“The Zoo” - Satyajit Ray (1967)

Satyajit Ray was not only a great filmmaker and screenwriter, he was also a gifted graphic artist, musical composer, and author.  In particular he had a strong penchant for detective fiction, and he wrote 35 popular novels and stories featuring his detective hero Feluda.  Before writing  his first Feluda novel, though, Ray first ventured into the detective-fiction world with his film The Zoo (Chiriyakhana, 1967), which was based on a 1953 novel of the same name by popular Bengali detective-fiction writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhya. 

Actually, there was a certain amount of serendipity in Ray’s coming to make this film at all.  Ray wanted to keep his hand-picked production team together, and to do that they needed continuous work on film projects.  But there were at that time disruptions and disturbances in the Indian civil society that threatened the stability of the Bengali film industry [1].  So Ray’s production team had gone ahead on their own and secured rights to make a film of Bandyopadhyaa novel Chiriyakhana.  However, the team ran into difficulties with the producers, and so Ray was called in to take over the direction of the film [1]. 

Although Ray was capable of working across a range of film genres, he knew that detective fiction was not always an ideal fit for cinematic expression, since these kinds of stories usually have a lot of verbal expression at the end that provide a detailed explanation of what happened and how the crime was committed.  Nevertheless, he went ahead and fashioned a decent work out of  Chiriyakhana.  In fact Ray would go on to make two further detective-fiction films, on these occasions based on his Feluda novels – Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress, 1971) and Joi Baba Felunath (The Mystery of the Elephant God, 1975).  

Here in The Zoo, Bandyopadhya’s favorite detective, Byomkesh Bakshi, is played by Bengali screen idol Uttam Kumar, whom Ray had earlier cast as the lead in his Nayak (The Hero, 1966).  Ray tones down Kumar’s glamour in The Zoo by having him wear horned-rim glasses, just as he had de-glamorized Sharmila Tagore with horned-rim glasses in Nayak.  In both cases the horned-rim glasses seem to signify a reflective character.  Of course, that is what we often expect in a detective story – an analytical rationalist in the fashion of Sherlock Holmes uses empirical evidence and logical deduction to solve the mystery.  Indeed direct allusions are made to Holmes, when Byomkesh’s assisting friend, Ajit, in The Zoo is referred to as Byomkesh’s “Watson”.  Ray spices up the Byomkesh character a bit by outfitting his office with a human skeleton and having him play with his pet baby python snake from time to time; but basically Byomkesh is a Holmesian rationalist who relies on his deductive acumen to solve the crimes.

The story of The Zoo involves our protagonist sleuth, Byomkesh, facing the task of resolving at least four concurrent, and presumably linked, crime/mysteries.  We can look at its presentation as comprising four basic acts.

1.  Visit to the Zoo
In the beginning Byomkesh Bakshi (played by Uttam Kumar) and his assisting friend, the writer Ajit Bandyopadhyay (Shailen Mukherjee), are visited by retired judge Nishanath Sen (Sushil Majumdar), who now owns a small dairy farm and plant nursery.  Because of the guilt Sen later felt for sending twenty-two convicted criminals to the gallows during his time as a judge, Sen now uses his farm as a charitable home for social outcasts, such as ex-convicts, who cannot find a place in ordinary Indian society.  This menagerie  of social misfits living in Sen’s colony is referred to by outsiders as “the zoo”. 

The reason for Sen’s interest in Byomkesh’s services is that he wants to find out who sang a song titled, “What Do You Know of Love?” from some forgotten movie made years earlier.  Byomkesh and Ajit immediately visit film scholar Ramen Mallick (Jahar Ganguli), who remembers the song, the movie, and the actress who sang the song (it was not dubbed by a playback singer) named Sunetra Sunayana.  Mallick also recalls that at the time this film was being made seven years ago, his young friend Morari was murdered while making love with Sunayana in a room above the film studio.  Although Sunayana was originally a suspect, noone was convicted, and the crime was never solved. Sunayana disappeared from sight, and her whereabouts remain unknown.  Apparently Sen suspects that one of the women in his colony of outcasts is Sunayana in disguise.

Byomkesh and Ajit are then invited to visit Sen’s colony to investigate.  Disguised as a Japanese horticulturalist (a humorous touch on the part of Ray),  Byomkesh comes and compulsively takes photos of all of Sen’s motley collection of “inmates”.  Sen also mentions that every few weeks someone has been coming at night and mysteriously tossing old automobile parts through a colony window.  Byomkesh guesses that this might be associated with some sort of blackmail.
 
So now there are three mysteries to be solved:
  • Mystery #1 - Who among the women living in Sen’s colony is Sunetra Sunayana?
  • Mystery #2 - Who is responsible for the murder of Morari?
  • Mystery #3 - Who is behind the motor parts threats?
2.  That Night at the Zoo 
That night at 10pm we see that a number of the inmates to whom Byomkesh was introduced that day are up and engaged in obscure (to the viewer) activities.  Sen makes a phone call to Byomkesh at this time informing him he has new information for him; but before he can complete the call, he is bludgeoned to death by an unknown assailant. So now there is a fourth mystery:
  • Mystery #4 - Who killed Nishanath Sen?
And the people in the colony who were awake at the time of the murder may be implicated, at least as potential witnesses.

Byomkesh comes to the colony the next day and begins interviewing everyone.  Of course a detective always looks for a motive behind the committing of a crime, and among the various shady characters living in the colony, almost everyone is a suspect.  Included among the suspects is Dr. Bhujangadhar Das (Shyamal Ghoshal), a doctor who lost his license to practice medicine for performing illegal abortions.  One piece of evidence that seems to clear Dr. Das of Sen’s murder, though, is that everyone who was awake at 10pm on the night of the murder remembers hearing him playing his sitar at that time.  During Das’s interview, he and Byomkesh engage in a brief discussion about the relative weights and importance of personal morals versus social norms (including laws).  This is one of the occasional philosophical elements in the film that concern themselves with the nature of crime and guilt and that add interest to the film.

Afterwards Byomkesh, Ajit, and Mallick go to a film studio to see a screening of the song “What Do You Know of Love?” sung by Sunayana.  This is pleasant Bollywood musical song, and it is interesting to know that it was written by Satyajit Ray, in a further demonstration of the range of his many talents.  When they watch this film clip, Byomkesh and Ajit can see that Sunayana does not really look like any of the four main women living in Sen’s colony:
  • Mukul (Subira Roy), the daughter of inmate ex-prof and former criminal Nepal Gupta,
  • Najar Bibi (Subrata Chatterjee), who is the wife of Sen’s driver Mushkil Mia,
  • Banalakshmi (Gitali Roy), who is a peasant outcast girl of unknown background from a local village,
  • Damayanti (Kanika Majumdar), who is Sen’s wife (and now widow).
3.  Further Suspicions Arise 
So far Byomkesh has seen some suspicious characters but doesn’t have a lot of evidence.  He has pasted all the photos he has taken of these colony people on his office wall so that he can examine his gallery of suspects. But he is still searching for more clues and a motive.

Then inmate Brajadas, who is an ex-con and former employee of Mr. Sen, comes to Byomkesh and reveals that Damayati was not Sen’s legal wife.  He explains that some fourteen years earlier Sen had sentenced Damayati’s husband to death for some crime.  But a higher court had overruled the death sentence and imprisoned the man, whose sentence was now up.  In the intervening time Sen had taken Damayati as his mistress.  Damayati’s husband was presumably now out of prison and engaged in secretly blackmailing Damayati by periodically throwing the motor parts through her window.  So this information seems to clear up Mystery #3, but its connection with the other mysteries is unclear, except that it indicates that Damayati is not the disguised Sunayana.

Then another inmate, Panugopal, who may have witnessed Sen’s murder, is bludgeoned to death in exactly the same way as was Sen, which extends Mystery #4.  Byomkesh now goes ahead with more detailed interviews of some of the remaining key suspects, and he uncovers some important clues.  He also visits Dr. Dash’s flat in town and discovers the doctor’s tape recorder.

4.  The Final Reckoning
Byomkesh finally summons all the colony suspects to the police office for a climactic meeting.  His analytical mind is still searching for a criminal motive that would explain the three remaining mysteries.  After presenting to the assembled gathering the evidence he has collected that conflicts with some of the testimony of the suspects, he finally elicits a confession from the woman who was the real Sunayana (she was one of the four suspects I listed above).  Her confession leads to the unraveling of the mysteries and the true identity of the one man responsible for the murders of all three victims – Morari, Sen, and Panugopal.


As can be seen, the story of The Zoo is quite complicated, even for the usual ratiocination-filled detective story.  Given the need for unraveling four intermingled mysteries involving a host of suspicious characters (most of the people in “the zoo”), it was perhaps inevitable that the result would be a film that is a bit too talky.  Nevertheless, Ray and his cinematographer, Soumendu Roy, do their best to make things visually interesting, with a number of atmospheric evening scenes and extended tracking shots.  In the end what we have is an interesting, but minor, work in Satyajit Ray’s illustrious oeuvre.
★★ 

Notes:
  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 291-92.

1 comment:

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Wonderful analysis of an very complex Satyajit Ray film starring the legendary Uttam Kumar!