“The Golden Fortress” - Satyajit Ray (1974)

As I have mentioned previously, Satyajit Ray was not only a great filmmaker and musical composer, he was also a prolific author of popular fiction [1].  A particular genre interest of Ray’s along this line of creative work was detective fiction, and he published 17 novels and 18 additional stories featuring his canny private investigator Feluda, who served for Ray as his Sherlock Holmes.

One might have expected that this interest of Ray‘s in detective fiction would have overlapped with and spilled over into his cinematic work, but it seems that perhaps the intellectual machinations of detective stories didn’t match particularly well with Ray’s characteristically poignant cinematic expression.  Over his career Ray only made three detective movies – The Zoo (Chiriyakhana, 1967), The Golden Fortress (Sonar Kella, 1974), and Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God (Joi Baba Felunath, 1979) – the latter two of which were based on his Feluda novels.  Nevertheless, these three films were all hits with the public, particularly The Golden Fortress [2].

The story of The Golden Fortress concerns events surrounding a young boy’s memories, or dreams, of a past life when he supposedly lived in a golden fortress.  In particular the boy’s vivid memories of seeing many jewels there inspire some criminals to kidnap him in hopes that he will lead them to a lost treasure.  Ray has fashioned this tale as something of a family-oriented adventure, using typecast characters, comedic elements, and some exotic backgrounds to liven up the proceedings.  In addition Ray colored things further by employing some motifs to stimulate the viewer’s fancy:
  • Travel 
    There are many journeys shown, with a number of means of conveyance – taxis, trains, even camels.  Trains, in particular, have always held a fascination for Ray, and perhaps this is the case for most people of his generation: trains were a means for introducing novelty into traditional Indian life, and they symbolized change and excitement.
  • Clocks 
    There are numerous images of clocks, and references to time; so time, including travel time, seems to be a subtheme in the story.
  • Identity 
    Several characters take on false identities, and it is often the case that people are not who they appear to be to other characters.  So mistaken identity is a common occurrence throughout the tale.
The film’s storyline moves through four stages.

1.  Mukul’s dreams 
The film begins in Calcutta (Kolkata), where six-year-old Mukul Dhar (played by Kusal Chakravarty) upsets his parents with his bizarre behavior at night.  He gets up in the middle of  the night and obsessively draws pictures of peacocks and foreign settings, which he claims he remembers from his past life. Mukul’s father takes him and his drawings to a parapsychologist, Dr. Hemanga Hajra (Sailen Mukherjee), who notices that Mukul’s drawings of fortresses look like some of those in Rajasthan, in western India. Hajra suggests that he take Mukul there to see if he can jog the boy’s memory and work out what all these visions mean.  The boy agrees, but as luck would have it, a journalist was present for this consultation session, and so Mukul’s bizarre story, including his claim to remember his past-life home having many jewels stored there, is reported as a curiosity piece in the city newspaper. 

The newspaper article attracts the attention of the two villains of this story, Amiyanath Burman (Ajoy Banerjee) and Mandar Bose (Kamu Mukherjee), who decide to kidnap Mukul and see if he can lead them to the purported real treasure hidden somewhere.  Ray ensures that the viewer is aware of the shadiness of these two scoundrels by averting the camera from showing their faces in the early scenes in which they appear.  The first thing these bumblers do is kidnap the wrong Mukul, when they snatch a kid who happens to have the same name and who is an acquaintance of our Mukul.  Before drugging and turning loose their mistakenly held captive, they do manage to extract from him some important information – that our Mukul has already left Calcutta with Dr. Hajra and is headed for Jodhpur in Rajasthan. 

When our Mukul’s father learns about the other Mukul being abducted, he fears for his own son’s safety and engages private detective Pradosh Mitra (Soumitra Chatterjee), known as Feluda, to go out to Rajasthan and protect his boy from the predators.  What will impress the viewer about Feluda in this film is not so much his powers of ratiocination, but more his keen observation and memory of seemingly insignificant details.

So now we have three groups of figures all making the 1400-mile train trip from Calcutta to Rajasthan:
  • Mukul, the boy with the fantasies about a golden fortress, along with Dr. Hajra, the parapsychologist;
  • Burman and Bose, the two crooks looking for a treasure trove of jewels;
  • Feluda, who is accompanied by his young cousin and assistant Topshe (Siddartha Chatterjee).
2.  Travel to Rajasthan  
The film now moves into the always fascinating train-travel mode.  Burman and Bose are surprised to discover that Mukul is on the same train with them. So they opportunistically assume false identities and make friends with Mukul and Hajra.  When they get to Jaipur in Rajasthan, they start touring around a local fortress, and when noone is looking, they push Hajra off a high cliff, presumably killing him.  (However, we later see that Hajra, though badly injured, does survive the fall.)  Then when Mukul shows up, they fool the boy into believing that they have magic powers and that they have made that Dr. Hajra disappear and that Burman has now taken on Dr. Hajra’s identity.

Meanwhile Feluda and Topshe, on a following train to Rajasthan, are joined in their train compartment by a jocular and naive novelist known as Jatayu (Santosh Dutta).  Jatayu teams up with Feluda and Topshe, but his presence in this story only serves to provide comic relief.

3.  Travel to Jodhpur 
Once they all, including the badly injured Dr. Hajra, arrive separately in Jodhpur, there are further misrepresentations of identity.  Hajra, fearing that he is still a murder target, is masquerading as a Rajasthani peasant.  Feluda, never having met Hajra, is fooled into believing that Burman is the parapsychologist.  There are further shenanigans, including Bose’s failed attempt to murder Feluda with a poisonous scorpion.  Finally Burman hypnotizes Mukul and manages to learn from the boy that the real fortress they should be looking for is further west of Jodhpur, in the city of Jaisalmer.  So he quickly heads off with Mukul in that direction.

4.  The Golden Fortress at Jaisalmer  
Meanwhile Feluda, Topshe, and Jatayu are looking over the fort in Jodhpur.  Eventually, however, the hyper-observant Feluda figures out that Burman and Bose are not who they claim to be.  In addition Feluda, despite getting what the viewer knows is misleading information from Bose, intuitively guesses that Burman and Mukul have headed off for Jaisalmer.

This sets the stage for a mad race to the Jaisalmer fortress on the separate parts of (1) Burman and Mukul, (2) Bose, (3) Hajra, and (4) Feluda, with circumstances arising that variously entail travel by car, by train, and by camel riding.  There are more unexpected encounters and violent events along the way, which create a mounting tension and sense of expectation on the part of the viewer.  And eventually the principal figures do come together for a final confrontation in the fortress.  In the end you will find out about the nature of the hidden jewels and see that, in keeping with the requirements of family-oriented entertainment, things come to a satisfactory resolution.

Throughout The Golden Fortress Ray adeptly maintains the three parallel narrative threads involving Hajra, the two villains, and Feluda’s team.  This effectively maintains a dynamic pace to the film and holds the viewer’s attention.  However, the subtlety of character depiction and development characteristic of Ray’s greatest films is missing in The Golden Fortress, particularly in connection with the exaggerated histrionics associated with the villainous Burman and Bose characters.  And one wonders if the film might have benefited from the inclusion of a significant female character or two in the story (there are none). Nevertheless, Ray does display an impressive expressive facility with a genre, detective fiction, that is distinct from his usual fare. So the film is likely to have considerable appeal to young people and others who like wholesome adventure stories of that ilk.

  1. The Film Sufi, “‘The Zoo’ - Satyajit Ray (1967)”, The Film Sufi, (3 May 2018).   
  2. Arup K Chatterjee, “Satyajit Ray's Sonar Kella: The train to a golden fortress that wasn't”, daily O, (19 May 2017).   

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