Satyajit Ray series #8: Chiriyakhana (The Zoo) (1967)

Uttam Kumar and Shailen Mukherjee
Uttam Kumar and Shailen Mukherjee

Satyajit Ray’s Chiriyakhana is the first film adaptation of a story featuring India’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, the private detective called Byomkesh Bakshi created by Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. While not as eccentric, this gentleman shares one or two similarities with the world’s most popular sleuth, most notably his inquisitiveness, sharp observational skills and his penchant for multiple disguises. Bakshi is a quintessential Bengali.

There is no attempt made here to conceal the fact that this character was influenced by Holmes. In fact, Bakshi (Uttam Kumar in his second collaboration with Ray after Nayak) makes a reference to Holmes in one scene, and in another, one character refers to his counterpart Ajit (Shailen Mukherjee) as ‘Watson’. The story begins in typical Arthur Conan Doyle fashion: Bakshi is playing around with a pet snake and indulging in an intellectual discussion on the nature of love with Ajit.

Ajit is married – his wife is currently away – but Bakshi is a bachelor (just like Holmes). That morning, they get a visitor in the form of a retired judge who runs a rehabilitation centre which houses all sorts of odd characters – some of them former criminals who the judge put away. For him, this place is his idea of repentance (he feels guilty for sending some to the execution chamber). He needs certain information on a small time actress whose whereabouts are currently unknown. There is a reason why he can’t dig up this information on his own.

Bakshi is invited by the judge to take a tour of his center. For obvious reasons, Bakshi is asked to come disguised, and he obliges. He comes in the guise of a Japanese horticulturist and somehow manages to pull it off. During the tour, we are introduced to 10 peculiar characters. A few days later, Bakshi gets a phone call from the judge, at night. But the call is cut short when a mysterious intruder bludgeons the judge to death. The police seek Bakshi’s help in solving the case.

What follows is a fairly complex investigation – especially when a second murder occurs – with Bakshi seeking answers from each of the aforementioned characters. Each one carries their own dirty secret, including the victim. In spite of one or two draggy sequences, Ray’s careful direction and Uttam’s naturalistic performance managed to keep me focused and, if the subtitles were absent, I might’ve found the film a bit hard to follow because, as with any murder mystery, there are multiple characters to keep track of.

Although Bakshi finally manages to catch the killer, his actual motive is never revealed. Perhaps this is deliberate and I don’t see it as a flaw. Apparently Bengali audiences found the film too complex when it first came out. But time has been kind on the film, seemingly, and I learnt recently that now many regard it as one of Ray’s best. The film won 2 National Awards – for Best Feature Film and Best Actor, respectively.

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