The mystery of the genuine-looking Feluda

A whole flotilla of Feluda shows have appeared on the OTT shores the last couple of years leading up to the 30th death anniversary of Satyajit Ray in 2022. A new movie based on the adventures of the private detective and his posse is scheduled for release this Christmas.

For the world outside the Bengali metaverse, Ray may be that Oscar-winning auteur-director. But for the Bengali – whether in Ballygunge or Baltimore – it’s his stories of Feluda a.k.a. Prodosh S Mitter that continue to enthrall and keep a franchise booming. Many young Bongs, especially of the diasporic variety, cannot/do not read the Bengali script. In any case, even translations in English of Feluda stories have given way to movies and now OTT shows, since speaking and understanding the language is literally easier said and heard than done.

As is the case with all legacy creations, every generation has its own claim to them. Fans of the 1984-94 Sherlock Holmes TV drama series played by Jeremy Brett will do more than just scoff at the modernised adaptation of the Victorian London sleuth placed in 21st century doner kabab shop settings with Engelbert Humperdinck, sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch as the high-performing cocaine addict.

Similarly, each time a new tranche of Feluda shows or movies come out, to the bemusement and incomprehenson of the rest of the universe, the Bengali world lets out a collective cry of outrage that goes far beyond Aishwarya’s ‘Issh!’ in Devdas in proclaiming how horrible, and horribly far this Feluda is from the original. While some of this anguish is based on how one’s views matters like production quality, quality of acting, etc, the bulk of criticism against the post-Ray Feluda films and shows boils down to ‘blasmphemous’ deviations from Ray’s two Feluda films from the 1970s, especially how Felu and his two comrades are n’t looking ‘right’.

The benchmark of how a fictional character looks is usually set by how he or she first visually appears, not necessarily how he or she is textually described. Whether it’s the first illustrations by Sidney Paget depicting Arthur Conan Doyle’s lean, equine-faced hero in The Strand Magazine serialisations, or of Ray’s depiction of the Charminar-smoking PI, played by Soumitra ‘Apu’ Chatterjee in his movies – itself based on Ray’s illustrations for his Feluda stories (which may have been, in turn, based on Ray’s favourite actor, Soumitra), a gospel is born.

But then how did a gaunt 4th century Greek Christian bishop by the name of St Nicholas, who vaguely resembled Iran’s legendary Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, end up in the collective imagination as a ho-ho-hoverweight Jerry Garcia in a red-and-white costume? Answer: the ubiquity of artist Haddon Sunblom’s depiction of Santa for Coca-Cola’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. This, even though today’s standard image of Mr Claus was created by illustrator Rose O’Neill for the 1903 issue of the humour magazine, Puck.

In a delightfully illuminating piece published last Sunday in the Bengali newspaper Pratidin, Anindya Chattopadhyay writes about how going to a Christian school, he was familiar with the standard image of Jesus – a blonde, blue-eyed saviour. But when Chattopadhyay first visited the British Museum in London, he saw the first possible portrait of Jesus on the cover of a 2,000-odd years old booklet (codex) discovered in the village of Saham, Jordan, in 2006. The ‘hippie’ Christ gives way to a swarthy young man with flowing dark hair and beard, and possibly a crown of thorns on his head.

In his piece, Chattopadhyay also asks how Chaitanya Mahaprabhu a.k.a. Gouranga (The Fair-Skinned One) became visually familiar to us as the doe-eyed, fair, long-fingered man, since no 15th century visual record of the mystic exists. The writer asks, ‘How much do the gods owe to calendar art? How they look, their identities are revealed by their portraits on household walls…. Brahma is usually depicted as somewhat older, Krishna as ever-young.’

Like the older gods, the newer heroes are also recognisable by the way they have been depicted over time. Yes, sometimes ‘first-mover advantage’ holds, as is the cause for the seasonal brouhahas over deviations from ‘Ray’s Feluda’. But it’s really ‘most-mover advantage’ – the most familiar image of our gods and heroes – that gives them their ‘look’.


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