[Disclaimer: The following piece is a memoir of my experience and observation of the book/film Sonar Kella by Satyajit Ray. Please note that, it includes some of the detailed plot discussions and spoilers regarding the mystery of the novel.]
Sonar Kella, the name evokes a host of childhood memories, not only for me but I am sure, for a lot of my friends too. That’s why, when I first decided to express my admiration for this wonderful novel and the brilliant movie I thought of sharing one of my personal stories from childhood. Well, it is a funny story and as you know, more often than not a funny story is at someone expenses. In this case that someone is me.
The year was around 1990. I was in the first or second standard in school. There used to be a writer named Ananda Bagchi who wrote adventure stories for children. Now, one day in school, one of my friends praised a lot about an adventure book by Ananda Bagchi. The name of the book was ‘Sonar Biscuit’. It was basically a story of three school friends going to
North Bengal in holidays and then discovering the secret of a gang of smugglers, smuggling golden biscuits, and helped police to solve the crime in the process. He also let me read a couple of pages of that book and I was kind of hooked.
I was the youngest member of my local club library. So that day, I went there in the afternoon and asked the librarian, “Uncle, can you find me the book ‘Sonar Biscuit’?”
He searched for sometime, could not find it and then got another book from the rack and asked me, “I can’t find ‘Sonar Biscuit’, but this one is called ‘Sonar Kella’? Are you going to take this one?”And I promptly said, “No uncle. Please find me ‘Sonar Biscuit’ and not ‘Sonar Kella’! I don’t want to read this one!!”
Well, you have to consider the fact that, I was just seven. Seven, at which age Harry Belfonte asked his father ‘about the stories of man and woman, man to man’! Some friends of mine may also call this one as the first recorded incident of me making a Taux Pass (Tapo’s version of Faux Pass) but yeah, I do accept the fact that I was little foolish at that time. Anyhow, the fact of the matter is that I got my first Pheluda book pretty soon after that incident and then keep reading all of them all the time.
Now, I sometimes think, why is Sonar Kella such a popular book in Pheluda series? Is it because this is the first Pheluda story which Ray decided to convert to a film? Or is it because of the grand entry of Mr. Jatayu, especially in the film accompanied by a porter and his famous red suitcase? Or because of its background in historical Rajasthan? Or is it because, Mukul’s story of previous birth was really interesting and new to people? (I know Sharadindu has written quite few stories on previous births, but those were mostly for adults and not for youngsters)
What I always felt is that, the key to Sonar Kella’s popularity is the fact this is an out and out childrens’ book. Obviously the main theme of the book is solving the mystery of Sonar Kella but that’s not the only theme. The funny bits involving Jatayu, the bits of history, the stern, aloof presence of Mukul, the adventure of camel ride and a chilling villain in Mandar Bose - all these factors together have created such a mood, as a child I sometimes found this book too intimidating. There were times when I read this novel and then for next few days kept thinking about Pheluda’s Personality, Sidhujyatha’s list of trivia, Lalmohanbabu’s description of camels using their stomach as source of water and the man disguised in a red shawl.
The plot of this book was as good as any other Pheluda stories. I liked how the mystery was constructed through various incidents in Kolkata and Rajasthan, with help of new characters like Jatayu and Mandar Bose. I still remember how I started guessing who could be that man whom Mukul met just outside the Circuit House which followed by the mystifying comment of Dr. Hazra that this man can be someone from Mukul’s current birth or the previous birth. The readers also got a chance to put their brain into work, trying to solve this puzzle:
And yes, the climax inside the Golden fortress merits a mention. I found it a perfect finish of this book after the incidents of previous twenty odd pages. Pheluda and group chased Mukul and Dr. Hazra, their journey was hampered thanks to Mandar Bose and board pins and glass pieces, they chased a train on camels, they spent a whole evening in the semi dark Ramdeora station with bandits and then threw Mandar Bose away from a running train. And all these events finally culminated when the fake Dr. Hazra got attacked by a peacock and was promptly hold by inspector Rathod, friend of the original Dr. Hajra.
(Could this be Mukul's Home? Or is this Giridhari's?)
In recent times I have spent lots of time by cursing and discussing the number of slipups made in Sandip Ray’s version of Pheluda movies. Yes, the list is pretty long and for me one of biggest follies of the new Pheluda movies is that there’s no mystery! From the very first scene, you know who the criminal is and then basically wait for Sabyasachi (who in ‘Kailashe Kelenkari’ looked like a middle aged man with…umm… to quote Chandrabindu ‘…modhyikhane chhotto ekti Bhnuri’) to finally announce that. In one such discussion someone told me, even Satyajit used to do the same, right? In Sonar Kella, you knew that it was Mandar Bose and fake Dr. Hazra, who were the bad men. And yes I agree, but then, although the audience knew who is the criminal in first half an hour of the movie still they have to wait to find how the mystery of Sonar Kella got solved? Did Mukul actually fulfill his dream of being in his Sonar Kella? And that made the movie such a wonderful watch.
Also, we have to think about Satyajit Ray’s treatment and directional skills, which to put mildly, were way better than his son. Sandip Ray fans (and yes, I am sure such people do exist. If Himesh Reshmiya can have a fan base then Mr. Ray also surely can. Yeah, those fans may be from Tuvalu or Guyana and know nothing about Pheluda but they can still like Sandip Ray’s Facebook page thinking that talks about some electromagnetic or photonic spectrum impacting the Ozone layer) have to agree that the script of those movies are the weakest part. Nothing new in those, it’s like converting the entire conversation from the book to a script.
But, if I start writing about the script of Sonar Kella I think I can continue for next twenty pages. It was Satyajit Ray at his best, so witty, so humorous, so subtle but at the same time simple enough to make a ten year old follow the story. From Jatayu’s Hindi to Mandar Bose’s lullabies it was an awesome experience. Some legendary dialogues have truly become a part of urban Bengali dialects! “Chokhe chhani noe, pete panita ektu beshi porechhe!”, “Hajar hajar doctor Hajra!”, “Knata ki era bechhe khae?”, “Hyena to China-e moshai!” the list is just too long. I will just mention another one which I noted in my latest viewing of Sonar Kella.
Just after the second puncture in their way to Jayasalmer, Pheluda (Soumitra Chatterjee) was sitting with a train timetable in hand, Jatayu (Santosh Dutta) came to him.
Jatayu: “Kirtita kar kichhu bujhhte parlen? Sara prithibir joto rokomer knach somosto niye ekhane joro korechhe!”
Pheluda: “Taholei bujhhun kirtita kar?”
So subtle and so wonderful! I realized the advantage of watching the tenth time watched movie for the eleventh time after capturing this gem!
Now, let’s get into the characters. Who is your favorite? Santosh Dutta as Lalmohan or Kamu Mukherjee as Mandar Bose? Because for me it is one tough choice. I absolutely love Santosh Dutta with his antics in train, in the car and on the camel. But still Kamu Mukherjee just blew me away. His Card printed shirt, his magic tricks to Mukul, his duplication of camels in Nahargar everything was so real. Scenes involving both of these wonderful actors are just too good and keep you spellbound.
And yes I liked Pheluda’s subtle one liners too. Soumitra Chatterjee’s controlled, intellectual and intelligent portrayal of Pheluda was just the right foil along with all the madness from Jatayu and Mandar Bose. And obviously there were Ajay Banerjee as Barman, Kushal Chakravarti as Mukul and Shailen Mukherjee as Dr. Hemanga Hajra. I specially like Harindranath Chattopadhyay’s Sidhujyatha who exclaims, “Jeete raho bachcha!” after Pheluda answers all his questions.
I watched the movie and read the book in two consecutive days before writing this piece, and if you ask me, I would say I did not like it much. The book and the movie are so different despite being on the same story that it’s very difficult to compile those two and make it one single entity. I know that, I may again watch/read ‘Sonar Kella’ in next six months’ time and I will ensure that I do either of them and not both.
A lovely book, a legendary film and a part of my childhood- that is what I call Magic of the Golden Fortress.