As Feluda COVID-19 test rolls out, few tributes could be as apt for Soumitra Chatterjee and iconic character he portrayed

Sandip Roy
·6-min read

The Feluda paper strip test for the coronavirus has just been rolled out in Delhi by the Tata group in collaboration with Apollo Hospitals. Union health minister Harsh Vardhan has already claimed it had shown 96% sensitivity in detecting the disease and 98% specificity in ascertaining who did not have it in tests conducted over 2,000 patients.

In Corona-jargon Feluda stands for FNCAS9 Editor-Limited Uniform Detection Assay. But of course that's also the name of Satyajit Ray's iconic detective made immortal on screen by the late Soumitra Chatterjee. There have been others who played Prodosh C. Mitter aka Feluda after him but while there are debates and camps among James Bond fans between Sean Connery and Daniel Craig, there's never really been any doubt that nobody quite inhabited Feluda like Soumitra Chatterjee.

There's a reason for that. Chatterjee told Ray that he seemed to have based Feluda €" the lanky, acutely intelligent Charminar-smoking detective €" on himself. Ray laughingly retorted, "But no, many people have come to me and said it looks like you!" In the end Chatterjee said he settled for Feluda, Ray and him being a "happy triangle." Though his roles as Apu in Apur Sansar and Amal in Charulata made Chatterjee world-famous, Feluda made him a cult figure at home.

Chatterjee had said in an interview that initially he was discomfited by that Feluda adulation. After all, he had done so many memorable roles. "But I realised my mistake. My work is to make people happy. If even one person remembers me as Feluda, then I should be grateful not angry."

The first Feluda story appeared in 1965. Ray wrote some 35 stories featuring him. Of course it's no secret that Feluda and his "satellite" Topshe were the Bengali descendants of Sherlock Holmes and Watson though one could also see the influence of Tintin on them. But ultimately they became entirely Bengali. Though of course the most Bengali of them all is the bumbling pulpy thriller writer Jatayu, their frequent companion on their adventures. "He's not terribly bright but he thinks he's bright€¦ he's a very a Bengali character," said Ray to his biographer Andrew Robinson.

It is that Bengali-ness that roots Feluda in specificity because unlike other iconic detectives, like Hercule Poirot or even Holmes, he is not an eccentric figure, a bundle of idiosyncrasies. It is really to Chatterjee's credit that he takes Feluda and removes him far away from the shadow of Holmes. He is a cerebral deadpan Bengali character albeit in better shape than most Bengalis. But like a good Bengali he is fussy about his Makaibari tea and his nolen our sandesh. He can use a Colt .32 revolver but his real weapon is "magaj astra" or "brain power". In a sense he is more of how a certain class of Bengalis would like to imagine themselves than what they really are. As Indrajit Hazra writes in Feluda @50: He is a "repository of cosmopolitan sharpness who was healthily skeptical of Bengali middle-class behaviour and thinking, while at the same time being in the thick of middle-classness."

Ashutosh Mohan writes in Film Companion, "Feluda is less about chasing down criminals. He's more about solving puzzles." He is obsessed with geometry, the parabola of the ash of a burning cigarette, he looks for patterns and things that don't fit the pattern as virus tests must. Just as Feluda owes his origins to Holmes but then is turned into something entirely Bengali, the Feluda test uses the CRISPR-Cas 9 technology which won Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A Doudna the Nobel Prize in chemistry, but in the end like Feluda the detective, Feluda the Covid test is entirely indigenous, developed by the Tata Group and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research - Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology. Incidentally a similar CRISPR test in the US is named Sherlock. So it only makes sense for its Indian counterpart to salute Feluda.

"Felu is upright and honest. And another thing which appealed to me a great deal is his patriotism," Chatterjee said in an interview marking the 50th anniversary of Feluda, which sounds like an excellent character certificate for a homegrown Covid test. Like the quick-on-the-draw detective, the Feluda test promises accurate results without compromising on accuracy. In a time of conflicting reports about how to tackle the virus, with rapid tests that have high rates of false negatives, we could all do with the Feluda stamp of certainty. As Feluda puts it, "It is foolish to believe or not believe something without evidence. History is full of examples of people who made serious errors because they did not keep an open mind." It is that open mind that allows Feluda to find unconventional solutions to tricky problems.

WIPRO's chief learning officer Abhijit Bhaduri writes Feluda was a quintessential T-shaped person, a job recruitment term for someone with depth of experience (the vertical bar) and ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and apply that knowledge (the horizontal bar). Cracking the virus will certainly need a lot of T-shaped Feludas.

In hindsight this name for the rapid Covid test has been quite a masterstroke.

It is our habit to honour the dead by naming things after them. Mamata Banerjee once renamed a street after Feluda's creator. But in a fit of largesse instead of calling it Satyajit Ray Sarani (Road) she decided to call it Satyajit Ray Dharani (or Satyajit Ray World). Feluda, a man of great restraint, who had a keen sense of history, disliked street names being changed and heritage being tampered with, would probably have frowned at such excess. But a Feluda Covid-19 test is a far more appropriate tribute to Chatterjee and his iconic character than some dusty street or park. Feluda, after all in Chatterjee's own words, made him "universally acceptable across Bengali society" and beyond as well. When Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik mourned Chatterjee, it was Feluda he was saying goodbye to.

After Chatterjee died, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted: "Feluda is no more." But if this paper strip test is rolled out successfully, Feluda will walk once more among us, solving the Corona mystery, the same disease that sent him to the hospital in the first place. Feluda has cracked his final case, the one we thought had finally defeated him.

I can think of few better tributes to Soumitra Chatterjee than that.

Also See: Soumitra Chatterjee passes away: Narendra Modi, Mamta Banerjee, Swastika Mukherjee mourn the loss of veteran actor

Soumitra Chatterjee passes away: Redoutable thespian's stage career underscored why he was true renaissance man

How Satyajit Ray prepared Soumitra Chatterjee for his debut in Apur Sansar: Read an excerpt from 'The Master and I'

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