If The Elephant God is your first contact with the work of celebrated Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, you might be in for a surprise. Mr. Ray being better known as the director who showed there was more to Indian cinema than the Bollywood extravaganzas with his attentive studies of the chasm between tradition and modernity, seeing him helming a nudge-nudge wink-wink whodunit openly aimed at younger audiences will seem to be out of character.
Not at all: a Renaissance man of sorts, screenwriter, director, composer and occasional editor of his films while still finding time for other pursuits, Mr. Ray was also a successful mystery writer and The Elephant God was the second film adaptation he directed of his own stories about Bengali private eye Felu Mitter. Here played by Ray regular Soumitra Chatterjee, the vacationing detective finds himself involved in the theft of a very valuable heirloom coveted by an unscrupulous gangster.
In many ways, The Elephant God transcends the mere whodunit format thanks to the writer-director's clever transformation of the tale into a meta-whodunit, a mystery about mysteries. Mitter travels with his good friend Lalmohan Ganguly (Santosh Dutta), himself a mystery writer of some renown; his books are devoured by Ambika Ghosal (Bimal Chatterjee), the owner of the stolen figurine, who challenges Mitter and his party to find "who did it". And Mr. Ray's always elegant formal compositions, cleverly making use of boxes, windows, jetties, show how much the entire film is a seamless integrated construct that also addresses the contradictions of modern-day India by having a Westernised detective investigating the disappearance of a religious statuette thought to bring luck to the household, with an apparent ascetic guru hovering in the background.
It is an entertainment, but it's a lively, intelligent entertainment, neither condescending to its audience nor taking itself overly seriously; Mr. Ray knew very well that there are no guilty pleasures, as David Bordwell is fond of saying, just many different types of film, and there is no reason why a talented filmmaker cannot do different types of films without "betraying" his talents or staining his curriculum. Case in point, and case closed.
JAI BABA FELUNATH
Cast Soumitra Chatterjee, Utpal Dutt, Santosh Dutta, Siddhartha Chatterjee, Haradhan Banerjee, Satya Banerjee, Bimal Chatterjee, Biplab Chatterjee, Moloy Roy, Santosh Sinha, Sriman Jit Bose
Director, screenwriter and composer Satyajit Ray; based on the novel Jai Baba Felunath by Mr. Ray; cinematographer Soumendu Roy (colour); art director Ashok Bose; costumes Haru Das and Tapan Das; editor Dulal Dutta; producer R. D. Bansal; production company RDB & Company
Screened September 17th 2014, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)