This post is a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s Crime Writers Festival coverage:
By Kanika Katyal:
Think crime fiction. Think Bengal. Think Detective. And an image of Byomkesh Bakshi immediately conjures up in your mind, with the vintage Doordarshan music ringing in your ears.
He couldn’t be mistaken for the quintessential western detective.
“ ‘Detective’ kuch chalta nahin hai, aur ‘jasoos’ kuch purana sa lagta hai na, isliye maine apna upnam yaani title Satyanveshi rakh lia, satya ki khoj karne wala” said the too-cool-for-school Byomkesh Bakshi in the opening episode of Byomkesh Bakshi (1993) – a hugely popular and critically acclaimed television adaptation of the fictional detective series created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay.
“An intelligent criminal is becoming a paradox in this country,” he believed and solved the mysteries in wonderful ways. He was the detective who caused the streets to shut down in the true sense because nobody wanted to miss out on his adventures. It was as if the world would end if he disappeared. The ‘Everyman’ of detective fiction in India made every man at the bottom of his heart believe that he was a born detective.
With the upcoming Crime Writers Festival in Delhi we got the original Byomkesh Bakshi, Rajit Kapur to talk to us about his experience on the show, his theatre production, his thoughts on Dibakar Banerjee’s latest ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy’ and much more.
Q: Your portrayal of Byomkesh Bakshi is still embedded in people’s minds even today, because it appealed to everyone, right from a five-year-old to maybe an 85-year-old. If you could just take us back to the time when you brought the character to life on screen. How did you prepare for the character? How close or far do you think the character was from its literary representation?
A: (laughs). Well, I didn’t really have any kind of thing to fall back upon. The stories were given to me way in advance by the director to go-through. So there was never any fixed image. He was clear about one thing though, that he wanted a dhoti-kurta clad kind of a detective. It was only in the first episode that you actually see him in trousers. And then through the process of reading the script or just talking to him, the specs and the kind of waistcoat that he wore, all of that developed along the way.
We had no photographic references because it was not a real character that one could research through. So it was purely created as we went along. Yes, I knew for a fact that the character was from Bengal in Calcutta, so I needed to depict that through his entire demeanour. But really, it just happened quite organically actually.
Q: I’ve also heard that chemists would shut their shops down to watch the episode. What do you think brought about that impactful a reception?
A: I think that somewhere any detective story appeals to all ages. Somewhere the simplicity of the episode and the stories, the fact that they were not difficult to understand in terms of plot and that every story had so many characters coming and going in them must have been the reason. I think that simplicity was really its strength and USP.
Q: Byomkesh Bakshi has been mentioned in the 2014 episode of the US TV series The Big Bang Theory. The character Bernadette Rostenkowski, an American grad student refers to Bakshi as the ‘Indian Sherlock Holmes’ while Raj Koothrappali refers to Sherlock as the ‘English Byomkesh Bakshi’. It made me wonder that while you received wide critical acclaim, were there comparisons to Sherlock Holmes that annoyed you. Or was there any negative response that you received?
A: I don’t think so. At that time, during its first telecast, a lot of the media had called it ‘the Indian answer to Sherlock Holmes’. But there was never anything really negative. It’s just that in our country, sometimes we treat the image of a particular performance of character as larger than life and elevate it so much, that two-three years after that even if I was on the road, or the street, people thought that I was out to solve a case! Trust me! I remember someone was following me on a street in Kolkata because he thought that I was onto something. And I said, ‘No! I’m just here’.
Q: After the success of Byomkesh Bakshi, why haven’t you attempted anything of that scale on the small screen?
A: There hasn’t been anything that exciting. Here, this was a thirteen part series which later on became thirty-three parts because there were only thirty-three stories to film. People did ask, “Why can’t you write a story?” I said, “I haven’t written them. These are part of literature and there are only 33.”
At the same time there was so much of planning that went into making these stories. These days, I get calls almost every week asking me, “are you free”? They are ready to shoot next week. And I say, “but you have huge twenty-six parts to do; you don’t even have a lead actor and you’re asking me are you free next week”? There are some good offers but where’s the preparation? What is the planning?
Here, I was told to keep six months aside and all thirty-three stories were written. I was given the script beforehand. I made my notes, we had discussions and we shot the whole thing like we were doing five feature films together! So there was so much thought and planning that had gone into it which I’m quite surprised doesn’t happen today. I find that a little unnerving actually because I like to enjoy that process. Not just taking your lines and going on the set and saying, “okay, now come let’s do it”.
Q: When I think of Byomkesh Bakshi, I think of Rajit Kapur. Now Dibakar Banerjee is bringing Byomkesh Bakshi back…
A: (laughs): I knew this was coming!
Q: Tell us about the talk you are going to have with Dibakar Banerjee at the Crime Writers Festival. What kind of changes in the narrative, or acting methods or the cinematic process do you think will be involved in recreating the project?
A: I don’t know, because
(a) Honestly, I’m not involved with the project.
And (b) To each his own. I’m sure it’ll be another interpretation.
Even in Calcutta, in the last 5 years there have been two films made on Byomkesh, and Byomkesh was being enacted by a young gentleman. I saw one of them, and it’s another interpretation.
People say, “Oh! How do you feel, your role is being taken away by someone?” And I say, “but I don’t have any copyrights on it. It doesn’t belong to me”. You’ve had so many interpretations of Devdas and there are still more coming! So it depends how different, how endearing or what new perspective another person is going to bring to the same character. Even Sherlock Holmes; there have been five-six actors who’ve played Sherlock Holmes. Every ten years, somebody makes a series.
Q: You were the first Indian to play the Mahatma on screen, and a vulnerable side of the Mahatma was revealed to the audience and the nation in general. How did you get to play the role in the first place?
A: Well, actually I wasn’t meant to play the lead role. I was meant to be playing a revolutionary in the film. And as far as I knew, Naseeruddin Shah was meant to be playing the role and then somebody else. I was just called for a screen-test and I realised a lot of other people were giving the screen-test including Mr. Anu Kapoor. I had absolutely never even dreamt about it. But I was called so I just went. And then exactly a week later they called me and said, “My friend you’re playing Gandhi! Come and meet me tomorrow.”
Q: And that landed you the National Award! Would you call it destiny or a lot of hard work that went into portraying someone who was revered by the nation?
A: Well, I think it’s both. I mean, I know the kind of hard work that went into it and the result of course is destiny. I was destined to play that character. In fact when I played it, it took me back to my school days, because I used to be a part of the marching team. And I have, well, disproportionate arms compared to the rest of my body. My arms are very long! Every time I’d take my distance, I would be shouted at, “Kya apne aap ko Gandhi samajhte ho Do you think of yourself as Gandhi)?”
It took me back to those marching days and I had never realised that I’d be playing that! But that of course is purely destiny.
Q: You’ve mentioned in an interview that during your college days, you were seen as that guy – “Ye to naachta-gaata rehta hai. Isko side pe kardo (He’s the guy who keeps singing and dancing. Let’s put him aside)”. But the audience has never seen you sing or dance. So was it a conscious attempt to associate with cinema that is considered offbeat and away from the mainstream and to be perceived as a serious actor, per say?
A: I don’t know, because somehow those opportunities never came my way. I did some singing and dancing on television, much-much earlier in a series called Junoon. We did our usual romantic song-in-the-rain-kind-of-thing. But otherwise, I’ve done all this on stage, so it’s not that I’ve missed out on it, but yes, on the screen you’re right it’s been missed out. Somehow there wasn’t a meaty offer for me to grab and say, “Hey! I wanna do that!”
Q: You have been a regular with Shyam Benegal and he calls you one of his favourite actors. Tell us about your relationship with him and about your experience on Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda.
A: Well, the film also fell into my lap, really, because he had seen a performance of mine in Love Letters and he came and met me backstage. Next day he called me and said, “I’d like you to come and meet me”. He gave me the script and he said, “Can you read it? I’d like you to play this character of Manik Mulla. Please come and tell me.” I went home and I read it and I realised it was the lead character! I’d thought it was just a small part! It was destiny and I give credit to my stage work for that! And since then, over the last, well, 20 years or so, I’ve done all his films. Big -small, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a pleasure to be a part of his projects. Because he’s one person who trusts me as an actor and has given me such a wide variety of roles to perform that somewhere there’s a mutual trust. But yes, now I do joke about it and say, “Now you can’t do a film without me! I have to be a part of it”. He’s family now. Over 20 years we have begun to understand (each other). Earlier I would never be able to talk to him bluntly, but now I can say what I feel without feeling bad about it because he knows that I mean well.
Q: You’ve also called it your favourite part and your favourite film. Do you recall any magical moments while filming it?
A: Usually you’re given a scene to do, but the director tells you that we’re only doing this part, or these lines. I remember we were shooting and I had of course studied the scene and the lines and everything, but I just carried on, I didn’t stop. Somewhere I felt there was something working within me that was creating a beautiful moment and I was hoping that the director won’t say, “Cut!”
And from the corner of my eyes, I saw him raise his hand to stop his assistants from stopping me! We did the whole scene and I just carried on. And that’s there in the film! I was grateful that my director was so sensitive to what I was managing to create there in front of the camera. That will always be well embedded in my memory from Suraj ka Satwan Ghoda.
Q: You say that you are not a trained actor. But you have been successful for over two decades in the industry. And you have also conducted workshops for the cast of the Mahabharata on Star Plus. How important do you weigh formal training in becoming an actor?
A: I think it is important. Somewhere in my case, fortunately or unfortunately, it’s been trial and error. But maybe had I been to an institute in my formative years, I would have learnt those things much earlier, which I learnt through making mistakes. There’s a lot that any institute or an acting course teaches you. It allows you to explore yourself; it allows you to make those mistakes. At the same time, it cannot teach you all about acting because somewhere it has to come from a strong drive within. I feel as an actor that it is very important to be as open as a sponge, to be able to absorb and not just be able to absorb, but have the ability to use that sponge to give back to an audience too. And that cannot come by just snapping your fingers. I think it’s a slow, tedious process. Many actors today want to take short cuts. I don’t believe in it. There can never be a shortcut.
Q: How did ‘Rage’ theatre start off? And what was your vision behind it?
A: ‘Rage’ began also at the same time when I got my first film, which was in 1992. There were seven or eight of us who loved the theatre and felt that we didn’t have enough opportunity to do theatre as youngsters. It belonged to the oldies at that time. We had certain production values that we wanted to adhere to. We just said ‘why don’t we just start our own group and start doing things?’ And that’s how it began. Initially, Rahul Bose was also a founder member. In fact, he was the one who named the group- ‘Rage’.
Q: Has the transition from TV to films to theatre and back, been smooth? How does an actor’s role or involvement differ in all three mediums?
A: On a basic level, it doesn’t really change. Because the basic means, the basic instrument of an actor has always remained the same. It’s a question of how skilful you are in understanding the medium, in terms of using theatre space, camera space – and that comes (a) with experience and (b) with how good your grasping power is.
As far as striding across all three mediums is concerned, I know there are not many who do that. But my base has always, and will always remain theatre. And that’s something I really admire in somebody like Naseeruddin Shah who’s managed to not only just bridge the gap but also maintain his link with the theatre.
Q: Your film Dam999 got entangled in a controversy. And Deepti Naval’s Do Paise Ki Dhoop, Chaar Aane Ki Baarish is a yet to be publicly released. So how do you see the state of censorship in India, and how it is hampering creative freedom because Dam999 also got banned in two states.
A: Yeah, I heard about that, although I wasn’t sort of involved. I do really believe that censorship depends upon the individual. I know that we have a governing body but I think that sometimes it’s so meaningless because people who are placed at the so called ‘responsible positions’ are totally unaware of realities outside. I think it really depends on ‘each to his own’ and we should ourselves be able to censor what we want to see and what we don’t want to see. Sometimes the image is blurred between what we are trying to prevent and what we are trying to show. They are actually all the same! There’s no real fine line. We are talking on one side about preventing pornography and look at the sites that today our youngsters are offered. So parents have to be equally careful on that front. So I think the whole issue of censorship really depends on an individual, of what to see and what not to see, and what you think you should see and what you should not see.
Q: This reminds me of the video that you featured in ‘I’m not a woman and I apologise’. So do you think that was your way of giving back to society or attempting to create social change, which is what art should also do, not just entertain, but also educate? In the video you take on the charge against cinema that it showcases violence and obscenity that rouses people to crime. Do you think artists should own-up to that responsibility?
A: I think so. I think that everybody, whether it’s in our country or on this earth; in spite of whatever profession they are in has a social responsibility! And I do believe that somewhere art has been instrumental in educating, and why not? It should. It should be a combination and that’s why I admire those that are able to create any kind of art, in any field, where it is educative and entertaining at the same time. I think that it’s very important.
As far as the little film on YouTube that I was a part of – it was more about saying sorry to the woman of today. It is really saying sorry from a man’s point of view because every day you’re reading how small children who are hardly six, seven or eight being raped! I mean what is that saying about our society? Where have we degenerated? Where have we regressed? What has happened to the male in society? It was more an apology out of being appalled and shocked at what is happening.
Q: Finally, when can we see you donning the detective’s hat again?
A: Well, there’s a film called Roy coming up and I play a detective in that! It’s not a big part but I am a detective and it’s a different detective.
For more, catch Rajit Kapur, Dibakar Banerjee and Dhritiman Chaterji talk about ‘Byomkesh Bakshi and the Bangla Bloodhound’ this Saturday (January 17th), at the Crime Writers Festival at India Habitat Centre.