I walked into the room. She sat on a chair wearing nothing but a bullet hole”. That was how the chapter ended. I was 15. I fell in love with James Hadley Chase. Since then, by reading adult paperbacks with highly provocative covers borrowed from friends in my school in Darjeeling, detective fiction became as exciting as secretly smoking or having a swig of rum. Then at the age of 18, in Calcutta, Humphrey Bogart with his tilted hat as Sam Spade entered my life through my VHS player saying to his lover; “You go down baby, ‘cause you killed my partner.”
I was 21 when I literally ate all the paperbacks of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler I could afford from run-down lending libraries on Elliot Road, Calcutta. American pulp detective novels are what I grew up with, alongside my desire to act, sing, do theatre or make movies. It all culminated in a huge crescendo at New Empire cinema where I watched Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and the wacky humour of a low-down, beaten-up Jack Nicholson with his nose slashed.
I must admit that the Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie type detection-oriented, plot-driven stories never grabbed me by the neck. Having read them all without prejudice. I also need to add that though I actually learnt decent Bangla having read the detective stories of most modern Bengali authors like Samaresh Bose, Niharanjan Gupta, Premendra Mitra, Saradindu Bandopadhyay, Sunil Ganguly, Samaresh Majumdar, neither my head nor heart was ever ignited. Apart from Saradindu’s Byomkesh, they were all rather juvenile. I say this with great respect towards them as writers of fascinating fiction, not detective stories. What I missed in them is the sense of wit and wacky humour that defined detective fiction for me.
To me, the real detective was the hardcore, loner, alcohol-soaked, ordinary guy who is a loser. The nosey guy who gets his nose slashed for peeking into the corrupt world of the rich. Just for a few bucks and for the dirty thing called “truth”. By the time I decided to step into direction (having been slotted as an art house actor and no decent popularity), our financial situation forced my wife, Chanda, to take up a job as a secretary in a detective agency near Camac Street. We had the most weird and hilarious discussions on how her agency and boss functioned. How they grabbed anyone from the street and trained them to become security guards at various offices.
I made my first documentary on a real-life private eye for Doordarshan called How The Other Half Lives. A depressed-looking, dishevelled man in his late 40s who worked for a law firm. His job was to stalk people and sneakily take their pictures on his battered Pentax camera. We spent hours at Chota Bristol drinking cheap rum and he told me how good he was at shooting pictures of people secretly having sex in seedy hotels. How he bribes hotel staff to keep the windows unlatched.
“Do you carry a gun?”
“Yes. I have a license but no bullets. It’s meant for frightening people”.
“Have you ever got involved in a murder case?”
“Three times. Every time I was jailed for a couple of days for being on the wrong side of the law”.
I am not sure how good that half-hour episode was on DD, but the sad-looking man was my Phillip Marlowe.
I ended up making Rudra Sener Diary series, my own detective for DD (with Sabyasachi Chakrabarty) rather successfully.
I did many other stuff. Sang Bela Bose or Ranjana. Made Bong Connection or Madly Bangali… but the bug of the “detective” remained hidden. By the time I became recognised as a filmmaker, Sabyasachi had stepped into the shoes of Feluda and I decided to spend whatever I had saved up to procure the rights to a few stories of Byomkesh. Yet, in 2008, I never found a financier to fund my Byomkesh cause I wanted a fresh face for the franchise. Finally, I found someone, after a year-long hunt, who was willing to fund as per my condition. Hence, Abir Chatterjee. It stormed the box office.
Then for reasons beyond my control or understanding any and everybody seemed to be interested in Byomkesh or other detective franchises. To my mind, things went out of hand. Byomkesh, Feluda, Kiriti, Jayanta Manik… you name it. A great situation, by the way, for folks like me who love detective fiction. Yet what I missed was wit, humour and celebration of the adult mind. An essentially adult, provocative genre became “U”.
In the meanwhile, I had become labelled by the next-gen as the guy with the shades, alcohol, cigarettes, Park Street and Darjeeling. Aspects which however I thoroughly relish. I never had any interest to be politically correct or ethically consistent and enjoyed being myself. As I stepped into the wrong side of 60 I realised that the genre needed a breath of fresh air. The iconic Bangla goenda needed to step out of his stiff-upper-lip seriousness, super intelligence and become vulnerable, funny, and perhaps even not righteous.
So, at 68, I began to pen down my own detective. Write detective stories. Tried to go back to that 15-year-old who loved James Hadley Chase for its wisecracks. I wrote three stories about a rookie gumshoe who never wanted to be one. An ordinary Bong who joins a run-down agency called Danny Detective INC as a secretary and gets entangled in cases since his boss, Danny the real detective, is killed. It’s a world of rich people’s dirty secrets, femme fatale, sordid scandals, cheap gloss and cheaper fees. What keeps my Subrata Sharma going is that he is too lazy to do anything else. The most crucial element to me was humour and wit.
Post Covid and post numerous political and environmental disasters, I cannot take this world too seriously anymore. Least of all cinema. To me, now, a film has to make me smirk if not laugh. We all hide a certain sadness in ourselves since we all know that our planet is damaged forever and evil does win. We have to laugh it off, carry on and hope for the best. It is this sad realisation which is the root of real “comedy”. Inside the joker, it’s just another sad, lonely soul. Now, we can ignore this dichotomy and indulge in further seriousness and claim that evil can be defeated by huge intelligence, or we can just have a good time laughing as we get thrilled.
My Subrata Sharma, therefore, tackles a dystopian world where everything is hidden in plain sight. He is funny. The ghost of his boss is funnier. He is never in control of himself, rather falls in love too easily. Is street smart. Retorts to threat with wisecracks. Drinks more than he should. Is good at street fighting but mostly ends up getting bashed. The plots are tricky but the tricks are finally as cheap as that of a roadside magician. He is up against corruption beyond his control. He wins not because he is clever but because the villains make mistakes.
Of course, I am indebted to noir and all that jazz, but my city has played a great part. The crumbling, old localities of central Calcutta and its battered backstreets. The same place that gave you songs like Samson, Mary Anne, Haripada, Masher Sesher Din, Khyapa Shohor…The same environment gave me my detective. An ordinary, next-door guy who knows he cannot be upward mobile cause he is too lazy to wake up early and please his boss. He’d rather end up in bed with a good-looking woman just to forget temporary loneliness. A guy who can be jilted easily but not bought. Too lazy to build a family and take responsibility, but is willing to dig into other people’s dirty wardrobes for a few bucks. Maybe even risk his nose. Yet you can’t hate him cause he is too funny.
I made it a point that he will not have a satellite. The ghost of his murdered boss will be his partner. Yes, he will be forced to travel to various locations but there will be no so-called “adventures”. The natural beauty or exotica of the hills, sea, jungle or desert will not be important. Rather, the darker side of these so-called touristic locations will be in focus. I made it a point that Subrata will not deduce but stumble upon the secret. In my first story (Samsing Theke Ek Kilometre) Subrata falls in love and goes to bed with the killer, unknowingly. When he does get to know that she killed her boss to fake her own kidnap, he says without any remorse: “Yes I loved you. But it’s finally just a fourletter word. So, you go down baby, cause you killed my boss!” The killerkills herself.
In my second story (Shillong Club E Ekta Raat) Subrata ends up confronting a violent guy who will kill to get hold of his dirty pictures. He is a homosexual who falls in love with Subrata. Subrata fails to save him from being killed. Subrata cannot bring the killer to justice cause he is too politically powerful. So he makes up for it by blackmailing the killer and giving the money to an innocent girl, trapped in the world of dirty pictures. And all these sordid, adult detective stories are told to you with humour and fun.
Having sold the first book reasonably well, my publisher wanted me to write the second edition with three more stories. I did. Those of you who did not read the first can start off with the second Danny Detective INC which will be available at the coming book fair at the end of the month. However, in the process, at 69, I finally decided to introduce my Subrata in cinema. I chose the sixth story, Revolver Rohoshyo, set in a rain-drenched, soggy Darjeeling. I chose my favourite young actor Suprobhat as my down-and-out sleuth.
I sincerely hope that the long effort will offer you a difference.