In the ’60s, Satyajit Ray sent two men out in the world – one, to take on the world of crime, the other, into a science lab. Feluda, his detective, has been popular as a literary and screen hero, even outside Bengal, among people of all ages, and especially the young. Professor Shonku, his other creation, who will soon appear in a film, will now have to show street cred.
In a Kolkata studio where Sandip Ray has recently finished filming the India schedule of his father Satyajit Ray’s story on Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku, a character he created for a children’s magazine, the atmosphere is joco-serious.
It has to be. Written more to appeal to the Bengalis’ love for the absurd and the fantastical than rational science, Ray wrote up Shonku as a scientist in a particular way. This was a man for whom the profession of science was like a hobby and through whom Ray could write about a peculiar idiosyncrasy – the Bengali tendency of laughing at the amateur and yet adopting him or her provided s/he is serious about the subject.
Professor Shonku, in his madcap avatar, trying his invention, Snuff Gun, on his servant Prahlad.
(Illustration: Satyajit Ray /Shonku Samogroho )
“My father never thought he would be a writer. Sandesh, a children’s magazine began by my great-grandfather Upendrakishore Roychowdhury, was revived in 1961. Father sent Professor Shonku to Mars in the first story, Byomjatrir Diary, for the inaugural issue of Sandesh redux as a test case. His fans wanted more so he wrote 40 more adventures. One of these will now be the first film, Professor Shonku O El Dorado, a story based on the professor he wrote in the ’80s, to be released in 2019,” says Sandip Ray, a day after the shooting, at his home on Bishop Lefroy Road, famously known in Kolkata as ‘Ray Street’. The good news is that the “film’s Bengali portions may be subtitled”, adds Sandip Ray.
Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shonku is a master of nonsensical inventions and bizarre discoveries. He sometimes tries them out on his long-suffering servant Prahlad and his cat, Newton.
On Prahlad, he has tried the Snuff Gun. For the desired effect – to destabilise the target by making him sneeze for 33 straight hours – the gun has to be aimed at the corner of the moustache. On the cat, the professor has tested the Fish Pill. This pill makes a cat prefer the pill over fish and makes it feel that it has eaten a week’s ration of fish. But to what end? Scientists like Professor Shonku can then take such a cat for an expedition into space and not have to worry about supply of fish there!
Point to note: the bumbling amateur that Professor Shonku initially is, changed into a more serious scientist-explorer with more thriller-like plots as Ray developed him over the course of 30 years.
Professor Shonku’s birth in the magazine Sandesh precedes Feluda’s. The first story was published in 1961.
(Illustration: Satyajit Ray /Shonku Samogroho)
Shonku’s professorial air is often punctured by his neighbour, Avinash Babu, who introduces questions totally unrelated to science in a conversation just as Shonku is warming up to give a lengthy explanation about his invention – which may or may not take off! It is routine, for example, for Avinash Babu to fume and ask for compensation, as he does in Byomjatrir Diary, for the mess the professor’s defective rocket has made in his garden by crashing on his bed of radishes.
In this first Shonku film, Avinash Babu, however, does not make an appearance. But a new character, Nokur Babu does. “This is a science fantasy. And Nokur Babu is the surprise element. Can’t say too much otherwise it will be a spoiler,” says Sandip Ray. He is not banking on everyone in the audience to come to the movie reading the story either in Bengali or in English translation.
Dhritiman Chatterjee is playing Professor Shonku in the film.
What was Ray’s inspiration for the character and why did he do a series on a scientist? There is indeed no such parallel in the Bengali canon or in any indigenous literature of his time. “Father was inspired by Sherlock Holmes’ the Professor Challenger series and the diaries of the fictional naturalist Hesoram Husiyar created by his father Sukumar Ray,” says Sandip Ray.
But the madcap scientist, Nidhiram Patkel, another Sukumar Ray creation, is perhaps a more direct predecessor as far as the first few Shonku stories go. Patkel’s arsenal of a multi-purpose oil, one that cures liver ailments and makes a moustache grow half an arm longer and a new kind of cannon ball, one that is filled with bed-bug fragrance and rotten vegetable extracts, reveals where Satyajit Ray was looking for inspiration.
“In 19th-century Bengal, western science was regarded as indispensable for progress and national regeneration,” says Chandak Sengoopta, professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and author of the book, The Rays Before Satyajit. “This attitude was prevalent among Brahmos, [Bengali Renaissance hat] Akshay Dutta onwards. Many of the early children’s magazines were started by Brahmos, and all of them published numerous articles on science and technology. Upendrakishore Roychowdhury, a Brahmo himself, was a major figure in this history. Sukumar Ray studied science in college and carried on the same tradition when he took over the editorship of Sandesh. Unlike his father, however, he liked to mock any and everybody — doctors, scientists, judges, over-refined poetic types, schoolteachers, zamindars, the characters from the Ramayana (including Ram, Hanuman), politicians, swadeshi activists. In some lost poems, he also poked fun at Lord Curzon, who was then the Viceroy. It was good-humoured satire without malice — but it spared nobody.” Ray’s story and Sandip Ray’s film is in keeping with that tradition.
This film is also a change of gears for Sandip Ray. After his father’s death in 1992, he has been directing mainly Feluda films – he has done seven — based on Ray’s famous detective. [Since 2003, Sandip Ray has also been the editor of Sandesh.]
Actor Dhritiman Chatterjee.
(Photo: Samir Jana)
It was the right time to make the film on Professor Shonku…. Dhritiman [the veteran actor playing the lead role] is also at the right age to play the professor. He is sensitive, sophisticated, erudite….” says the director. Were there any adjustments to be made while transporting the character from the book to the screen as there was in the case of Feluda? In a book Aami aar Feluda (Feluda and Me, 2006), an account of his working on the Feluda films with his father, Sandip Ray had let the reader in on a hilarious aspect of the filming.
“Feluda’s eyes are supposed to be brilliant, but Soumitra kaka’s [actor Soumitra Chatterjee] eyes were not giving the required look because he has small eyelashes,” writes Sandip Ray. “Father toyed with the idea of using false eyelashes on him. Ultimately, we used a highlighter over the eyelid to make Soumitra’s eye look bigger.” Dhritiman Chatterjee as Shonku is appearing on screen with no enhancements.
Shonku vs Feluda
Satyajit Ray ran the parallel universes of Shonku and Feluda since the ’60s and distributed his likes and dislikes between the two characters.
Actor Soumitra Chatterjee as detective Feluda in Satyajit Ray’s film Sonar Kella.
(Photo: HT Archives)
“What he hated, Feluda hated. Integrity was important to both and intellectual dishonesty was not to be borne,” says Sandip Ray. “And likewise for Professor Shonku. Baba had foreign friends and so did Shonkhu.” But there was one difference. Feluda’s adventures in Gangtok, Varanasi, Lucknow were set in places Ray had actually travelled to. Shonku’s settings – Congo, Rio de Janerio, the Taklamakan desert — were more fantastical as for these he was relying on imagination. Shonku was situated in places Ray wanted to go. “When he was writing, these were pre-Google days, he had to be dependent on friends to send him maps and postcards of these places. But they did not arrive on time. He was under constant pressure of missing the deadline,” says Sandip Ray.
Shonku’s attitude to his work, too, not surprisingly, is Ray-like. Says Sandip Ray: “He was old school definitely. He was eager for new things. His inventions may be the cottage industry kind but the duplication of his inventions was not possible”. None of the Shonku’s inventions were made in a factory or released in the market. They were made for research or one could say, for his own pleasure. He also did not feel that working in a lab in a small city was a disadvantage to unlocking the mysteries of science.
“Does discovering mean going around the world like a top? No, you can do it at home,” says Sandip Ray with a laugh, “though in this film, as in the original story, Shonku is stretching himself by going to Brazil.” And in an important departure from the all-male world of his father’s literary fiction, Sandip Ray promises there will be in the film, women too. Women scientists to be precise, and Brazilians to boot.
First Published: Aug 03, 2018 19:50 IST