Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God)

One of the most charming things about Joi Baba Felunath is that Satyajit Ray made it at all. Ray invented the master detective Feluda—a sort of Bengali, subcontinent-trotting Sherlock Holmes—for a children’s magazine story in 1965.* When Feluda’s fans started writing him to ask for a movie, Ray complied, first with Sonar Kella (1971), then Joi Baba Felunath (1978). (Sandip Ray continued the series after his father’s death; the latest Feluda picture, Kailashey Kelenkari, appeared last year.)

If you’re new to Feluda, like I was, Joi Baba Felunath takes some time to get into. The movie assumes you’re familiar with Feluda, his young Watson, Topshe, and Lalmohan Ganguly (pen name “Jayatu”), the bumbling detective novelist who accompanies the pair on their adventures. All three are famous inside the world of the film, which gets a lot of self-reflexive mileage out of the blur between fiction and reality. The plot’s a generic whodunnit involving a stolen Ganesh statuette, nabbed in the bustle of the Durga Puja in Kashi (Benares). (One of the film’s pleasures is watching Ray revisit scenes from the Benares portion of Aparajito, shot over twenty years before.)

But the movie isn’t so much about the story as it is about the nature of stories, especially the way they’re passed on. The film opens with an old man telling legends of the gods to a child. Later, Ganguly discovers that one of his stories has inspired the child—who plays at being “Captain Spark” with his grandfather as his trusty Watson, “Ruxit”—to invent a story of his own, which the mystery ultimately turns on.** Ganguly himself is sort of a triple fiction: an invention of Ray’s who invents fictions under an invented name, played by an actor bringing the fictional Ganguly to life. (According to Wikipedia, Santosh Dutta’s depiction of Ganguly “fed back” into Ray’s later Feluda stories, as he changed the character to fit Dutta’s performance.)

In probably the cleverest twist of the film, Feluda’s client (the same grandfather who plays Ruxit in his grandson’s stories) turns out to be a huge mystery fan, who measures the team at each turn against their literary antecedents, especially Holmes. There’s in fact a strong suggestion that the entire movie is really a story the grandfather’s put into motion to bring his favorite fictions to life, just as he plays his old songs over and over on an antique gramophone.

A friend of mine is writing a book on the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon as a benchmark of modernity. Holmes was the first fictional character to be taken as real, or at least as a collective fiction that readers agreed to treat as real, as the letters that poured in to “221 B Baker Street” attest.*** In Joi Baba Felunath, Ray explores this aspect of modern popular culture in an especially acute way. By setting the story during a religious holiday in Kashi, he’s able to suggest the Feludas and Holmeses of our rational, mystery-solving age as successors to the gods of myth and legend. In both cases, Ray seems to be saying that what’s most important about these tales isn’t how "true" they are, but how it is they’re transmitted and put to use; how they become mirrors that help us organize and improvise our own identities in an era where gurus and Ganeshes have made way for Miss Marples and Mr. Spocks (and where oral tradition cedes to film.)

The cross-cultural borrowing, as Ray openly and lovingly "Bangla-izes" Holmes, is part of the point, too: the Feluda phenomenon is a case study in how we make stories real, and really "ours." (I wonder if Lalmohan Ganguly, student and second-hand teller of Feluda's adventures—and Ray's most original addition to the Holmes/Watson dyad—is meant as a comic self-portrait: Ray's watermark on the story he's handing on.)

At the end of the movie, Feluda of course manages to restore the god to its rightful owner, who’s free again to pass it on to “Captain Spark,” and into futurity.

*The magazine, Sandesh, was started by Ray's grandfather, edited by his father, and revived by Ray in 1961. It's still running (though barely) today.
**To complicate matters, Ganguly also has a fictional arch-rival who writes fiction, parts of whose stories it turns out the boy’s borrowed from as well. Their literary rivalry's acted out through the parts of their tales the boy's chosen to lift from to invent his own.

***Art imitates art: here's an (untranslated) clip of a journalist seeking Feluda's "real" address in Kolkata.


konrad said...

What a hall of mirrors!

rodney k said...

Yeah, and it wears it all so lightly. The picture above says it all.

mark wallace said...

Rodney, do you have any idea how one could get these films on either DVD or videotape? I teach a class on Detectives in Film and Fiction and I'm always looking both for films and books that can expand the range of the detective genre--especially its cultural range.

Other suggestions along the lines of international films with key detective elements would be really helpful too.


rodney k said...

Hi Mark,

I found Joi Baba Felunath on Netflix. Haven't tracked down Sonar Kella yet. Ray's Feluda stories are published in English by Penguin, I think. I like the cross-cultural "detective narrative" angle of your course and will try to think of more. Anyone?