Varanasi in Satyajit Ray’s Joi Baba Felunath

There’s a gap of around two decades between Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito and Joi Baba Felunath (JBF). JBF is a detective story and is spun around an adventurous tale of Roy’s creation with the detective Feluda, his writer friend Jatayu and his apprentice Topshe. The film is set in Banaras and it does not imitate the way Ray had presented and treated  the city in his previous film. JBF could have been set in any other city without losing any of the audience’s interest.

Banaras is merely ornamental in film, just incidental, for the structure of the film. Its ghats, majestic buildings, the river and boats, the grand subahe banaras etc. are in no way essential to the plot’ s development. Banaras is the ornament around the characters and action in the film, much unlike Aparajito in which the city was one of the central characters, without which the first forty minutes of the film will be unimaginable as Banaras is the soul of that part. That’s not the case in JBF.

The important scenes with the city as the backdrop do not actually need the locations where they are shot. In fact, through the insertion of the various picturesque and characteristic places of Banaras Ray created an imagined topography of the city. He may also have done so because of the appeal of the city for himself and the other Bengalis: his target audience. Macchli Baba could have met his followers under a shady tree in a garden instead of Rana Mahal Ghat, and Feluda could have observed Maganlal meeting the Baba somewhere else too. The protagonist could have waited at any place other than Gyaan Vaapi for Maganlal’s goon and could have declared his commitment to avenge his friend’s harassment at any place other than Kedar Ghat. The same holds for Feluda’s confronting Bikash at Ram Bhandar and taking him to Man Mandir Observatory. It would take between fifteen to twenty minutes for a person to walk from Ram Bhandar to Man Mandir Ghat. Feluda could have gone to another ghat, e.g. Sankatha Ghat where he could have reached within five minutes. But no, the observatory had to be shown, so it had to be inserted into the film.

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2 thoughts on “Varanasi in Satyajit Ray’s Joi Baba Felunath

  1. Though Varanasi is not as important but naturally it adds the extra something to the suspense ,the narrow lanes creates an eerie atmosphere.Bringing in the ever grudging hotel inmate was also very natural.And most of all the character “Machhlibaba”.His demeanour ,his tattoo and the posture he was sitting when having his food says it all.He can be anything but a holy man.

    • The observation is very true, except “Varanasi is not as important” clause. Varanasi is not just the backdrop, it’s an active agent, nearly a character in Ray’s two great films featuring it. I wish the master had set more of his films there!

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