Being Byomkesh Bakshi


Being Byomkesh Bakshi

The actor on being a simple Bengali detective for whom everything was elementary

I’ve never again had the kind of fan mail I received when I was Byomkesh. I had to assign a separate assistant just to look at all of it. Byomkesh Bakshi had premiered on Doordarshan, the country’s main source of entertainment at the time (this was in 1993), and the Bengali detective went, as we would call it today, viral.

There were love letters and marriage proposals sent to me by parents, with pictures of their daughters attached. The show struck a chord, especially in smaller towns and villages. People across the country would write and ask me to solve their problems. “My gold bangles have been robbed, only you can find them.” “My husband is beating me, you need to come and help. Don’t ignore this letter. Please make sure you come; don’t delay. Come within the next 10 days.” That kind of desperation was frightening.

Out on the street too, especially in Calcutta, people would stare and follow me around, thinking I was on a case. Even in Bombay, someone would whisper in my ear at a restaurant, “I know you’ve come to find out something,” and I’d reply, “No. I am here for dinner.” Looking back now, I feel bad that they really thought I could solve their problems, never once believing that Byomkesh was not real.

What was it about this man?

I believe it was his humanity, even though all anyone could talk about was what a dashing figure he was. He helped people, and not necessarily for the fee. His house on the show could have been anyone’s house. I think the show’s very simple presentation worked in its favour. The character was never written, or played, in an elocutionary, inaccessible style. Byomkesh was relatable.

When Basu-da [director Basu Chatterjee], approached me in ’92, I had just finished a series called Yugantar, in which I played a Bengali literary poet, the firebrand Michael Madhusudan Dutt (it was the reason I was considered for the role in the first place). I knew nothing at the time. Not the books [by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay], nor the character. And Basu-da told me nothing. He just sent me this huge bundle of scripts and said, “I’ve done my work.”

I got to know Byomkesh through the scripts. Basu-da was very clear about his character: this man lived and operated in a dhoti-kurta. He was not flamboyant or flashy, not gregarious either — he was as aam-aadmi as could be. It was all really about how his mind worked. He was always listening, for every word, every whisper. And he would never reveal his thoughts to anyone. Only his assistant Ajit [Banerjee, played by KK Raina] would know that something was playing on his mind. They shared a Holmes-Watson sort of rapport. In fact, Sukanya Kulkarni, who played Byomkesh’s wife Satyavati, would joke that Ajit was more of a wife to him than she was! Later, there was also a spare room in their home given to Ajit. 

The relationship between Byomkesh and his wife was always a problem for me, actually, and Sukanya would often complain too: “I’m just listening to him issue instructions and orders, bringing tea and taking away tea,” she would say. Basu-da was helpless, though. When Byomkesh was written, in the early 1930s, the predominance of the man was very much part of our patriarchal society; the wife was still very, very secondary. But one must also note that Byomkesh and his wife lived together without a large extended family, which was unique for the time.

Byomkesh Bakshi was shot like a film [in Mumbai], without episode-to-episode linearity, because we had to travel to Calcutta for all the outdoor sequences. Once the location was fixed, we filmed all the scenes that would take place there together, which meant constant costume changes. I was so afraid of a screw-up during this process, that I took my own notes to make sure there was always continuity.

Every episode brought in new characters, and gave me a chance to work with so many different actors. The legendary Utpal Dutt who, sadly, passed away soon after, was of one of them. He was loud and friendly, with a wonderful, throaty laugh. We talked about theatre, and he told me about his Shakespeare productions in Calcutta. Every time I mention his name, I am reminded of his effervescence. 

As the show progressed, I started using whitener and boot polish on my hair. My Byomkesh started out at the age of 24 or 25, and by the concluding episode, was around 47. The moment the show ended, though, requests for more stories began to pour in. My response was always this: It’s not my writing. This is a classic written by someone else that included 32 stories. We’ve filmed them all. For me, it’s over.

At the time I never imagined that the series would continue to have an impact more than two decades later, or the kind of credibility this single role would give me. Right after it first aired, I set up my theatre production company, Rage, and I was also offered my first film by Shyam Benegal [Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda]. And even today, there are people who don’t know my name, but remember Byomkesh. 

These days, I am fielding endless calls from the press, asking me about the sudden fascination with the character — this is honestly a question only Dibakar Banerjee can answer [the director’s upcoming thriller chronicles the Bengali detective’s early years], why I am not a part of the new film, if I am upset about this reinterpretation. Why should I be? I have done my job. Byomkesh is like Devdas, in that sense. The character has been a part of Bengali literature for more than 80 years. People will keep reimagining him in fresh ways.

Now that the show is on YouTube, available to a whole new generation, I’ve once more begun to get bizarre messages, now from outside the country too. Despite technology having progressed the way it has, the show’s simplicity still affects people. This never fails to shock me.

Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! releases on April 3

Photograph: Maneesh Mandanna; Styling: Alisha Netalkar; Make-up and hair: Jean Claude Biguine

 

I’ve never again had the kind of fan mail I received when I was Byomkesh. I had to assign a separate assistant just to look at all of it. Byomkesh Bakshi had premiered on Doordarshan, the country’s main source of entertainment at the time (this was in 1993), and the Bengali detective went, as we would call it today, viral.

There were love letters and marriage proposals sent to me by parents, with pictures of their daughters attached. The show struck a chord, especially in smaller towns and villages. People across the country would write and ask me to solve their problems. “My gold bangles have been robbed, only you can find them.” “My husband is beating me, you need to come and help. Don’t ignore this letter. Please make sure you come; don’t delay. Come within the next 10 days.” That kind of desperation was frightening.

Out on the street too, especially in Calcutta, people would stare and follow me around, thinking I was on a case. Even in Bombay, someone would whisper in my ear at a restaurant, “I know you’ve come to find out something,” and I’d reply, “No. I am here for dinner.” Looking back now, I feel bad that they really thought I could solve their problems, never once believing that Byomkesh was not real.

What was it about this man?

I believe it was his humanity, even though all anyone could talk about was what a dashing figure he was. He helped people, and not necessarily for the fee. His house on the show could have been anyone’s house. I think the show’s very simple presentation worked in its favour. The character was never written, or played, in an elocutionary, inaccessible style. Byomkesh was relatable.

When Basu-da [director Basu Chatterjee], approached me in ’92, I had just finished a series called Yugantar, in which I played a Bengali literary poet, the firebrand Michael Madhusudan Dutt (it was the reason I was considered for the role in the first place). I knew nothing at the time. Not the books [by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay], nor the character. And Basu-da told me nothing. He just sent me this huge bundle of scripts and said, “I’ve done my work.”

I got to know Byomkesh through the scripts. Basu-da was very clear about his character: this man lived and operated in a dhoti-kurta. He was not flamboyant or flashy, not gregarious either — he was as aam-aadmi as could be. It was all really about how his mind worked. He was always listening, for every word, every whisper. And he would never reveal his thoughts to anyone. Only his assistant Ajit [Banerjee, played by KK Raina] would know that something was playing on his mind. They shared a Holmes-Watson sort of rapport. In fact, Sukanya Kulkarni, who played Byomkesh’s wife Satyavati, would joke that Ajit was more of a wife to him than she was! Later, there was also a spare room in their home given to Ajit. 

The relationship between Byomkesh and his wife was always a problem for me, actually, and Sukanya would often complain too: “I’m just listening to him issue instructions and orders, bringing tea and taking away tea,” she would say. Basu-da was helpless, though. When Byomkesh was written, in the early 1930s, the predominance of the man was very much part of our patriarchal society; the wife was still very, very secondary. But one must also note that Byomkesh and his wife lived together without a large extended family, which was unique for the time.

Byomkesh Bakshi was shot like a film [in Mumbai], without episode-to-episode linearity, because we had to travel to Calcutta for all the outdoor sequences. Once the location was fixed, we filmed all the scenes that would take place there together, which meant constant costume changes. I was so afraid of a screw-up during this process, that I took my own notes to make sure there was always continuity.

Every episode brought in new characters, and gave me a chance to work with so many different actors. The legendary Utpal Dutt who, sadly, passed away soon after, was of one of them. He was loud and friendly, with a wonderful, throaty laugh. We talked about theatre, and he told me about his Shakespeare productions in Calcutta. Every time I mention his name, I am reminded of his effervescence. 

As the show progressed, I started using whitener and boot polish on my hair. My Byomkesh started out at the age of 24 or 25, and by the concluding episode, was around 47. The moment the show ended, though, requests for more stories began to pour in. My response was always this: It’s not my writing. This is a classic written by someone else that included 32 stories. We’ve filmed them all. For me, it’s over.

At the time I never imagined that the series would continue to have an impact more than two decades later, or the kind of credibility this single role would give me. Right after it first aired, I set up my theatre production company, Rage, and I was also offered my first film by Shyam Benegal [Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda]. And even today, there are people who don’t know my name, but remember Byomkesh. 

These days, I am fielding endless calls from the press, asking me about the sudden fascination with the character — this is honestly a question only Dibakar Banerjee can answer [the director’s upcoming thriller chronicles the Bengali detective’s early years], why I am not a part of the new film, if I am upset about this reinterpretation. Why should I be? I have done my job. Byomkesh is like Devdas, in that sense. The character has been a part of Bengali literature for more than 80 years. People will keep reimagining him in fresh ways.

Now that the show is on YouTube, available to a whole new generation, I’ve once more begun to get bizarre messages, now from outside the country too. Despite technology having progressed the way it has, the show’s simplicity still affects people. This never fails to shock me.

Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! releases on April 3

Photograph: Maneesh Mandanna; Styling: Alisha Netalkar; Make-up and hair: Jean Claude Biguine