Today Jatayu would have been a Twitter star. Or, at the very least, gotten his own spin-off.
Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s unflappable cerebral detective, and his hero-worshipping young sidekick Topshe, may have carried echoes of other detective duos like Holmes and Watson. But their third wheel, Lalmohan Ganguli, the writer of pulpy thrillers under the nom de plume Jatayu, was entirely indigenous.
He was the side character who stole the show.
Every time I come across any of Ray’s Feluda films while channel-surfing, I get sucked into them because of Jatayu. When he opens his eyes wide and asks in his best Bengali Hindi, “Driver Saab yahan par daku hai ki nahin hain (are there dacoits here)?” I laugh uncontrollably. Every time. Without fail.
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“He relishes life. He enjoys everything. He’s not terribly bright but he thinks he’s bright,” Ray told his biographer, Andrew Robinson. “He’s a very Bengali character.”
It is a great tribute to Santosh Dutta, the lawyer turned actor who inhabited Jatayu so completely, that in Ray’s later Feluda books, the sketches of Jatayu started resembling the actor. When Dutta died suddenly in 1988, Ray said he would not make Feluda films any more. It was a wise decision. None of the later Jatayus, played by others actors, came close to the original.
Jatayu was so beloved that the writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen made up an entire monologue for him in 1995 where he humble-brags about his own oeuvre vs Ray’s Feluda stories. “I can write 12 books in one year with my left hand. And Felu-babu? At most, he gets 2-3 cases that can be turned into stories. That’s real life you know?” He rues that if Ray and Dutta had been alive, the master would surely have made a film called “Jatayu’s Jayajayakar” (Hurray Jatayu) but “alas, neither is that Ram there, nor that Ayodhya. The field is empty.”
Ray invested as much care in shaping his “side characters” as he did his protagonists. That was evident from the very first film, Pather Panchali. Tulsi Chakraborty was a Bengali comic actor who was used in loud comic roles. But Ray made him unforgettable as the grocer-teacher in Pather Panchali and then as the clerk who discovers the philosopher’s stone in Paras Pathar.
Of course the story of the old widowed aunt, Indir-thakrun, in Pather Panchali is legendary. I remember seeing the film at a San Francisco film festival with an American friend. She could not fathom why, in the opening scene, Apu’s mother chases him around the house trying to feed him. It made no sense to her, probably because she had never met a Bengali mother. Neither had she met someone like Indir-thakrun, the penniless widow surviving on scraps and charity. But the poignancy of Indir-thakrun transcended all cultural barriers, shaking her to the core.
Ray famously found Chunibala Devi, the actor who played her, living in retirement in Kolkata’s red-light district. She agreed to his terms, plus her daily dose of opium with her tea. But she wondered if she would get make-up, recalled Ray in his memoir, My Years With Apu. “I don’t have a smooth skin. All actresses have a smooth skin,” she said. Ray told her it was not that kind of film. When her raggedy white sari became more ragged through the course of shooting, Ray sent her a new one with fewer holes. But she appeared next day in the same old sari, the torn portions carefully knotted.
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Ray’s films have been dissected and analysed and studied and then dissected again. But now when I see them, I do not focus on the Soumitra Chatterjees and Sharmila Tagores, wonderful as they are. It’s the smaller roles where I always find something new, something extraordinary. Nobody was too minor in his eye, which is why the children in his films are usually so exceptionally natural whether they are central to the film, like the heartbreaking Ratan in The Postmaster, or a cog in the ensemble, like Dingo in Shakha Proshakha. He does not patronise them as “half-grown human beings”, as Chatterjee once said.
It’s the supporting characters who are the beating hearts of the films—Jahar Roy as the wicked prime minister in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Rabi Ghosh as the car cleaner with a wolf whistle in Abhijan or the ruthless PRO/procurer with his spotless handkerchief in Jana Aranya, Veena as the grand matriarch Begum of Awadh in Shatranj Ke Khilari, Jennifer Kendal as the English governess in Ghare Baire. Even the ones whose names I never knew, like the snotty-nosed little Nepalese boy who attaches himself to the visiting Bengali family in Kanchenjungha, remain unforgettable.
This is where Ray leaves his masterful signature, unobtrusive yet unmistakable, like that first fat drop of rain on a dozing man’s bald pate signalling the arrival of the monsoon. It wasn’t just any bald head that would have sufficed for that scene in Pather Panchali. Ray wanted one particular villager he had spotted around the set. But he didn’t know his name and his description—“squat, rounded cheeks, bald head, moustache”—didn’t ring any bells. But in a stroke of inspiration, he grabbed a pencil and paper and sketched him from memory. “Hari Babu,” the villagers shouted—and the right person was produced for him.
It’s a small moment belonging to a very minor character but it glistens with perfection. And as I lose my own hair, I understand Ray’s brilliance a little better each year.
Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He tweets at @sandipr.