Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Finding Africa in Benaras: Postcolonial Citation in Jai Baba Felunath (1979)

This summer, as I was wrapping up my dissertation and packing my boxes in upstate New York, I started watching Satyajit Ray’s Jai Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1979) after what felt like a lifetime. The film is based on a novel from Ray’s own children’s detective series featuring the celebrated Bengali private investigator Prodosh C. Mitter, aka Felu-da (“da” being an affectionate honorific for elder brother). In a 1980 review, Gene Moscowitz calls it “Ray’s bow to that Yank hardboiled private-eye classic, The Maltese Falcon by John Huston.”[1] It’s also one of those remarkable documents of Bengali visual culture that one often watches at a young age and neglects to revisit carefully in adulthood.

Man and woman seated in front of statues
Fig. 1. Shashibabu telling Ruku the story of the Goddess Durga in the opening scene of Satyajit Ray’s Jai Baba Felunath (R.D.B. Productions, 1979).

The film opens with a scene that mixes nostalgia for a quickly fading Indian past with a recognizable image of cultural mythmaking: an old man in a rambling ancestral house in Benares sitting before a clay idol of the many-handed goddess Durga and passing along the story of the Goddess’s origin to a young child (fig. 1). The elderly Shashibabu’s wrinkled face grows animated with excitement as he transmits the important Bengali tale of the great battle of good and evil to wide-eyed little Ruku, telling the child how Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma banded together to create a unified power that became the mother goddess Durga. The goddess then rode on her lion to defeat the near-invincible demon Mahishashur. For half a second, Ruku wonders if any part of this fantastical business can possibly be true, but in the next moment convinces himself that “It’s all real. Mahishashur is real, Hanuman is real, Captain Spark is real, Tarzan is real, Phantom is real . . .”

Although designed to amuse through incongruity, Ruku’s repetitive chant sounded surprising and deeply strange to my adult ears. What could be the meaning of this bold sequence of figures drawn from religion and popular culture, this iconoclastic collapsing of Hindu divinities and myths with the modern—and notably racializing—fictions of Tarzan and Phantom?

A simple answer could be that Satyajit Ray, the writer, director, designer, illustrator, and musician, is asking us to take note of the phantasmic miscellaneity that shapes the psychological world of the modern Indian—and specifically Bengali—child in the twentieth century. Having created films, short stories, detective fiction, science fiction, book covers, and scores aimed at young audiences all his life, Ray took seriously the ways that children and young people consume media objects and are consumed by them. Beyond capturing what Ray called the nostalgic “mood of the narrative,” like the effect of the pensive hookah-smoking opening scene in his 1958 film Jalshaghar (fig. 2), Ray’s prologue in Jai Baba Felunath performs another function (Moscowitz, Satyajit Ray, 115). It embeds Ray’s own childhood within the narrative through metatextual figuration, using Ruku’s experiences to point to Ray’s own profound attachment to his family’s legacy of creating a popular visual literature for children and adults in relatively inexpensive print editions.

Poster of Ray’s film Jalshaghar
Fig. 2. Poster of Ray’s film Jalshaghar (Aurora Film Corporation, 1958). Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Bengal, the Ray family was central to the emergence of popular children’s literature. Over several generations, the Rays alchemized narrative, poetry, and art into designs that shaped an era of modern Bengali reading culture. Satyajit’s grandfather Upendrakishore Ray was a celebrated writer, artist, and printer. His establishment of the family press U. Ray and Sons helped to revolutionize children’s literature in Bengal, particularly via the publication of Sandesh magazine in 1915, the name a pun exploiting the twin senses of “sweets” and “news” (fig. 3).[2]  Although the magazine had a prestigious reputation, it ran in fits and starts over the next few decades and was finally revived successfully by Satyajit Ray in 1961. In fact, the Felu-da series itself was part of the project of resurrecting his grandfather’s then-defunct magazine.

Cartoon Boy and Girl on elephant
Fig. 3. Cover of Sandesh magazine, 1988. Wikimedia Commons.

Pouring his heart and soul into reanimating his family’s dream, Ray reflected, in 1963, on the context and importance of his grandfather Upendrakishore’s work, including the writing of children’s books like Tuntunir Boi (The Tailor Bird’s Book, 1911):

In Bengal there’s a significant body of children’s writings whose true spirit can perhaps be appreciated only by the adult reader. This holds true in the case of children’s works by writers like Rabindranath [Tagore], Abanindranath [Tagore], and even in case of writings by Sukumar Ray and Lila Majumdar. . . . To appreciate Tuntunir Boi at a mature age you need to awaken the child hidden in your heart. The magic of Upendrakishore’s writings is the ease with which it stimulates and rouses the innocence of a child’s mind. For how many writers of children’s literature can you say the same?

As the most widely recognized Indian filmmaker in his lifetime and today, as well as a prolific writer, Ray no doubt counted himself in this august company: that of the pioneers of Bengali cultural modernity in the twilight time when India became a nation. His musings on his grandfather reveal that he was deeply conscious of his unique role in interpreting the tumultuous arrival of the post-independence era. Ray’s work consisted of, in Mrinalini Chakravorty’s words, “representations of the syncretism and contradictions of British influence in India.”[3] In capturing this messy, violent, and frequently tragic landscape in all its beauty, Ray was sensitive to the different kinds of audiences and spectators that he was inviting—the critical mind of the adult as well as the impressionable eye of the child.

Poster of Jai Baba Felunath
Fig. 4. Poster of Jai Baba Felunath. Wikimedia Commons.

To a young viewer of Jai Baba Felunath (fig. 4), therefore, Ruku’s surprising list of “real” heroes may be nothing more than an amusing collection, perhaps referencing Ray’s own love of children’s fiction. To a more historicist gaze, however, this juxtaposition of sacred and profane, of ancient myth and modern comics, leads to a very different path of concerns. Whereas the imagery of Ray’s films is often seen as an articulation of the pressures of India’s tense and paradoxical modernity, my reencounter with Jai Baba Felunath highlighted Ray’s obsession with the unmodern across his printed works and films. His figuration of the unmodern draws its power from references to that colonial trope of universal primitivity: Africa. What now seemed to me most insistent in Jai Baba Felunath was something I completely missed during my first, fifth, or even my twentieth viewing as a child—how relentlessly it calls up a stereotyped imaginary of Africa as a wild and thrilling landscape unable to participate in the global process of modernity. I realized that the film was not only rewarding to watch, in Ray’s own words, with “the innocence of the child’s mind,” but invited us to interrogate its layered engagement with history, genre, and medium; in short, to watch like an adult. Paying attention to the repeated invocations of a colonial imaginary of Africa in the film—and the illustrated narrative that inspired it—raises important questions about the limits of innocence in modern Bengali subjectivity, revealing subtexts of racial politics in twentieth-century Bengali visual culture.

Cover of the book Jai Baba Felunath.
Fig. 5. Cover of the book Jai Baba Felunath.

Allow me to recount the plot (apologies to Bengalis everywhere: my description is bound to be colorless and unsatisfying, and you are welcome to nitpick as much as you want). Felu-da travels to Benaras, one of the most sacred religious sites of Hinduism, with his cousin Topshé and their close friend, children’s mystery-and-adventure fiction writer Lalmohan Ganguly. Lalmohan-babu (“babu” is a common honorific for an adult male), in Ray’s Feluda stories, is the author of thunderingly popular novels with sensationally alliterative titles like Gorillar Gogrāsh (weakly translatable to The Gorging Gorilla), frequently set in heavily exoticized African settings. While the reason for their journey is never mentioned in the film, the book (fig. 5) informs us that their goal is to reacquaint Lalmohan-babu with the unique Benarasi smells of “incense, resins, cowdung, moss, [and] people’s sweat all mixed together” in preparation for his new novel set in the holy city.[4] As the trio experience this space of cultural authenticity, watching on as devotees flock to the steps of the ancient Dashashwamedha ghaat, a chance meeting with the family of little Ruku leads to an assignment from Ruku’s grandfather, Umanath Ghosal, to recover a bejeweled statue of Ganesha, the elephant god, recently stolen from their home. Although they’d originally set out to wander in Benaras’s famed Kachori Gali in search of sweetmeats and to watch gorgeous sunsets at the waterfront, Felu-da decides to take the case. Following the trail of the slippery and mysterious sadhu Machhlibaba and the suave yet lethal antique-dealer Maganlal Meghraj at great personal risk, the three investigators uncover an underground network smuggling national treasures to foreign countries. In a final moment of unveiling typical of the detective genre, they satisfy Umanath Ghosal’s demands by finding the missing Ganesha.

Yet, amidst all this excitement in Benaras, the film’s gestures towards an imagined geography of Africa are troublingly persistent. Much like Jack Quirk’s account of the landscape paintings of colonial Australia, I’m less interested in the “racist logic of the manifest content” of this film than in its ability to invoke, in the modern Indian present, the legacy of a colonial world. In the final scene, Felu-da explains how the key to the mystery lies in the body of Durga’s lion, whose maw is used as a secret alcove where Umanath and Ruku together plot to hide the statue from enemies and conspirators. Felu-da’s deduction is reliant on his interpretation of Ruku’s cryptic comment that “the statue lies with the king of Africa.” Converting the lion of Durga into the lion of Africa, Ruku’s imagination bears witness to a contradiction at the heart of the Felu-da narratives. Although eventually leading to the correct conclusion, Felu-da’s Holmesian brilliance, which can solve complicated crimes with only the slightest piece of evidence, is shown to falter in discrete instances as a result of his dependence, like Holmes, on colonialist premises. British colonial visual culture frames Africa as unmodern and primitivized and it flattens the diversity of its national cultures into one, geopolitically irrelevant entity, thus making possible the easy slippage from Africa to Durga that Ray mobilizes as part of his visual rhetoric. The rational inquiry that Felu-da encourages among young readers is tainted by the fact that the film and the novel quietly rehearse, in the guise of truth-seeking, a racialized African geography that originated out of Britain’s scramble for African territories and resources in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the early twentieth century, this racialized image of Africa achieved a new popularity in Bengal through the publication of extremely popular and widely read neo-imperialist adventure novels like Bibhutibhushan Bandhyopadhyay’s Chander Pahar (1937) and Hemendrakumar Roy’s Jaker Dhan (1930) and Abar Jakher Dhon (1933), books familiar to Ray and other readers from that time. The rapid and successful circulation of these colonial narratives of race, nation, and selfhood in regional language literature at the precise moment in which anticolonial movements were flourishing in Asian and African nations points to the treacherous undercurrents that ran beneath internationalist currents of Afro-Asian solidarity. While countries such as Indonesia, India, Myanmar, Kenya, and Ethiopia began to explore alliances designed to resist the formal and informal empires of the West, their nascent political bonds faced the challenge of racial tensions nurtured by an extended history of colonial trade across the Indian Ocean. The survival of imperialist ideas and texts in the midst of active, transnational efforts toward decolonization shapes the film’s narrative tension, indicating that Ruku’s comment is by no means a stray expression. By the 1970s and 80s—the era of apartheid in South Africa as well as extended bilateral relations between India and African countries on? several global platforms such as the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement—Satyajit Ray’s recycling of colonially mediated, nineteenth-century visions of an unmodern Africa had a direct political effect on the creation of Bengali intellectual and cultural selfhood in comparison to other “lesser” postcolonial identities. His evocations of Africa as an extended, underpeopled wilderness in Jai Baba Felunath hark back to early nineteenth-century accounts in travelogues and ephemeral print media, in which, as Peter Brent writes, “Jungle, desert, mountain and savannah swam into one disagreeable continuity. . . . [A]ll the peoples and sub-divisions of the peoples, all the cultures and languages and religions, were forced by the European imagination into one mould.”[5]

Consider, for instance, a brief exchange between Felu-da and Topshé in the film, in which they discuss how to identify the location of the Ganesha from Ruku’s hints. Felu-da asks, “Topshé, what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Africa?” Topshé replies, “Jungles.” Felu-da returns: “And what comes to mind if you think of jungles—” Topshé: “Beasts!” Felu-da: “And who is the king of beasts?” Topshé: “The lion!” Although structurally modelling the dialogic deductions typical of detective fiction, and the Felu-da stories in particular, the linkage of these ideas is loose and ideological instead of tightly logical. Why, in the era of widespread conversations about apartheid (even in Bengali newspapers) and worldwide coverage of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, would Ruku, Topshé, and Felu-da think exclusively of jungles full of wild beasts when they hear the word “Africa”? Why are the peoples who have lived for generations in the African continent, with their diverse ethnicities, communities, and histories, so entirely beside the point? What in the world could Ray be trying to achieve by repeatedly emphasizing this anachronistic colonial myth of Africa?

Ray’s choices make sense in the context of a wider print culture that worked to create a new, sanitized, white-adjacent, imperialist identity in Bengal. Favorably comparing themselves to “wild” and “savage” peoples, Bengali readers enjoyed a superior sense of self that is exemplified in the figure of Felu-da, a paragon of knowledge and rationality in the imperialist mold of the detective. Jai Baba Felunath incorporates other distorted visual print narratives of and about an exoticized and primitivized Africa. Ruku is an avid reader of a range of adventure narratives which contain absurdly violent and sensational events and seem inevitably to unfold in the Congo, Kenya, Angola, or, in the case of the comic classic Phantom, the fictitious African land of Bangalla (which, paradoxically, was originally set in Bengal). In the film, when the three investigators enter Ruku’s room in the attic, the camera pans to reveal his vast wealth of printed treasures: Tintin comics, Phantom comics, Tarzan stories, and many others (fig. 6). Finally willing to trust the new visitors, Ruku promptly informs them that “Machhlibaba’s skin is as dark as Gongorilla of the Congo.” The significance of this racist remark—comparing a dark-skinned South Asian man to a monstrous and imaginary beast tied to theories of Victorian race science— is often unacknowledged among viewers, partly because the comment is quickly brushed aside by the narrator’s comical digression about Gongorilla, a ninety-foot beast that is an unashamed homage to King Kong taken from Lalmohan-babu’s bestselling Gorillar Gogrash.

Magazines and drawings of tarzan on the floor
Fig. 6. Ruku’s books on Africa in Jai Baba Felunath.

More than RKO’s 1933 film King Kong, however, another film contemporaneous to it reverberates in the novel version of Jai Baba Felunath. Rambling through narrow Benaras lanes, Felu-da is surprised to find that S. Van Dyke’s Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), a film by then decades-old, is running at a local theater. Ruku watches Tarzan at the theater multiple times—a detail that strengthens Ray’s biographical connection with the child, since he, too, was deeply influenced by this film at a young age. Inspired by the film’s impressive show of acrobatics, Ruku riskily roleplays Tarzan, jumping from roof to roof and hanging upside down like a talented acrobat across the city’s skyline (fig.7). Felu-da himself is unable to resist the urge to watch the film again and he drags his companions to a show.

Fig. 7. Ruku roleplaying Tarzan in Jai Baba Felunath.

Ruku’s playacting of Tarzan is only one instance when the novel creates collisions between the Benaras of the 1960s and 70s and an exoticized Africa proliferating in mass media. When the crook Maganlal Meghraj is being pursued by the trio, the novel describes his action of jumping from his bajra into the water as “like a hippopotamus,” thus conflating two ancient rivers, both cradles of early human civilization. Like the film’s conflation of the lions of Hindu myth and the African forest in the opening scene, the novel’s palimpsestic imposition of the Nile on the Ganga forms part of a systematic effort by Ray, in his productions across print and visual platforms, to overlay a crudely sensationalized African geography onto a landscape located in the heartland of Hindu religiosity since ancient times.

This strange conflation of differently racialized geographies within the aegis of the British empire—particularly comparisons between India and Africa—is part of a longer and wider tradition of colonialist discourse. In activating this relation, Ray enacts what Antoinette Burton has called an instance of postcolonial citation—a specific mechanism of recall that is designed to strategically denigrate Africa and Africanness rather than uphold its value. To perform this “locative maneuver that serves as a racializing device,” in Burton’s terms, Ray in Jai Baba Felunath equates examples of a Hindu orthodoxy and superstitious belief with a primitivity that he wishes to identify with Africa.[6] Counterposed to the Benaras ghaats, now analogically connected to a barbaric “African” primitivity expressed in symbolic terms, Indian subjects of cities and universities emerge as the rightful inheritors of global modernity, whose multicultural experiences and complex inner lives remain the subject of analysis in Ray’s corpus.

In several interviews, Ray expressed his ideas about a competitive and hierarchic modernity that reveal the stakes of Jai Baba Felunath’s Africa problem—and its place within India’s aspirations after independence. Written in the 1950s, the Feluda series emerges at a critical political juncture for the legitimization of India as a nation. Its crafting of an excitingly modern hero—an upper-caste urban Hindu man living the quasi-leisurely life of a private eye in Calcutta—took place within the turbulent backdrop of the partition, widespread anti-Muslim violence, and the emerging political position of India within a new world order. In declaring his political allegiances, Ray claims a Nehruvian rather than a Gandhian sensibility, aligning himself with the suave cosmopolitan presence of the nation’s first Prime Minister, who called himself India’s last ruling English gentleman. Ray’s categorical statement in an interview in the 1970s—“I admired Nehru, I understood him better, because I am also in a way a product of the East and West” (Ray, Satyajit Ray, 138)—gains greater significance in light of Jawaharlal Nehru’s midcentury “Africa Policy,” which argued not only for India’s superiority among colonial nations but for its right to replace Britain as a quasi-colonial overlord. Nehru’s assertion of the civilizational superiority of Indians as “prima inter pares” alongside African nations, as Burton suggests, leads to a case for Indian colonization of African territories in the twentieth century, citing a colonial rhetoric of abundant resource extraction from uncivilized wildernesses (Africa in the Indian Imagination, 9–10). For Ray, the signifier of Africa hovering over Benaras drags into view the primitivity plaguing India itself, its centuries-old collective consciousness filled with dark and irrational beliefs—beliefs which constitute the nation’s greatest challenge.

Certainly, Ray imagines Benaras as comparable to Africa in civilizational terms. In one interview, Ray observes, “Well go to Benares, go to the ghats and you will see that communism is a million miles away, maybe on the moon. There are such ingrained habits, religious habits. I am talking of the multitude” (Satyajit Ray, 139). De-individualizing terms like the multitude (reminiscent of the “savage hordes” of colonial discourse) go hand-in-hand with Ray’s occasional comments elsewhere on the “stupid” and “backward” opinions of the masses. Aggregating the worst qualities of India’s “backward” millions, Benaras in Jai Baba Felunath represents the nation’s primitive core—a recognition so disturbing that it must immediately be displaced onto Africa, the modern neocolonial symbol for human underdevelopment in global terms.

This primitivized multitude is the conceptual antithesis of the rational and brilliant modern Indian subject experiencing the transformative thrill of discovery rehearsed in the Felu-da series, the Apu trilogy, the Professor Shonku series, and other works. Each of these narratives stages the encounter between a freshly postcolonial world and its new governing subject: the rational and independent Bengali man. Other figures, spaces, and contexts are constantly framed in a way that secures his nascent supremacy. To this end, the primitive, the backward, and the ancient all coagulate to create a distinct entity that permeates Ray’s oeuvre: a fascination with the unmodern that bears distinctly colonialist connotations. While it is difficult to allege a straightforwardly colonialist ideology to a thinker as capacious as Ray, one ask why these moments of adventurous excitement continue to reveal a neocolonial vision dependent upon primitivizing particular geographies. And why, above all, are such instances so ubiquitous across Ray’s corpus? One could name many: Ruku speaking of his fantasies about the Congo in ways reminiscent of Richard Burton or Henry Morton Stanley, or little Apu of Aparajito, the second film in Ray’s famous “Apu” trilogy, returning from school wearing a grass skirt and blackface, carrying a copy of David Livingstone and shouting “Africa! Africa!” (fig. 8).

Young person in blackface wearing tarzan-style outfit. Image in black and white
Fig. 8. Apu (Subir Banerjee) in blackface in a scene from Ray’s film Aparajito (Epic Films, 1956).

Gesturing towards these persistent features of Ray’s corpus, I want now, by way of conclusion, to direct our eyes to the centrality of another lion to Jai Baba Felunath: the third lion in the filmic text that reinforces the geopolitical connection between the other two. Sitting down in the dimly lit movie theatre in Benaras to watch Tarzan, Feluda suddenly arrives at his Eureka moment in the mystery of the missing Ganesha as the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s growling lion appears on screen. The presence of this new creature, the lion of technology and modern American cinema, as central to the blurring of the local characters of cultures, practices, and political realities of the Global South, slyly hints at the forces of capital and representation whose movements across the world keep imperial culture alive.


[1] Gene Moscowitz, Satyajit Ray: An Anthology of Statements on Ray and by Ray, ed. Moscowitz (New Delhi: Directorate of Film Festivals, 1981), 117.

[2] Shyamasree Lal, “‘Sandesh’ and the Child’s World of Imagination,” India International Centre Quarterly 10.4 (1983): 433–42, 436.

[3] Mrinalini Chakravorty, “Picturing The Postmaster: Tagore, Ray, and the Making of an Uncanny Modernity,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 53.1 (2012): 117–46, 117.

[4] Satyajit Ray, Feluda Samagra, vol. 1 (Kolkata: Ananda Publishers, 2018), 431.

[5] Peter Brent, Black Nile: Mungo Park and the Search for the Niger (London: Gordon & Cremonesi, 1977), 169.

[6] Antoinette Burton, Africa in the Indian Imagination: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation (Duke University Press, 2016), 4.