“Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God” - Satyajit Ray (1979)

Satyajit Ray’s third and last detective story film was Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God (aka Joi Baba Felunath, 1979).  Like he did with his earlier detective film The Golden Fortress (Sonar Kella, 1974), the multi-talented Ray based this film on one of his very own detective novels, Joi Baba Felunath (1975), featuring his usual hero, Feluda (Ray wrote 35 novels and stories starring this fictional character [1]).

In Ray’s Feluda stories, the protagonist Prodosh Chandra Mitra, who was known by his nickname Feluda, was usually accompanied by his two companions: his young cousin Topshe Mitra and Lalmohan Ganguly, who was a popular writer of adventure novels and who was conventionally referred to by his pen name, Jatayu.  Together, Topshe and Jatayu are Feluda’s assistant/sidekicks, much in the fashion of Dr. Watson’s relationship with Sherlock Holmes.  Indeed, Ray’s characterization of Feluda was inspired by his readings of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and in Ray’s stories Feluda often mentions that he is an admirer of Holmes [1].  Here in this film these three characters are portrayed by the same actors who appeared in these roles in The Golden Fortress:
  • Feluda is played by long-time Ray favorite Soumitra Chatterjee,
  • Jatayu, who adds a comic profile to the trio, is played by another Ray favorite, Santosh Dutta, and
  • Topshe is played by Siddartha Chatterjee.
The basic tenor of Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God is that of a family-oriented adventure/crime melodrama that would appeal to a wide range of ages and tastes.  There are moments of curiosity, comedy, and tension that are probably particularly appealing to a youthful audience.  In addition, the film’s focus on puja ceremonies in the holy city of Kashi (aka Varanasi or Benares) is a colorful setting that is likely to fascinate many viewers.  Ray presents the tale adroitly with his customarily skillful use of atmospheric compositions interspersed with well-edited dramatic closeups.  And of course Ray, besides providing the film’s story and screenplay, also composed the musical score for the film.

A major theme threaded throughout Joi Baba Felunath is truth-telling.  Most of the characters our three protagonists encounter in this story are involved in lying at various points along the way.  And that, of course, is what makes detective Feluda’s problem and task a challenge to unravel.

The story of Joi Baba Felunath is told over five phases or acts.

1.  A Ganesha Statue is Stolen
In the opening sequence, whose significance as a clue to the viewer will only be made clear  much later in the film, a young boy, Ruku, watches and listens to the idol-maker Sashi Babu tell him details about Hindu deities Durga and Ganesha, who are subjects of his work.  Ruku lives in a wealthy estate which is then visited by an abrupt and presumptuous businessman Maganlal Meghraj (played by Utpal Dutt).  Meghraj makes an offer to buy from Ruku’s father, Umanath Ghosal (Haradhan Bandopadhyay), a small (about three inches in length) gold and diamond-studded statue of Ganesha owned by the Ghosal family, and when Umanath refuses to sell the figure, Meghraj shows his anger. Their conversation is overheard from the corridor outside the room by a young man, Bikash (Biplab Chatterjee), who lives in the home.  Right away we can see that Meghraj is the villain of this piece, and the viewer might well wonder how much mystery will be involved in revealing the culprit of this tale.

That night someone sneaks into the Ghosal house and steals the Ganesha statue.  The next day Feluda, Topshe, and Jatayu are shown arriving in Kashi to see the city and observe the traditional puja rituals.  They check in to a hotel suite which they are to share with a muscular body-builder, Biswasree Gunomoy Bagchi (Moloy Roy).  Biswasree’s presence in this tale turns out to be just a colorful piece of dazzle that is likely to fascinate a youthful audience.

Then the Feluda trio head out to the ghats along the Ganges river, where they observe a visiting Hindu holy man, Machli Baba (Monu Mukherjee), who has attracted excitement from the local populace for his alleged saintly powers.  Among those ceremoniously coming to seek Machli Baba’s blessing is Maganlal Meghraj.  Then the Feluda trio are introduced to Umanath Ghosal, who tells Feluda about his stolen statue and seeks to engage the famous detective to help identify and snare the culprit.

2.  Visiting the Ghosal Estate
Feluda goes to visit the Ghosal estate, where he is given more information about the Ganesha theft.  There he talks to Ruku, Bikash, Umanath Ghosal, and Umanath’s elderly father, Ambika Ghosal (Bimal Chatterjee as), who is the head of Ghosal estate and therefore the real owner of the stolen Ganesha statue.  At this point and for various reasons, Feluda believes, correctly, that Ruku, Bikash, and Umanath are not telling him the entire truth about what happened.

3.  Visiting Maganlal Meghraj
Feluda and his two friends are now summoned to Maganlal Meghraj’s dark mansion, where the sinister Meghraj tells them that the debt-ridden Umanath Ghosal stole the statue, himself, and then sold it to him.  He offers a bribe to Feluda to drop his investigation.  When Feluda refuses to accept the bribe, Meghraj subjects Jatayu to a life-threatening horror as a target for his shaky knife-thrower.  Feluda and Topshe are powerless to defend their terrified friend, because they can see a gun pointed at them from the upstairs balcony.

Jatayu does survive the ordeal, and when they are finally out on the street, the humiliated Feluda vows to take his revenge on Meghraj.  Feluda also concludes that Meghraj probably lied about possessing the Ganesha statue.

4.  Out on the Streets and the Ghats
Continuing his investigations, Feluda now becomes suspicious of a clean-shaven young man he sees on the ghats who reminds him, perhaps because of a tattoo, of the bearded Machli Baba he had seen being worshiped earlier.  He follows the young man to his lodging and furtively confirms his earlier suspicions that Machli Baba is a fake by finding the phony saint’s false beard and dressing gown.  He also sees a locked chest that he suspects contains stolen goods – and perhaps even the Ganesha statue.

Meanwhile the idol-maker Sashi Babu discovers the Ganesha statue lying on the ground at the foot of his Durga idol.  But shortly thereafter, Feluda and his friends discover Sashi Babu murdered on the street.  Now, on the basis of this evidence and some other suspicions he arrived at along the way, Feluda conjectures that the boy Ruku had earlier hidden the stolen Ganesha figure by sticking it with chewing gum inside the lion’s mouth in Sashi Babu’s Durga idol.  We also learn that Ruku reported to Ambika Ghosal that he had overheard Maganlal Meghraj’s  original bribe offer to Umanath Ghosal. 

5.  The Capture
There are further complications, because we learn that Bikash, for a bribe from Meghraj, had intended to steal the little statue from Ambika Ghosal’s trunk, but found it missing when he surreptitiously went to get it.  He did wind up getting it from Shashi Babu and handing it over to Meghraj, together with the fateful information that Babu had had it.

This sets the stage for Feluda’s dramatic costumed ruse to capture Meghraj red-handed in the act of secretly passing on stolen goods to the fake holy man.  Afterwards Meghraj is given Feluda’s revenge treatment – he is subjected to the same kind of terrifying life-threatening target practice that Jatayu had faced, but this time involving a gun instead of knives.

And in the very end, although we more or less knew all along the main point that Maganlal Meghraj was the bad guy, there is a further twist that will intrigue the viewer.

Overall, Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God is a well-made concoction of family entertainment, but there is an element here that I find disappointing.  Ray’s presentation, indeed celebration, of vengeful payback at the end of the film is unworthy of his refined sensibilities.  And revenge is not a suitable message to light-heartedly present and endorse to a youthful audience.

With regard to my earlier mention that truth-telling and lying was a theme of the film, note that (at least) the following characters told lies or presented fabrications to the truth-seeking Feluda:
  • Maganlal Meghraj 
  • Ruku
  • Machli Baba
  • Bikash
  • Umanath Ghosal
  • Ambika Ghosal
See if you can spot their lies early on when you watch Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God.

  1.  “Feluda”, Wikipedia, (9 October 2018).   

“Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche” - Neten Chokling (2010)

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), one of the most revered Tibetan (Himalayan) Buddhist lamas of the 20th century, is the subject of the documentary film Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (2010).  The film is a professional and well-crafted biography of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who was a master of the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and an outstanding scholar, poet, and teacher.  He was, like the Dalai Lama, one of the few masters to be bestowed the honorific “His Holiness”, and he eventually rose to become the head of the Nyingma school, which is the oldest of the four main schools of Himalayan Buddhism [1].

One of the interesting features of this film is the degree to which Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist lamas and dedicated practitioners were key contributors to its production.  The film was directed and co-scripted by Neten Chokling, aka the Fourth Neten Chokling Rinpoche (note that ‘Rinpoche’ is an honorific in the Tibetan language and is not a surname).  Chokling is, besides being a filmmaker (cf. Milarepa, 2006), an important lama from Bhutan who was officially recognized at an early age as the reincarnation of an eminent earlier Buddhist lama [2,3,4].

Chokling’s filmmaking skills were honed by working with another lama/filmmaker, Khyentse Norbu (aka Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche), on the latter’s films The Cup (1999) and Travelers and Magicians (2003). In addition, one of Neten Chokling’s Buddhist teachers was Orgyen Topgyal Rinpoche, who is another important Himalayan Buddhist lama and filmmaker (cf. his The Life of Milarepa [5]) and who happens to be (by religious certification that he is a reincarnation of an earlier family member) another major lama in the Neten Chokling Rinpoche family line.  Both Khyentse Norbu and Orgyen Tobgyal were disciples of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and they appear here in Brilliant Moon and reminisce about their beloved master’s unmatchable virtues.

One of Brilliant Moon’s cinematographers (along with Vivian Kurz) was Matthieu Ricard, a Frenchman who after completing his Ph.D. in molecular genetics, converted to Himalayan Buddhism and adopted the life of a Buddhist monk, becoming a close student of  Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and an assistant to the Dalai Lama.  He has, nevertheless, continued his activities as  well-known writer, photographer, and filmmaker (in 1995 Ricard directed his own documentary about Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Journey to Enlightenment).  Moreover, as a result of a famous MRI brain-scan study conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, he has since been accorded the popular designation as the “world’s happiest person” [6,7,8].

The film producer of Brilliant Moon was the lama Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, who is Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s grandson and who is now the abbot of the Shechen Monastery in Nepal, which is one of the six primary or "mother" monasteries of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Brilliant Moon is narrated by two well-known figures of American popular culture, the actor Richard Gere and the singer Lou Reed.  Both Gere and Reed embraced Tibetan Buddhism years ago, and Gere, in particular, has been a frequent visitor of the Dalai Lama and a public advocate of Tibetan independence.  However, despite the potential pop-culture fanfare opportunities of having Gere (cf., for example, Chicago, 2002) and Reed (the lead singer of The Velvet Underground, cf. “Walk on the Wild Side”, 1970) onboard, their participation is not hyped in this film, and their names only appear modestly in the credits.

Brilliant Moon’s account of the life of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche is presented more or less linearly in ten named chapters.  In the early phases of his life, for which there is basically no historical photographic evidence, Chokling presents things vividly by using animated images.  This works well and confers a fabular feeling to the presentation that befits the legendary lama.

1. The Son
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was born in 1910 in Denhok Valley in the Kham region of Eastern Tibet.  As a young boy, he suffered a serious injury by stumbling into a cauldron of boiling soup and was bedridden and depressed for months.  At this point the melancholy boy decided to enter the monastic life, and his health gradually improved. 

2.  The Monk
At the age of 14, he went to study at the Shechen monastery, one of the six principal monasteries of the Nyingma school of Himalayan Buddhism.  There he came under the tutelage of Shechen Gyaltsaab Rinpoche, a famous lama who passed onto him many sacred teachings before Gyaltsaab passed away 2 years later. 

3.  The Hermit
Then at the age of 15, Dilgo Khyentse entered into a long meditation retreat, hiding away alone in caves in Eastern Tibet for the next thirteen years and constantly meditating and carrying out ritual practices.

4.  The Yogi
At 28 Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche came out of his meditation hermitage and more directly under the tutelage of his spiritual lama master, Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro.  Though Dilgo Khyentse wanted to continue his life in solitary meditation, Khyentse Chokyi Lodro urged the young man to go out into the world and spread the teachings he had learned to others.  So Dilgo Khyentse began traveling about Tibet and spreading his spiritual message. 

However, the gradual takeover of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China beginning in 1950, which led to the 1959 Tibetan uprising, caused severe disturbances in Tibetan life.  So in 1959, like the Dalai Lama had done earlier in the same year, Dilgo Khyentse had to flee Tibet.  After a long and dangerous trip, he found refuge in Bhutan.

5.  The Refugee
As a refugee, Dilgo Khyentse was welcomed by the king and royal family of Bhutan.  Dilgo Khyentse had two daughters, the younger of whom died while studying in India during this period.  His older daughter gave birth in 1967 to a son, Shechen Rabjam, who is the producer of this film.

6.  The Teacher
Over the years, Dilgo Khyentse had over sixty masters from the four main schools of Himalayan Buddhism give him instruction on the sacred teachings.  As a result, he adopted a nonsectarian perspective that, through his own teachings, helped to unify the Himalayan Buddhist community.  He then went on to spread these teachings across the wide region and gave instruction to many existing and future masters.  For example, the Dalai Lama regarded Dilgo Khyentse as his principal teacher of the Nyingma tradition and of the Dzogchen tradition.  And in 1980 he founded the Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery in Nepal.

7.  Return Home
In 1985 with the ruling Chinese authorities having relaxed their restrictions on visiting Tibet, Dilgo Khyentse was able to return to his homeland.  There he continued his work on restoring devastated monasteries.

8.  Completion
Finally, after Dudjom Rinpoche’s death in 1987, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche became the head of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism.  But even as an old man, he tirelessly continued his holy work until his death in 1991.  By that time his writings had amounted to more than 10,000 pages.  He was also involved in the preservation and publication of more then 300 volumes of sacred Buddhist texts.

9.  The Yangsi
After Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s death and following Himalayan Buddhist tradition, there was a search for his religiously certified reincarnation.  In due course a young boy born in 1993 was identified as such and given the name Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche.

10.  The West

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche first traveled to Europe and the US in the 1970s, and he made some more trips thereafter.  These visits helped spread his holy teachings to a Western audience.

Overall, Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche is a well-crafted work, with the excellent mixture of smoothly-edited archival material that is combined with the aforementioned atmospheric animation work covering the master’s early years. I also liked the music composed by Joel Diamond.  But I particularly liked the inclusion on the soundtrack of Mia Doi Todd’s moody song “River of Life/The Yes Song”.  Those are tones that resonate in my memory whenever I think of this fine film.

  1. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is effectively the head of another of the four schools – the Gelug school.
  2. Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, “The Neten Chokling incarnation line”, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, (1983). 
  3. “Neten Chokling”, Wikipedia, (10 March 2018).  
  4. “Neten Chokling Rinpoche”, The Rigpa Shedra Wiki, (28 March 2018).    
  5. The nine linked chapters of The Life of Milarepa can be found on Youtube here:
  6. Alyson Shontell, “A 69-year-old monk who scientists call the 'world's happiest man' says the secret to being happy takes just 15 minutes per day”, Business Insider Australia (25 December 2016).   
  7. Robert Chalmers, “Matthieu Ricard: Meet Mr Happy”, The Independent, (18 February 2007).       
  8. Matthieu Ricard, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill,  Little, Brown and Company, (2007).

Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy

Films of Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy:

Kireet Khurana

Films of Kireet Khurana:

“Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi” - Kireet Khurana and Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy (2016)

Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi (2016) is a documentary film about an esteemed writer and director of arthouse films in India, Saeed Akhtar Mirza.  The film, directed by Kireet Khurana and Padmakumar Narasimhamurthy and based on a conceptualization by Khurana, appears to be an  attempt to explore Mirza’s artistic and philosophical underpinnings that have inspired his thoughtful cinematic themes. 

Mirza’s career flourished from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, and it featured a number of somewhat offbeat films that were hits with both the critics and the public.  Although I referred to him as an arthouse filmmaker, this was merely to distinguish his work from the Bollywood entertainment industry, placing him instead in the category of “serious” filmmakers sometimes referred to in India as “Parallel Cinema” [1].  His films were not overly intellectual, and indeed many of them had a visceral quality to them.  Among the hit films that Mirza made (co-wrote and directed) in his heyday are:
  • Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978)
  • Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai (Why Does Albert Pinto Get Angry?, 1980) 
  • Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984)
  • Nukkad (Street Corner, TV series, 1986) 
  • Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (Don't Cry over the Lame Salim's Death, 1989)
  • Naseem (The Morning Breeze, 1995)
Most of these films show a man who has been made wrathful by a corrupted social milieu that is stacked against him.  As such, these films angrily serve to expose social injustices prevailing in Indian society and so supposedly may help to qualify Mirza as a leftist.  However, the degree to which the present film under discussion, Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi, actually reveals Mirza to be both a leftist and a Sufi is something that needs to be considered further.

The film Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi is made up of three basic interleaved components:
  1. A set of extended monologues of Saeed Mirza talking about his past experiences and his thoughts about Indian society and life in general.
  2. A set of testimonials from some of Mirza’s professional colleagues and contemporaries,  including Saeed’s own younger brother Aziz Mirza, who is also a film director but who, unlike Saeed, makes films more along the lines of mainstream Bollywood musical comedies.
  3. A set of montage-like snippet collections from Saeed Mirza’s feature films.  These are presumably intended to give a flavor of his work.
These three components are supposed to contribute to our understanding of Saeed Mirza and the degrees to which he is a leftist and a Sufi.  But two of those components are not effective in this regard.

Component #2, the collection of testimonials, is devoted mostly to people testifying to what a good guy Saeed Mirza is.  But they don’t tell us much about Mirza or provide interesting personal anecdotes describing how he thinks or operates.  They just tell us that he is good.

And component #3, the collection of film snippets, doesn’t provide enough information for this situation, either.  First of all, although the film is in spoken English, the snippets are from Hindi language films and are not provided with English-language subtitling.  Apparently the makers of this film were assuming that all their viewers would be bilingual in Hindi and English.  Moreover, the individual snippets shown in the film are so short that they collectively fail to provide a narrative feel of the films from which they are drawn, even for those viewers who are bilingual.  For example, there is a shot of a one-man demolition of a building that is taken from the film Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho!  But it is not evident from just seeing this clip alone that this is a culminating event for Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho!s narrative.  So these clips shown here are likely only to serve as reminders to those who have already seen those original films. And in general they don’t contribute to our understanding of the narrative themes that underlay Saeed Mirza’s films.

So this leaves us only with component #1, Saeed Mirza’s extended commentary addressed directly to the camera, to hopefully provide the substance and insights we are looking for.  And here we do find material of interest.  Mirza comes across in these bits as a reflective person, as he recounts his thoughts about his past and about Indian society. He reminisces about his time spent studying at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).  And in general, he reveals himself to be not so much a clear-cut leftist, in my view, but more like a universal humanist – someone who embraces an inclusive and progressive view of humanity and human rights.  Thus he was disturbed by the rise of fanatic communalism in India in the 1980s [2].  In particular, the destruction of the 16th-century Babri Masjid at Ayodhya by Hindu fanatics in 1992, which was a key thematic element in Mirza’s 1995 film Naseem, was so depressing for Mirza that it induced him to take an extended leave from filmmaking.

More recently Mirza has successfully turned to writing, where his prose has been praised by his colleagues, and it has been characterized by them as an imaginative blend of fiction and autobiography that blurs the boundaries between the two [3,4].

Interesting as some of this Mirza commentary is, though, the film as a whole suffers from some further deficiencies in connection with its production values.  Basically, apart from the not-very-helpful film clippings, we have a film mostly of talking heads.  And there is no real dialogue; these are individual heads talking straight to the camera.  In addition, many of these talking-head shots are sloppily conducted with a shaky hand-held camera, which is distracting to the viewer.  Moreover, there are also issues with the soundtrack.  When Mirza is shown out on the street, there is often so much ambient noise that it is hard to hear what he is saying.  And in other parts of the film, the sound dubbing is not synced very well.

Thus overall, the film Saeed Mirza: The Leftist Sufi gave me sparse information about a very interesting Indian filmmaker; but it was only in small fragments, and it left me wanting more than what this film could give me.

  1. “Parallel cinema”, Wikipedia, (22 July 2018).   
  2. ‘Communalism’ is a word that has many interpretations around the world.  Here I am using it in the way it is usually understood in South Asia.
  3. Saeed Mirza, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother, (2008).
  4. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Memory In The Age of Amnesia: A personal history of our times, Westland Publications Limited, (2018).