Dibakar Banerjee’s film, Detective Byomkesh Bakshi, has split passions down the middle. But, this whodunnit is remarkable for other reasons: its desire to locate the story in turbulent geopolitical times and its portrayal of murky corridors of contraband trade.
The movie—apart from multiple directorial mis-steps (such as, an inability to re-imagine Calcutta’s streets of yore)—is a bit like a smouldering pot, blending not only interesting and menacing geopolitical fragments of those fraught times but also flavouring the brew with dark hints of suspicion targeted at the city’s Chinese and Japanese citizens.
The film is set in the Calcutta of 1942. The city was then a hub for the Allied forces, an oasis of rest and recreation for the battle-weary soldiers of World War II. The British naval forces were in retreat from the Indian Ocean theatre of war, pounded by a stronger Japanese fleet. As Emperor Hirohito’s Imperial forces marched across the Asian continent, having already captured strategic staging posts — such as, Penang, Singapore, Burma and Port Blair in Andaman Islands — the next logical stop was Calcutta. Japanese planes rained bombs on the city in 1942 (and also in 1944).
Here was a city occupied by foreigners and under attack from another set of foreigners. It was in pause mode, just months before the Allied forces would launch a massive counter-offensive in South-east Asia, under the command of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. Intrigue, conspiracy, suspicion, black-market dealings were the daily norm. Throw in a couple of murders and a cross-border blood trail, and then detective-fiction meets geopolitics. Add to the mix opium smuggling to Shanghai and the setting for a noir narrative is complete. Into this combat zone, Dibakar Banerjee parachutes fictional detective Byomkesh Bakshi.
The director has simply followed the script. Writer Sharadindu Bandopadhyay had sired detective Byomkesh Bakshi in cosmopolitan Calcutta (the first story was published in 1924), a city at the crossroads of Asian commerce and trade, an entrepot brimming with Anglo-Indians, Chinese, Jews, Armenians, Muslims and Parsis, in addition to the Hindus. A riverine port—the country’s oldest operating port—barely 200km from the sea, Japanese bombers repeatedly tried to undermine Calcutta’s geostrategic position.
Sharadindu styled Byomkesh as a dilettante, an amateur sleuth, perhaps fashioned loosely on Dorothy Sayers’s creation Lord Peter Wimsey. But, more than a detective, he is a satyanveshi (truth-seeker) and pursues leads, clues and hunches with dogged determination, without regard for remuneration or recompense. His reward is solving the crime and apprehending the guilty; and earning a bit of fame (or perhaps notoriety) in the process is always welcome.
Byomkesh is astute, well-read and able to connect multiple dots. He untangles a sordid skein of seemingly disparate events—the murder and mysterious return of an opium smuggling kingpin, a disrupted Calcutta-Shanghai opium supply chain, crepuscular Chinese denizens moving in the shadows of legendary Tiretta Bazaar, the disappearance and murder of an innovative Bengali chemist, a coquettish Bengali-Burmese seductress floating ethereally in a silk-brocade cheongsam, the furtive goings-ons at a Japanese dentist’s clinic, the deathly pall of bombings hanging over a fetid Calcutta skyline, a British police commissioner concerned with a missing opium consignment.
In his books and stories on Byomkesh, Sharadindu was able to depict Calcutta as a modern city, where education, commerce, arts, literature, culture and religion thrived together. The Calcutta of 1942 — as represented by either Sharadindu in his books or by Dibakar Banerjee’s movie — is doubly likeable because of the stark contrast with present-day conditions. Today’s charged atmosphere of bigotry stands in sharp relief to that nonchalant air of tolerance, that comfortable sense of cosmopolitanism that has long been eroded by the steady flight of citizens, its culture of wide scholarship replaced by rote learning. Calcutta Port—renamed Kolkata Port Trust in recent years—is now encumbered by tonnes of silt brought in by the river from upstream and plays host to only lighter and smaller vessels,.
Sharadindu’s rendering of Calcutta as a global city will, sadly, remain encapsulated only in memories. That’s probably true of many other Indian cities.
Rajrishi Singhal is Senior Geoeconomics Fellow, Gateway House. He has been a senior business journalist, and Executive Editor, The Economic Times, and served as Head, Policy and Research, at a private sector bank.
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