‘Capturing the magical finesse of a super sleuth in Indian television during the Doordarshan era’
I have watched innumerable movies and television episodes. Out of those I have loved some, hated some and revered some. But there is one TV serial that I believe I must have seen the most number of times. I have probably seen this series more number of times than all the films that I have watched in my life put together. I started watching this series when I was in preparatory (5 years old) itself.
Those were the days when only Doordarshan was aired to the TVs. The cable network was there but that was a property of the privileged. Nevertheless, it was a romantic time as there were so few serials and movies to wet our appetites with. In a scenario like this, Byomkesh Bakshi, the super sleuth, clad in a Bengali dhoti and kurta and sipping innumerable cups of empty tea throughout an episode, was the biggest thing for me.
Many years after that, I was able to get a hold of that series on youtube after Doordarshan had enough with it and uploaded it for free. Ever since, I have been watching this series regularly, mostly during my dinners and for some reason or the other, I am just not able to get enough of it.
One has to agree that the series is crudely made. It has absolutely no finesse associated with it. The performances of the supporting cast at many times are quite terrible but one cannot ignore the indelible charm of the series as it makes its way from one episode to another. There is a total of 32 episodes, of which two stories are spread to 2 episodes.
The series is based on the works of Saradindu Bandyopadhyay, who created the super sleuth in his novels and short stories. I have never read the source material and I don't know if I ever will but many who have read the stories keep pointing out at the over-simplification of the narrative that the series has come up with. I have not read the stories and hence, I will never know. For me, this series has been my introduction to Byomkesh Bakshi and that was long before, Anjan Dutta and Arindam Sil took to revitalizing the character.
One of the biggest plus points for this series is its charming leading man Rajit Kapoor. Kapoor plays a character that gets old with the series and he does exceptionally well to keep up with the mannerisms and style of a man who is aging. The makeup is terrible but from the meager budget that the director might have had, it has to be accepted for what it is. Kapoor is able to suck in your attention and make you take the character seriously. In doing so, he is able to not only elevate the whole series, but also make the stories more real and gritty for you.
He is ably aided by KK Raina, the man who plays his best friend and writer Ajit. If Byomkesh is Sherlock, Ajit is Watson. He is not all that smart and his ineptitude at many junctures elevates the intelligence of Byomkesh. Raina is successful in bringing out that facet of Ajit's character which helps Byomkesh too. He is also a comic relief sometimes.
Sans a few episodes like "Balak Jasoos" and "Bemisal", the stories are consistently engrossing. There are mature themes involved and the crimes at many junctures are bound to make you scratch your head. The episodes last a maximum of 40 minutes and in those 40 minutes, the director conjures up a three-act drama every time. That is in no way an easy thing to do.
It has to be noted that the director had great source material to work with and the fact that none of the stories had any similarities only makes the series that much more interesting. Some of the episodes like "Chiriyaghar" and "Adim Shatru" are not only well conceived but extremely well executed. The performances in these two episodes are of the highest order.
In both the episodes, you will not be able to predict the culprit, unless you have read the stories before. These stories were in recent years made into full-fledged films but for some strange reason, I still love these two episodes more than the films. It must also be noted that these two episodes are of eighty minutes each and hence almost constitute full-fledged feature films.
No review of Byomkesh Bakshi can be complete without a word about its director Basu Chatterjee. Chatterjee is one of the greatest exponents of the art of filmmaking in India and his filmography stands testament to that very fact. Here, he uses meager resources at his disposal efficiently and creates such an engrossing and re-watchable series that I was surprised by his achievements.
What I loved more was the fact that he knew his limitations and he made up for the lackings with whatever best he had at his disposal. There are some episodes like "Bemisal" where for instance he needed someone to morph from a lady to a guy and vice versa. He didn't have the resources to achieve that. Hence he very smartly uses trick photography to achieve a similar effect. It's not very convincing but it does the job.
A huge surprise with this series was the fact that even though the believability goes for a toss many times, the narratives and the stories never lose their authenticity and appeal. Some of the characters like the one playing Bishu Pal in the episode "Chakrant" turn unknowingly funny. I am of course referring to the scene where he meets his adversary for the first time and gives a reaction that reeks of homosexual love. Byomkesh also has his arch enemy in Anukul Guha who appears in the first episode and then makes a comeback later.
Thus it is clear that neither Saradindu nor Basu Chatterjee left any stone unturned to keep the surprises and the western elements coming at you from varied sources. The series also has some known faces like Utpal Dutta, Anoop Soni, and Milind Gunaji who would later go on to make it big in Bollywood.
Overall, Byomkesh Bakshi is my favorite TV series of all times. It is so for its simplicity, its performance, its intrigue and its surprise elements and the heart that its protagonist and its director put into its making. It's a must watch for one and all.