Sunday, October 23, 2011

Magic of the Golden Fortress

[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?
Jatayu: “Anya!

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.


  1. jeetey raho bachha!
    (kintu ekta chhotto complaint aachhe... ei post ta ki ektu tarahuro te likhechhish? tao khub bhalo laglo pore, revisiting old memories...) ami shonar kella'r film tai aage dekhechhilam, boi ta pore pori - in fact boi ta porte giye bohu ghotona'r gormil pawate ektu surprised o chhilam - chhoto chhilam to - pore bujhechhilam je ekta boi er akorshoniyo ebong jothajotho screen adapatation kotota necessary - film er scope ta etto alada, je sheikhane characters aar incidents alada bhabe mele dhorte hobe, boiye jeta du line ey bola jaye, film ey to shebhabe cholbei na - barti natokiyota, barti chomok nahole ei transition ta successful hoto na... jeta amar mone hoye sandip ray er script ey missing, tai shera pheluda'r golpo'o kirokom panshe lage onar film ey...
    achha er por konta??

  2. Kekadi, Thik ei jinsta amaro mone hoyechhilo... bishesh kore Gupi gayen bagha bayen dekhar somoy... chhoto chhilam to... tai boier songe mil paini... pore bujhechhi cinema ar boi-er moja... bishesh kore Ray-r cinemae.

    Tarahuro kore likhechhi mone holo? Achcha next time kheyal rakhbo. er pore goppo noe... ekta lokke niye lekhar ichchhe achhe.. dekha jak, kobe hoe.

  3. বাদশাহী আংটি যের'ম যত্ন নিয়ে লেখা, এটা হয়ত অতটা নয়। কিন্তু এটাও বেশ উপভোগ্য - অন্ততঃ আমার কাছে। আসলে সোনার কেল্লা নিয়ে লেখা বেশ কঠিন - প্রত্যেকের নানান্‌ স্মৃতি জড়িয়ে আছে বই আর সিনেমার সঙ্গে।

    তবে, ভাবতে বাধ্য করলি। আরেকবার না পড়লেই নয় দেখছি।

  4. thik etai amar uddyeshyo... boita abar poro... ebong tomar kichhu nijer finding post koro... jeta niye alochona korte pari... eisob addagulo boddo bhalo hoe!

  5. darun hoyechhe re eta, even betetr than the first one ... r ektu lomba korte parti but etao sotti ei duto niye likhe ses kora jabena :) r btw oi dialogue ta ki "unt ki kanta bechhe khaay" na jeta tui likhechhish? amar beshi mone nei but tao eta check korish to

  6. sonar biscuit'er goppo ta hebby! :-D ...daarun likhechhis...sonar kella boi-Ta onekdin poRa hoyni...haat'er kachheo nei sala! .... ar ekta jinis ullekh na korlei noy...the music of Ray!! I often wonder how could a person whose main interest and knowledge was on western classical(& other forms too) show such amazing application of Indian classical / regional folks!! Pheluda theme? Sonar kella is that very special movie which gave birth to this wonderful theme! (Thik bollum to?)

  7. Rai, otai dialogue. Ami cinema-ta dekhe check kore niyechhilum agei... esob jinis bhul lekha khkhomar ajogyo apooradh!

    Rik, ekdom... eita niye lekha uchit chhilo. Tobe lokta sob kichhu niye eto bhalo porashuno korto je, eastern-western, kichchhu farak porto na!

  8. Tapo, Why not something about my Favourite Prof.Shanku!!!

  9. You never know... one piece on him may be around the corner.

  10. ভীষণ ভাল লাগল !
    তবে একটা কথা - 'সোনার বিস্কুট'-এর লেখক শেখর বসু - আনন্দ বাগচি নন । আনন্দ-র সঙ্গে উপন্যাসের সম্পর্ক একটা আছে অবশ্য ... এটি 'আনন্দমেলা'-য় প্রথম বেরোয়, পরে 'আনন্দ' কর্তৃক বই আকারে প্রকাশিত হয় ।

  11. ঠিকটা ধরিয়ে দেওয়ার জন্য ধন্যবাদ সৌরভবাবু।