Why Soumitra Chatterjee's Feluda Will Remain Etched as The Forever Favourite of 90s Kids

Soumitro Chatterjee in a still from Satyajit Ray's Joy Baba Felunath. (Credit: Youtube)

Soumitro Chatterjee in a still from Satyajit Ray's Joy Baba Felunath. (Credit: Youtube)

Feluda was a hero, a utopian character and for a 10-12-year-old, he was the 'best thing'. And with, Soumitra Chatterjee's iconic portrayal of the character with his smart, sharp and thinking man's gait and the deadpan sarcasm-- he became synonymous with Feluda.


Deblina Dasgupta

While recounting an anecdote during his pre-Feluda days when he graced the Sourav Ganguly hosted quiz show 'Dadagiri Unlimited' close to a decade ago, Soumitra Chatterjee had said, "I was ecstatic that I could be a part of a film that is made solely for the kishor (children)... we don't make many of those in Bengali cinema for the children. "

Chatterjee went on to become the face of Satyajit Ray's Feluda for children across generations.

Ray, a multitude of talent rolled into one often used to sketch illustrations of his characters. During one of his creative sessions, Chatterjee had once asked the filmmaker whether he kept himself in mind when he sketched the character of Feluda. Ray, he had said, quipped back, "Why, people tell me I do it keeping you in mind!"

For a regular 1990s born kid in a Bengali household, growing up in Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta) included frequent summer trips to mamabari (maternal uncles' place) in Bandel, a town some 40-50 kms from the city. It was here that a full house inclusive of dadai-dida (maternal grandparents) two uncles, their wives, and my mother and I would sit down in front of the television set after lunch. The occasional tussle over settling for a particular channel used to take a breather when DD Bangla or Zee Bangla aired the old black and white Bengali classics.

The Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen sagas were a regular feature, considering dida-dadai were ardent admirers, something a 10-12-year-old was yet not accustomed to watching with a desired effect. But that changed when 'Sonar Kella' aired. Transcending across generations, the Ray masterpiece was enjoyed by all of us. The feature film had us sitting with rapt attention glued to the TV set instead of giving in to the pleasure of 'bhaat ghum'( the Bengali term for afternoon nap especially after a plateful of rice and fish). The film was special in more ways than one because apart from children's storybooks in English and Bengali, this was one of the first offerings from the visual medium that had me and thousands of other Bengali kids hooked.

Feluda was a cultural hero, a utopian character and for a 10-12-year-old, he was only describable as the 'best thing ever'. Sonar Kella's allure was its suspense, its characters, the thrill and the wonderful locales of Jaisalmer, not to forget the idiosyncrasies and humour of Jatayu and the youthful energy of Topshe (Tapesh). And with Chatterjee's iconic portrayal of the character with his smart, sharp and thinking man's gait and the deadpan sarcasm-- he became synonymous with Feluda.

While Chatterjee was the first actor to portray Feluda, his shoes were to a large extent filled by Sabyasachi Chakraborty, another Bengali stalwart. Chakraborty took on the mantle of the smart sleuth in 1996 with Baksho Rohoshyo, a part of TV films directed by Sandip Ray, filmmaker and Satyajit Ray's son. Chakraborty has ended up playing the character on screen many more times than Chatterjee, who only did it for Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath.

Looking back at Chatterjee's two Feluda films, what brought on the partiality towards the Ray-made detective films is something that cannot be articulated for any one particular reason. It definitely in part was due to the fact that it was envisioned and made by the maestro himself, who had such a perfect understanding of children's literature, thus bringing to the fore the simplicity and beauty of children's characters in both the films, Mukul and Ruku, the grandson of the Ghoshal family in Joy Baba Felunath. Adding to it was the backdrop of the films, Benaras and Jaisalmer of the yore that tugged at nostalgia. But it was also and to a large extent the allure of going back to the golden old phase that resonated more and Chatterjee's original raw authenticity in portraying the character.

Reminiscing the film decades later, Chatterjee had himself mentioned how he felt Joy Baba Felunath was the better film of the two, a beautifully told story projected through a wonderful colour palette, showcasing the ghats of Benaras and the simple joys of growing up a small town offered. His Feluda also had a staid, somber bearing and relied on 'mogojastro' (brain-weapon), as he tells young Ruku in the film. There were also little details to the character Chatterjee brought along with him, like the ice-cold mannerism while dealing with Maganlal Meghraj to his enlightening interactions with Lalmohan Babu and Topshe, which often were results of hilarious gaffes.

Today as Bengal mourns together the irreparable loss of the last man of the Golden era of celluloid, as someone who went above and beyond the Ray films and firmly established himself as a doyen of world cinema by giving shape to his mentor's filmmaking vision, Chatterjee is beyond petty regionalism and Bengali culture. His legacy is definitely going to include the ease with which his craft evolved and transcended across varied ages of Bengali cinema as he continued to work with new-age directors and younger co-stars.

The man was an institution in himself, an assimilation of all things Bengali. And his Feluda, a fitting portrayal of a memorable character that continues to inspire artists, filmmakers and aspects of socio-culture to carry on in its wake. For a generation of Bengali children, reading and watching Feluda was definitely ahead of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. And as I near the end of my humble attempt of a tribute, a shot of painful nostalgia punches in the gut. For this Feluda fan at least, Chatterjee’s Charminaar-puffing lanky sleuth will always be numero-uno. That’s a promise.

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