Feluda: The Common Man's Detective

The pale women persistently uttered, “Detective, you have to help me!”

The instant imagery conjured up in our minds is of a charming Humphrey Bogart from the Maltese Falcon or a sharp Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot from more popular works of western fiction. One could not possibly imagine a tall, athletic, betel chewing, cigarette smoking, musing desi sleuth in such a situation solving crimes like a pro, using his intellect more than his might. Well not without some extension of imagination. However this is exactly what makes Pradosh Chandra Mitter AKA ‘Feluda’ stand apart among other super-sleuths. I first encountered him when I was 14 years old and he immediately swooped me away with his myriad knowledge about informative trivia. 

Feluda and his homeboy Topshe drawn by Satyajit Ray himself. Strong resemblance to Adam West and Burt Ward!

We often associate the character of a super sleuth being someone who has upper class mannerisms, twirls in tweed jackets, plays the violin (I'm looking at you Hugh Laurie...and well, Sherlock) and quotes classical authors. Our local desi sleuth has no such qualms about him. He is a simpleton who does his regular yoga asanas every morning and is quite a cool headed Bengali. There is absolutely no glorification about his characterization; the emphasis is more on the way he solves crimes overcoming intricate innovative plotting. His persona simply draws from his actions and behaviour rather than his image projection. The column thus aims to recognize, acknowledge and appreciate the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

Today’s pop culture sells us heavily advertised, re-branded super characters who always have an aspirational quotient so as to sell them more as a merchandise rather than a mere product of fiction. The character of ‘Feluda’, brilliantly penned by Satyajit Ray also draws a lot from the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; but he sets it apart by making Feluda like water rather than wine. The value of the former supersedes the latter in so many ways. Also the intention of the Feluda series was to captivate the fancy of young children by making them aware of the situation of the ever-changing India of those times. The idea was so give the readers an Indian character that would reside more in imagination than in comics, dolls or movies. However Feluda also exits as a comic illustration sketched by Ray himself.

Here's Satyajit Ray plotting the connected Ray-verse, where Feluda meets Professor Shonku...and then discuss socialist themes.

The way common and ordinary are perceived today is often tagged as boring and uninteresting, hence we are distanced away from even noticing some one like a Feluda who does the same thing as his western counterparts but just does not appear as glamorous and striking while doing it. Feluda has his sidekicks much like Watson from Holmes. His cousin Topshe narrates his adventures while Lalmohan Babu, a writer and friend stands by his side whenever trouble lurks around. The sidekicks too are regular individuals lacking in charisma but somehow manage to capture the reader’s fancy, offering the much-needed comic relief from time to time. 

All these characters slowly succumb the reader to a world full of adventures involving thefts, robberies, murders, puzzles, treasure hunts, false identities and many more. What sets these desi characters apart? What makes them so effortlessly malleable that they can easily slip in and out of regularity and commonness and yet shine so brightly? What is making me write about them? The answer is very simple and often overlooked. The character is extremely identifiable to a common man; the familiarity is so strong that it is often lost in translation as no one wants to associate or relate to the common or ordinary. Every one simply wants the prefix ‘super’ attached to everything. This is where the popular culture sweeps in and takes away the limelight and our detective slips under the shadows.

A thought would be to not only revive Feluda but also usher in new imagination of similar characters whose roots are tied to Indian sub-cultures. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have similar characters hailing from Chennai, Mizoram, Kashmir etc, each bringing their own regional dimension to newer plots but remaining true to their Indian identity? 

Author's Note: Though Feluda stories are all originally written in Bengali, his novels and stories are easily available in English translations online on Amazon and Flipkart. And if you ever happen to stroll across the college street area in Kolkata you can score second hand Feluda novels and short stories both in English and Bengali for dirt cheap prices. Some of my favourite Feluda stories are ‘The House of Death’ and ‘The Incidents of Kathmandu’ among many others. As for the movie buff’s Feluda stories have also been adapted into films directed by Satyajit Ray himself including ‘Sonar Kella’ and ‘Joi Baba Felunath’ both available for viewing on YouTube.

An Herge style Feluda adventure for young readers.

Captain's Log: Afza Shireen is clearly a big fan of Feluda. But she also works as a writer/director in Mumbai, but has a super hand for cooking and has fed a Geek Fruit members some scrumptious meals. She's also a bit mad at us since we're posting this article way later than when she wrote, but we are hoping we see some of the food again once this is up.