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.