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Chiriakhana: Satyajit Ray ventures into the detective genre. Dipankar Sarkar revisits the film

Chiriakhana (The Zoo, 1967)

A nefarious act of crime in a detective film is, primarily, an inciting incident that is usually approached through a focus on the motive behind the crime and exploring the disturbed or shrewd mindset of the criminal to provide logical reasoning behind the breach/violation/infraction of the law. Following the harrowing experiences of the victim begins the process of detection and investigation that is usually carried out by the sleuth, who is also our protagonist. Although there are few exceptions to this narrative pedagogy of filmmaking. The formulaic, quest-driven, nature of the detective film has been a central point of interest for certain viewers across the world, and such narrativity also often deals with the critical paradigms of structuralism, neo-formalism, and cognitivism. But at times simple narrative design, discarding the sophisticated orchestration of point of view can also be employed to narrate a tale of investigation and Satyajit Ray’s Chiriakhana (The Zoo, 1967) is one such example, where Ray took creative liberties in bringing the story of the popular Bengali truth seeker Byomkesh, to the screen. This was the first detective film to be directed by Ray, the other two are Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1978). The plot of Chiriakhana is based on a short story written by Saradindu Banerjee whereas the other two were based on detective novels with the detective Feluda as the central character and created by Ray himself.

The narrative is set forth when a retired judge and a rich merchant, Mr. Nishanath Sen (Sushil Majumder) visit Byomkesh (Uttam Kumar) and hires him to find the information about a film that has picturized a particular song which he had heard in his Golap Colony at night. An attractive actress of yesteryears who was last seen at a party, eight years ago, where a murder took place, sang the song. And since then the actress is missing. . Byomkesh agrees and one unfortunate night Sen gets murdered and what follows is a melange of suspicious characters each with ulterior motives. Intricacies of human affairs. Sen during his tenure as a judge had condemned the death penalty to lots of people. After his retirement, he is plugged by guilt trip for his decision, and as penitence has established the Golap Colony to shelter homeless individuals who have a criminal background or labeled as social outcasts by society. concealments, greed, lust, and as well as weakness and eccentricity of the mind and soul are scrutinized through the slow-burning stride of the inquiry.

In the opening shots of the film the room where Byomkesh resides is a space crowded with objects and the camera tactfully directs the attention of the viewers towards specific props while a variety of objects are left in dark evoking the tropes of a seasoned thriller created steadily and woven around the concept of whodunit. Filmed mostly indoors and soaked in a sense of induced melancholia that operates within the markedly popular masculine genres of a Bengali detective film of that era. The darkly lit room of Byomkesh represents little islands of goodness surrounded by evil as the impending danger lurks in the darkness. The song Bhalobasa tumi ki janoa has been used cleverly within the narrative scheme of the film. In the beginning, the song becomes a trigger for the investigation and at the end, the same song brings an emotional shift in one of the primary characters that help Byomkesh to nab the murderer. So it has circularity as the film closes to an end. The plots are unfurled at a languid pace with a controlled pattern in the exposition. However, one particular sequence where Byomkesh disguised as a Pathan and then his accidental encounter with an Anglo-Indian lady is not convincing enough though the conviction of the filmmaker’s style is visible in bits and parts. The film also doesn't match up to the technical sophistication of Ray’s previous films. But at the same time, one cannot deny the thoughtful cinematic conventions that are equally visible in certain key aspects of scenes of the film. The intercut of the telephone conversations in the first murder in the film, the applied mannerism during the interrogation of all the suspects, the eerie silence and camera movement in the second murder, the revelation at recognizing the plastic flower –creates an aura of mystery surrounding who had committed the crime.

It is worth mentioning that Satyajit Ray in one of his interviews with Cineaste, America's leading magazine on the art and politics of the cinema, said that Chiriakhana was his most unsatisfying film as it was not a subject of his choice. He was forced by circumstances to do it. One of his assistants was supposed to do the film, but they suddenly lost confidence and asked him to take it on. Ray further illustrates his reasoning that whodunits just don't make good films. He preferred the thriller form where the viewer is more or less know the villain from the beginning. The whodunit always has a ritual-concluding scene where the detective goes into the rigmarole of how everything happened, and how he found the clues, which led him to the criminal. It's a form that doesn't interest him very much. Ray also had to confront lots of production hazards during the making of the film and he was dissatisfied with the result. And that might also have been a cumulative reason that made him dislike the film. Even Saradindu Banerjee was not happy to watch the adapted version on the silver screen and had expressed his disenchantment.

But despite Ray’s apathy for the film it was a commercial success. The film might be low in standards according to Ray but for viewers, it had its engaging values and had synchronized with their sensibilities to watch their matinee idol in an Avatar of a the popular fictional Bengali detective under the able direction of their Manik Babu. In his book Satyajit Ray: the inner eye Andrew Robinson had mentioned, ‘Chiriakhana shows Ray’s command over the idiom of the American thriller of an earlier time. It is an idiom that suits Uttam Kumar, who here has something of the sexuality of Bogart or Mitchum’. At the 15th National Film Awards, the film on to win two National Film Awards: Ray for Best Direction and the matinee idol Uttam Kumar his first Best Actor accolade shared with Antony Firingee. Both the categories were introduced and Ray and Kumar were its first recipient. However, the festival participation of the film was limited.

Dipankar Sarkar is an alumnus of Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, and a freelance writer on cinema. His articles have appeared on, The Hindu,, The Quint, The Tribune (Chandigarh), Upperstall, among other publications. He has a Certificate in Film Curation: Theory and Practice from FTII and a Research Fellowship for his monograph on Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia from the National Film Archive of India, Pune (NFAI). His essay on actor Adil Hussain has been published in the book ‘Glimpses of Cinema from India’s Northeast’ (2020) by Bedakantha Books and Publication, Jorhat.

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