Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. On 3rd October 1975, an Uttam Kumar starrer named Sanyasi Raja was released. It was based on the real incident of the strange case of what came to be known as the Bhawal Sanyasi case. But it was fictionalised to a large extent and did not go much into the court case though the film went on to become a big hit. Raja Ramesh, a 1977 Telugu film directed by V. Madhusudhan Rao used the same plot.

In 2002, social scientist Partha Chatterjee authored a book investigating the true story of the landlord who was believed dead and came back after years together, this time, as a sanyasi, back to his kingdom and claimed his inheritance. The book, A Princely ImpostorThe Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal, was published by the Princeton University Press. Partha Chatterjee is Director and Professor of Political Science at the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and Visiting Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. In 2014, actor-producer Prosenjeet Chatterjee has revealed his plans to make a film on this strange real-life story in Hindi either with Hritik Roshal or Ranbir Kapoor in the lead. But nothing was heard about it again because the plan probably fizzled out.

(A still from the film)

In October 12 this year, Sri Venkatesh Films, one of the biggest production houses in Bengali cinema, will release yet another feature film Ek Je Chhilo Raja directed by Srijit Mukherjee based on one of the most famous (notorious) legal cases in undivided Bengal because presently, the palace of the Raja is in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The real story has all the ingredients of a mainstream big-banner film and so, EJCR is as lavishly mounted, as highly promoted and as loudly publicised as any big banner Bollywood film. The title role of the “Raja” has been portrayed by the magically versatile actor Jisshu Sengupta who readily agreed to face the cameras in the ugliest of make-up, ash smeared on his face and body, his long hair tied up in dirty knots wearing and near-naked piece of cloth to play the “sanyasi” segment in the film which is multi-layered in its characteristics as well as in the twists and turns in its plot and story.

The story that is now legend, began around the first decade of the 20th century. Raja Rajendranarayan Roy Chowdhury had three sons. When the Raja passed away in 1901, when his three sons were still minors. But all three songs wasted themselves away in drinks and women and paid absolutely no attention to the matters of the Estate. The second son Raja Ramendra Narayan Chowdhury became the heir to his father’s title and property. In 1909, when our story begins, the estate was owned by three brothers with equal shares. They were known as Kumars a pseudonym for princes. The eldest was twenty-seven, the second twenty-five, and the third twenty-two. All three brothers were married and lived in the family mansion—the Jaidebpur Rajbari. Three married sisters also lived in the house at this time, together with their respective husbands and children.

Ramendra Narayan went to Darjeeling for treatment of syphilis in 1909 while his older and younger brother fell ill and died. None of the threes sons bothered about their education and human values paid they had European tutors to educate them at home. Reports came that Ramendranarayan had passed away in Darjeeling while being treated for STD. The story that came back was that he had already been cremated. In 1921 a travelling religious man appeared in eastern British Bengal. Soon residents began to identify this half-naked and ash-smeared sannyasi as none other than the Second Kumar of Bhawal--a man believed to have died twelve years earlier, at the age of twenty-six. So began one of the most extraordinary legal cases in Indian history. The case drew attention as the most dramatic case ever as it unwound in courts from Dhaka and Calcutta to London..Was the Bhawal Sanyasi an impostor who came to claim an estate he never owned? Or, was he for real? He was accepted as the right person by his sisters but his wife Bibhabati Debi refused to accept him as her husband.

In his excellently researched book, Partha Chatterjee goes through evidence left behind in official archives, popular songs and backstreet Bangladesh bookshops. Srijit Mukherjee has orchestrated an attractive teaser for his film. The opening frame goes like this: “Laws dictate judgements. But some judgements become the law”. This is one of the most cited cases in the legislative history of undivided, British-ruled India The original name of the Raja has been changed to Maharaja Mahendra Kumar Chowdhury and his wife Bibhabati is called Chandavati Devi as this is fiction. Says Mukherjee: “The Bhawal Sanyasi case is the most referred case in history and has always attracted several literary and creative people. Ek Je Chhilo Raja is my tribute to that great king who rose from the ashes to win back his kingdom and kinsmen and will narrate the true events that happened in between his life and death”.

What happened in the court case? According to Partho Chatterjee’s book, in 1930, Ramendra Narayan went to court to prove his identity and reclaim his property. The legal battles continued till 1946 and after a prolonged fight for 16 long years, the Privy Council in London validated the earlier court rulings of Kolkata and Dhaka that the sanyasi was not an impostor but was actually the real Ramendra Narayan. But the tourist guide in Dhaka who takes tourists around the palace which is now a government office says that by the time the court decided in his favour, the story goes that he did not, after all, claim the property and the title and went back to where he had come from – to his world of being a sanyasi who had abandoned worldly pleasures and material leanings. Chatterjee’s book as he states has no fictional element at all and is based on his research into old documents and so on. Srijit has mentioned that Chatterjee’s book became the frame of reference for his film.

Other than Chatterjee’s magnum opus, the rumours going around at the time when the sanyasi appeared claiming he was the real Raja, speculated about how his death was reported when he had not died at all, whether the family doctor who went along with the big group to Darjeeling, who was reportedly having an affair with Bibhabati Debi, has conspired to kill him with a lethal injection which apparently did not work and so on. But there is no authentic proof on these stories and are all traced back to gossip and hearsay. Bibhabati Debi’s brother was also suspected of being part of the conspiracy.

(Director Srijit Mukherjee)

“It’s not just an entertaining film , but also a gripping thriller and I believe that perhaps this will be my best work this year. The shocking series of real life incidents make this story more mysterious and I have largely focussed on the famous court case. This is a period courtroom drama that will certainly thrill the audience till the end,” says Srijit and he is not making false claims because inside the court, the two lawyers defending and accusing the sanyasi have been played by veteran actors Anjan Dutt and Aparna Sen. Others in the cast are Jaya Ahsan, Rudraneel Ghosh, Anirban Bhattacharya, Barun Chanda, Rajnandini Pal and others. The music is by Indraaeep Dasgupta, while cinematography is by Gairik Sarkar, Indranil Ghosh has done the art direction, production design is by Shibaji Pal, costumes by Sabarni Das and Proloy Dasgupta has edited the film.

The 1975 Bhawal Sanyasi court case also came to the surprising decision that the sanyasi was indeed the prince. Jisshu Sengupta, trapped for years in the chocolate-boy romantic image that lacked shades of any kind, remains grateful to Srijit for tapping his true potential as a versatile actor capable to different roles. “For Srijit, I need not even look at the script though my entire homework for any film is based exclusively on the script. I do not do any in-depth research because the director has already done it and has given me the script. I have been given six different looks for this character in Ek Je Chhilo Raja. For the sanyasi segment, I had to go through the make-up for six hours every time and the prince segment was no less painstaking. The other characters also are very important in this film,” explains Jisshu who is perhaps doing the most difficult character in his entire career.

Two questions that remain unanswered to this day, as suggested by my historian friend Surya Bandopadhyay is – one, the authenticity of the sanyasi being the real Raja was in question and two, whether the judgement itself was not coloured by the dramatic reality and the regal aura of the case was never proved. Till then, let us wait for the film to show up on the big screens on October 12, 2018.