found murdered. Sunayana, who had been with him the previous night—Ramen Mullick himself testified to that—was suspected of the murder. A warrant was issued for her arrest, but she disappeared. No-one has seen her since.

The next morning, Byomkesh and Ajit go to Golap Colony, Byomkesh (on Mr Sen’s suggestion) disguised as a Japanese horticulturist named Okakura. He makes for a thoroughly unconvincing Japanese, but it gives him an excuse to take photographs of everybody who lives in Golap Colony. And what a lot they are!

To start with, there’s Mr Sen’s wife Damayanti (Kanika Majumdar). She is beautiful, gentle and quiet—and a whole lot younger than him. So much younger, in fact, that Byomkesh guesses she’s his second wife.

Mr Sen’s nephew Bijoy (Subhendu Chatterjee) also lives on the farm, and is deeply attached to both his uncle and his aunt.

There is Panugopal (Chinmoy Roy), who has a speech defect and seems somewhat simple-minded, but whose heart is in the right place.

…and Rashiklal (Kalipada Chakravarti), one-armed and seemingly not capable of much in the way of physical labour.

Then there’s an array of people with pasts. Foremost of these is Nepal Gupta (Prasad Mukherjee), scientist, chemist and whatnot, half of whose face is burnt and scarred thanks to a bomb he’d been making that exploded prematurely. Nepal Gupta is cocksure, rude, critical, too full of himself—and has very definite views on how Golap Colony should be managed.

With him stays his daughter Mukul (Subira Roy). Nepal Gupta had been interested in arranging a match between Mukul and Bijoy, and both parties too seemed keen on that. But Bijoy appears to have fallen into the clutches of an (unnamed) “shameless wanton hussy”, leaving Mukul unhappy and her father fuming.

Byomkesh soon realises who the hussy might be: the attractive Banalakshmi (Gitali Roy), whose tale is a sad one of being seduced and brought to Calcutta before being deserted. We never know who did that to her, but Bijoy—who goes to Calcutta every day to manage Golap Colony’s flower shop in New Market—came across her in Calcutta, took pity on her, and brought her here to give her a place to stay. Banalakshmi now does the sewing for the little community.

Next door to Banalakshmi lives the community’s resident doctor, Bhujangadhar Das (Shyamal Ghoshal). Not that he’s officially a doctor anymore; though he holds a degree from the Royal College of Surgeons, he has been de-recognised a few years previously for having carried out an abortion.

Also with a disreputable past is Brajadas (Bankim Ghosh), once Nishanath Sen’s clerk. He had been caught embezzling office funds and was sentenced to a long spell in jail by Mr Sen. During his stint in jail, Brajadas has found religion and is now a staunch, God-fearing Vaishnavite. He looks after the community’s cows.

There is Mushkil Mian (Nripati Chatterjee), the driver of Golap Colony’s official means of transportation, a horse-drawn wagon. Mushkil Mian is the one who tells Byomkesh, on the way from the railway station to the farm, that Golap Colony is a chiriakhana—a zoo.

Muskhil Mian’s wife, Najar Bibi (Subrata Chatterjee), giggly and silly and an inveterate eavesdropper, looks after the poultry at the farm.

One of these women might possibly be the murderess Sunayana. One of these people might in some way be connected to the motor parts—a spark plug, an old rubber tire, etc—which Mr Sen finds thrown at his house every two weeks or so. But who? And who, a few days down the line, brutally murders Mr Sen, leaving Byomkesh to solve a case more serious than just the puzzle of a mysterious woman or the regular appearance of some spare parts?

What I liked, what I didn’t like, and some comparisons:

That is a lot to cover in one section, but it all goes together—because what I liked and what I didn’t like about Chiriakhana has a lot to do with my (unconsciously, even) comparing it to Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s original story. Being the purist that I am, I tend to think less of a film that seriously distorts the original story.

Based on that, I’d say Chiriakhana is a good adaptation, as far as story is concerned. Satyajit Ray, no mean writer of detective stories himself, makes some smart changes in the film that correct what I thought were shortcomings in the original story. For instance, in the story, Nishanath Sen gives no reason for suspecting that Sunayana is one of the inhabitants of Golap Colony. In the film, Ray provides a reason: Mr Sen has heard a voice from the past—the voice he had heard singing Bhalobashar tumi ki jaano—on the farm, singing once again that same song from the film. Why he should feel a compulsion to find out who this woman is, isn’t explained, though; not in the story, and not in the film.

Satyajit Ray also makes other changes, snipping off unnecessary bits of story and streamlining it to maintain the basic structure of the plot without damaging Byomkesh’s investigation of the crime to any great extent. If anything, Ray makes the plot more believable, less dramatic. The style in which Mr Sen is murdered is more mundane, less difficult to achieve, than Bandyopadhyay makes it out to be. The film’s climax, too, is more prosaic than the story’s—and, ironically enough, less filmi! (Saradindu Bandyopadhyay, incidentally, did a stint in Bombay in the film industry before devoting himself full-time to writing; perhaps the sometimes-filminess of his writing is a remnant of those days?)

But there are flaws in Ray’s interpretation of Chiriakhana. Other viewers have pointed out other deviations from the story: for example, the Byomkesh of Ray’s film is, unlike his Bandyopadhyay counterpart, a bachelor, staying with a married Ajit (the Ajit in the story is a bachelor) while Ajit’s wife is away in Ghatshila. Not a change that makes a huge difference to the plot itself, I think, but it’s a reflection of how Ray changed Byomkesh to be more a Ray detective than a Bandyopadhyay detective.

Uttam Kumar plays a dashing, street-smart private eye (dashing enough to have an Anglo-Indian girl openly make eyes at him), a man who inhabits a home that is so obviously an eccentric detective’s bachelor pad: messy, crowded with scientific elements, even a baby python in residence. This man is a far cry from Bandyopadhyay’s brilliant but otherwise fairly ‘normal’ Byomkesh Bakshi, who certainly had neither snake nor skeleton in his drawing room. And Ray’s detective, if he were so messy, would probably not have survived your typical Indian housewife—Satyaboti (Byomkesh’s wife in the novels and stories) would have made Byomkesh clean up! So Ray makes Byomkesh a bachelor, wifeless, footloose and fancy-free.

Ray is said to have not been fond of Chiriakhana; he derided it as being a whodunit, 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 (not a theory I subscribe to). It does, to some extent, in Chiriakhana though—I found my attention wandering a bit now and then.

Other than that, there were some things that irritated me. Firstly, the baby python. Cheesy, unnecessary, and distracting. Secondly, Byomkesh’s disguising himself as Okakura. Silly and unconvincing, since he looks not even vaguely Japanese, despite the makeup. I could see why his being an outsider would lull the Golap colonists’ suspicions and allow him to take photographs that Byomkesh could later pin up above his desk and use in his detective work. But why not a race closer in appearance to Indian? Thirdly, there’s the rather glaring obviousness of which woman in Golap Colony is Sunayana. The fact that Byomkesh has both seen and heard Sunayana (onscreen) and the woman in question (in Golap Colony) makes it a little hard to believe that he hasn’t recognised her, makeup and more notwithstanding.

Not a great film. Not a great Ray, and not a great detective film. But still, entertaining enough, and a good way to pass the time. And if, like me, you like Uttam Kumar, certainly recommended.

P.S. Yves asked whether I thought the film interesting for someone who hadn’t read the story, and I realised I hadn’t actually said anything about that. So, an extension to this post:

This is, if you look at it in complete isolation – not compared to Bandyopadhyay’s story – pretty comme ci, comme ça. The story is interesting in parts, but it tends to get boring towards the middle, and I thought some of the deductions Byomkesh makes didn’t really fit. If I hadn’t read Bandyopadhyay’s story before I watched the film, I think some of what transpired in the film would have probably not made sense to me.

So, yes; Chiriakhana isn’t a very good detective film. On the other hand, it’s not anywhere as bad as some others I’ve seen. If you’ve decided you want to watch as much Ray as you can, put this on your list too.

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40 thoughts on “Chiriakhana (1967)

  1. I have not seen this one for I had heard this is not one of Ray’s best efforts. From your review I gather he has made some changes, I am not very comfortable with director’s making changes in the original story, a writer writes with a certain thought (being a writer yourself I guess you will understand what I am trying to say) for instance for me Ray’s Shantranj Ke Khilari was a huge disappointment for he changed Premchand’s ending which was crucial to what Premchand wanted to convey to his readers, Ray’s ending did not convey Premchand’s thought, do you agree with me?

    • Oh yes. I agree. The ending of Shatranj ke khilari was a bit of a let down (?).
      Munshi Premchand had wanted the ending of this story to be symbolic (concerning those times).

      • I have to admit it’s been too long since I saw Shatranj ke Khiladi for me to remember much of it – I saw it as a child, so recall only some bits of the film. Plus, I’ve never read Premchand’s story – so can’t comment. But yes, I am one of those who don’t like to see stories being mutilated when they’re adapted for cinema. Chiriakhana isn’t changed very much – in fact, I think to some extent the changes Ray makes are good, since they address flaws in the original story. What I didn’t like, though, was Ray’s distortion of Byomkesh’s character – this Byomkesh is very different from Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh!

      • Though just like madhu it is a long time since I saw Shatranj ke Khiladi, I loved the end. For me anything else would have been contrary to the chess player’s characters.

        • The point that the original one was making is that these ‘addicts’ of chess could;

          *spoiler*
          …give up their lives for the king/queen of their chessmen, but not for their land.
          A sort of commentary on the nawabs. Leisure vs duty.

          *end spoiler*

          So I think they were very much in character. :)

          • Ah, now I have to watch it again. Though I seem to recall something of that… I remember, even as a child, that the lasting impression of the film was that chess – as a symbol of leisure, whatever – was paramount. Not country, not region, not honour in that respect.

            • While reading my comment again I realised the ‘spoiler’ could be mistaken for the film, but its the ‘short story’ whose end I was giving my opinion about as keeping in character.

              In the film they didn’t show this which was not a good odea.

    • I recently started reading ‘Byomkesh” series once again and then comparing the stories that have been made into films. And I totally agree that Satyajit Ray has done very little justice to the changes he thought were required from the original story.
      It is undoubtedly one of the Ray’s worst films. One wonders how it was given a “national award”. The Japanese “Okakura” was childish and absolutely unprofessional, both concept wise and acting wise.

      • Yes, that Okakura impersonation was so completely mindless. And it wasn’t needed; as I mentioned in my post, he could well have pretended to be – well, whatever, maybe even an Indian from another part of the country. There was absolutely no need for that idiotic disguise.

  2. Hello Madhu,

    My ears always prick up when I hear about a Satyajit Ray movie: am I right or did I not really see what you liked about the film? You say it follows the story rather well, even improving it at times: but for people who haven’t read Bandyopadhyay’s original story, would this be an interesting movie to watch?
    Thanks,
    yves

    • Hey Yves, sorry for that – I’m going to answer your question, and then go add this to my post as well!

      This is, if you look at it in complete isolation – not compared to Bandyopadhyay’s story – pretty comme ci, comme ça. The story is interesting in parts, but it tends to get boring towards the middle, and I thought some of the deductions Byomkesh makes didn’t really fit. If I hadn’t read Bandyopadhyay’s story before I watched the film, I think some of what transpired in the film would have probably not made sense to me.

      So, yes; Chiriakhana isn’t a very good detective film. On the other hand, it’s not anywhere as bad as some others I’ve seen. If you’ve decided you want to watch as much Ray as you can, put this on your list too.

  3. Nooooo!! I’m already behind in collecting Sharmi’s excellently reviewed Bengali films!
    But on second thoughts a huge (?) collection will not hurt.
    And it has Uttam Kumar, my newly found love :-D

    I haven’t read the review, only what you liked and didn’t like. There seems to be a lot you didn’t like, but I’ll try to get it because of Uttam Kumar.

    Thanks for this review (which I didn’t/won’t read, it being a whodunit types), but which has added another number to my list.

    • I am a big Uttam Kumar fan too – and I do think he makes a very debonair Byomkesh Bakshi, even though he’s not quite the Byomkesh I’d imagined! Yes, there was quite a bit I didn’t like about the film, but Uttam Kumar is one of the reasons I’d recommend it. :-)

  4. now this sounds reaLLY INTERESTING!
    but I still have two Ray DVDs to watch!!!!!!
    Nayak and ???
    Uttam Kumar does look dashing and very, very handsome!! the anglo-indian character does have good tast

    • “the anglo-indian character does have good taste”

      And that, after he pulls a gun on her! ;-) Yes, well… if it were Uttam Kumar doing that to me, I’d probably not have given a damn about the gun either.

  5. can you beat this??? The day I told you that I will slow down, I was going to review this one. But now I won’t because you have done a great job of this. I watched it again that day and even though this is not the best of Ray magic, I quite like it. Uttam Kumar is so good.
    We sure were involved in telepathy, right!!!!
    Thank you so much for the great review.

    • My goodness, that is telepathic! And considering that this is only the third Bengali film I’ve ever reviewed on this blog… uncanny!!

      Oh, but please do review it, I’d love to know what you think of it other than the fact that you liked Uttam Kumar too (what’s not to like?!)

  6. I understand your frustration with the film quite well! When one watches great director’s films like Ray or Gurudutt, it’s hard to forgive them there small ‘failings’. Like the japanese impersonation here.. There was a time when I liked savvy detectives, but now I prefer ones like Monk, though Monk is an extreme example. A small failing here, a small vice there. That is why I think Sherlock Holmes’ charm so eternal! I think I would have liked the original Byomkesh Bakshi!

  7. I remember reading the story, for some reason I remembered it as being a Ray story. But I didn’t like the story much either. It seemed too contrived, and also if I remember right, emphasized too much on a woman having to be virtuous, (though I may be wrong about that).

    But the faces in your screencaps look really nice, and I always like watching a Bengali film, if for nothing else, to listen to the language.

    • I agree with you about the story being contrived, and empasizing the need for a woman to be ‘virtuous’… it is. Ray, in my opinion, manages to reduce both. He makes the story a little more believable (while on the other hand introducing two unnecessary disguises for Byomkesh). And he makes the women a little more human – not the immoral and loose hussies Bandyopadhyay’s story seems to suggest.

  8. Thank you Dusted Off. Having now watched Chiriakhana three times, firstly at its showing in the current BFI Ray season, then on YouTube, as I tried to unravel the complexities of the plot (without the benefit of having read the book), I found your clear and beautifully presented (text and photos) commentary exactly what I needed. I must confess, I absolutely loved Uttam Kumar. His impersonation of a Japanese simply made me giggle. Dr Das was the only one who might have seen through it. But actually, I loved the whole film. I adore all Ray films. After getting through the appalling YouTube ads for the latest American films, one reaches the Ray film on the other side like oxygen.

    • After getting through the appalling YouTube ads for the latest American films, one reaches the Ray film on the other side like oxygen.

      I know the feeling! Ray was a master of the craft, no doubt about it. I must admit (very shamefacedly) that I’ve seen far fewer films of his than I should have, but your comment has just reminded me that I should set about watching some more Ray. Thank you!

  9. This is the best write up on Chiriakhana I have read so far.Some critic has had the audacity of writing that Jisshu Sengupta is much more handsome and a better Byomkesh than Uttam Kumar which seems laughable to me.It is true the film seems more smarter than the story .The story was published periodically in some daily so naturally it had to end with some real gritty and suspense stuff every week and had to retain the readers attention.But in a suspense film one has to be as taut as possible in one hour and 50 minutes so naturally Ray had to cut and trim every bit and may be bring a different trajectory to some aspects .The serpent bit might seem silly at the onset but I think he has given us a clue.The bengali saying “dudh kola diye shaap posha “comes to mind .It means how much you feed a snake with milk and banana it will one day turn round and bite you.That is his nature.And Dr,Das ‘s name is Bhujango which means cobra .And in a way the judge might have had a prick of conscience and rehabilitate them but they don’t see it that way,for them it is still imprisonment.Man does not live by bread alone ,they are still answerable for everything to Mr Sen.And about the disguise ..the Japanese getup becomes the most plausible and features can be changed and more so because other ethnicity does not much scope for changing the features and also it will also give him the scope for not uttering a word of English.And Ray if he wanted to bring him again on the scene had to make him incognito in this occasion..It did not get any acclaim but surprisingly enough got an award.But the critics panned it so also most of the audience and Ray himself said to Marie Seton “You’ll be tickled to know that I won the State Award (Rs.5000)as the best director —- for Chiriakhana!!!!There seems to be a dearth of prize worthy directors in India.” To me it seems Ray himself had not realised what a fine film it was and Maire Seton had realised it as a competent detective film though it afforded less imaginatve scope than any story chosen by Ray.Ray had made drastic changes from the original story.Actually I can write reams on every aspect of the film,on Jahar Ganguly’s Langboat which shows his class and Mr.Sen’s WATSON which shows the difference between them and many othersRay himself after a while was pleased with the outcome but did not deem it suitable for export as “the vital clue is a matter of semantics which is untranslatable”.He was not sure whether it might not be rather too subtle and introspective to appeal to mass audiences.”Certainly not for Bond-addicts”.
    Just like any Ray films it is imperative to watch it several times .A Ray film can only be fully appreciated after several viewings.Like a diamond ,every polish brings out the real sparkle
    .

  10. Hi, I was browsing for popular adaptations of Chiriakhana so as to make the text interesting for my students, and I found your blog story. I found it very interesting and useful, though unfortunately I could not watch the film because it is in Bangla. Could you please help me by giving me a link to the film with Hindi/English subtitles, or a dubbed version? I’ll be deeply obliged. Many thanks!

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