Here’s a list of India’s best known detectives in film, television, and literature:
Byomkesh Bakshy (Bengali)
Byomkesh Bakshy, created by Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, is one of India’s most famous fictional detectives. This quintessential Bengali sleuth calls himself Satyanveshi (seeker of truth). He first appeared in a short story, Satyanveshi, in 1932. Bandopadhyay went on to write 32 stories based on Byomkesh, all set in pre-independence Kolkata. Unlike most literary detectives (including Sherlock Holmes), Byomkesh is a married man. But like Holmes, Byomkesh has a man-Friday, a best friend, and associate named Ajit.
Several Byomkesh stories have been made into films, television series, and radio plays. The most famous on-screen adaptation of Byomkesh is the Doordarshan series based on the character. Actor Rajat Kapoor played the sleuth, and KK Raina played Ajit.
Chiriyakhana, the first film adaptation of Byomkesh stories, was screened in 1967. The film was directed by Satyajit Ray and produced by Star Productions. In 2013, late director Rituparno Ghosh made Satyanweshi, with Kahaani director Sujay Ghosh in the lead. The first Bollywood adaptation of the sleuth story was released in 2015, as Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy.
This Satyajit Ray brainchild resembles Sherlock Holmes in more ways than one. Apparently, Ray himself was a huge admirer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary creation. Just as Holmes has Dr Watson, Feluda has a sidekick named Topshe. The real name of the Bengali detective is Pradosh Chandra Mitter. He’s fondly called Felu at home. Toshe, who is younger than him, calls him Felu-Da (Da or Dada is a term of respect). In appearance and body language, he resembles Holmes. Apart from Topshe, he has one other friend – a detective novel writer called Lalmohan Ganguli, who goes by the pseudonym Jatayu.
Feluda first appeared in the eponymous Bengali short story Feludar Goyendagiri (Feluda’s Investigation) in Sandesh magazine in 1965. Sandesh was a popular children’s magazine. In 1970, due to Feluda’s popularity, Desh, a magazine for adults, started publishing the stories. Ray went on to adapt two of his novels into films. Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1979) starred actors Soumitra Chatterjee as Feluda, Santosh Dutta as Jatayu, and Siddhartha Chatterjee as Topshe. Subsequently, Feluda featured on the big screen nine times. In 2013, director Shoojit Sircar said he wanted to make Sonar Kella into a Bollwood film, with Aamir Khan as the detective.
Shankarlal’s biggest claim to fame is that he was portrayed on screen by actor Kamal Haasan. The sleuth first appeared in the detective novels written by Tamilvanan, a veteran journalist and author based in Chennai. Unlike other characters in Tamil novels during that period, Sankarlal is a globetrotter. The crime stories are set in countries across the world. Through these stories, Tamilvanan opened Tamil readers to the world beyond the country.
Thuppariyum Sambu (Tamil)
Sambu, a comical adaptation of the Holmes character, appears in the Tamil detective short-story series written by Devan in the early 20th century. A nondescript middle-aged bank clerk, Sambu solves difficult crime puzzles, through serendipitous circumstances. In the late 1980s, a TV serial was made with actor Kathadi Ramamurthy portraying Sambu, and Delhi Ganesh playing the role of an inspector. Gopulu created a comic series based on the concept, which was carried by the magazine Ananda Vikatan.
Detective Sam D’Silva (Hindi)
Portrayed by actor-director Vijay Anand, this charismatic detective appeared in the popular Doordarshan series Tehkikaat. Actor Saurabh Shukla played Sam’s man-friday, Gopichand. The series aired from May 1994 onwards, with 10 episodes of 52 minutes each. It was directed by Shekhar Kapoor and Karan Razdan.
Sam D’Silva is an elderly man, with a distinct sense of humour. The series was highly popular, largely on account of Vijay Anand’s brilliant performance, and the chemistry between him and Saurabh Shukla.
Sethurama Iyer, CBI (Malayalam)
Sethurama Iyer, played by Mammootty, is Mollywood’s most popular sleuth. Starring in a series of crime thrillers directed by K Madhu and penned by SN Swami, Sethurama Iyer is a quick-witted and highly intelligent CBI officer. His body language is stiff and he has peculiar mannerisms. But he is exceptionally observant and intuitive, and impresses with his sense of humour and compassion. The character was inspired by Radhavinod Rajju, the first chief of India’s National Investigative Agency (NIA). The first Sethurama Iyer movie, Oru CBI Diary Kurippu (an entry from the CBI diary) released in 1988 and was based on one of Raju’s successful cases.
There are four films in the Sethurama Iyer series: Oru CBI Diary Kurippu (1988), Jagratha (1989), Sethurama Iyer, CBI (2004) and Nerariyaan CBI (2005).
Inspector Shekhar (Hindi)
The Guru Dutt produced-Raj Khosla directed 1956 film, CID, was a slick urban thriller – one of the first of its kind. Legendary actor Dev Anand played Inspector Shekhar, an intelligent and stylish detective. The film’s audio album, composed by OP Nayyar, became highly successful. In fact, the film is known more for its soundtrack than the storyline. CID also marked Waheeda Rahman’s Hindi film debut. Over the years, the movie went to acquire cult status.
The CID 999 (Kannada)
This was the first Indian movie franchise to have four installments. This was also one of the first James Bond styled movies in India. The franchise has Kannada actor Rajkumar playing a CID Police Agent, who is code-named “999”. Directed by duo Durai-Bhagavan, the franchise was so popular that similar films were made in other south Indian languages as well, with Prem Nazir (Malayalam), Krishna (Telugu) and Jaishankar (Tamil) playing CIDs. Th character first appeared in Jedara Bale (1968). Other films in this franchise include Goa Dalli CID 999, Operation Jackpot Nalli CID 999, and Operation Diamond Racket. In Operation Jackpot Nalli, Bollywood actress Rekha played an Indian version of the Bond girl. This franchise introduced cabaret dance sequences to south Indian cinema.
CID Nazir (Malayalam)
Following the style initiated by Rajkumar’s CID 999, director P Venu made crime investigation thrillers in Malayalam, with actor Prem Nazir playing the detective. The first film in this series was CID Nazir (1971), which went on to break collection records in Mollywood. Nazir played a stylish CID, assisted by a funny Adoor Bhasi. The story was penned by Uma Devi and PJ Antony. The next film in the series was Taxi Car (1972), also starring Nazir. The third film in the series was Prethangalude Thazhvara (The Valley of Ghosts), which released in 1973. Nazir’s detective roles became so popular that he went on to play similar characters in other films, like Lanka Dahanam and Karutha Kai.
CID Shankar (Tamil)
Actor Jaishankar played this highly popular character, who first appeared in the film Vallavan Oruvan (1966). Jaishankar earned the title of the ‘South Indian James Bond’ because of this film, which was loosely based on the classic French movie, Banco à Bangkok pour OSS 117. Comedian Thengai Srinivasan played the detective’s assistant, Raju.
R Sundaram, who directed the movie, made one more spy-thriller, CID Shankar (1970), after the success of Vallavan Oruvan. CID Shankar was a remake of the American film OSS 117 Mission for a Killer (1965).
Dasan and Vijayan (Malayalam)
Dasan and Vijayan, played by Mohanlal and Srinivasan, were the protagonists of one of Malayalam cinema’s most popular trilogies. The duo first appeared in Nadodikkattu (1987), directed by Sathyan Anthikkad. The screenplay was written by Srinivasan, and was based on a story by director duo Siddhique and Lal. A sequel to the film, Pattanapravesham, was made by the same team in 1988. A third film with the duo was made in 1990 by director Priyadarshan. The films have attained cult status in Kerala.
Nadodikkattu is the story of two unexceptional youth, Dasan and Vijayan, who are struggling to find a job in Kerala. The film aptly documents the dire conditions of unemployment and poverty at that time. The duo, like many, decide to migrate to the Middle-East in search of a better life. Instead, they are duped, and find themselves in Chennai, where a high-profile smuggler and his gang pass them off as CIDs. The film ends with the two joining the Tamil Nadu police crime branch. Pattanapravesham and Akkare Akkare Akkare narrate the duo’s adventures and misadventures as they solve criminal cases. Unlike Sethurama Iyer and other detectives, Dasan and Vijayan aren’t gifted. Their success comes from sheer luck.
Detective Karamchand (Hindi)
Portrayed by Pankaj Kapoor, Karamchand is Indian television’s first detective. The series was telecast on Doordarshan from 1985 till 1989. Karamchand’s inane assistant, Kitty, was portrayed by Bollywood actress Sushmita Mukherjee. The title song was composed by renowned musicians Anand-Milind. Penned by Pankaj Prakash, the series was directed by Pankaj Parashar. Anil Kapoor’s role in Race was an uncredited adaptation of Karamchand.
Inspector KC (Hindi)
Aired on Doordarshan, Saboot featured Indian television’s sole female detective. Penned by Mitali Bhattacharya and directed by Ravi Ojha, the series was produced by Cinevistaas and aired on Star Plus from 1997-1999, and later on Doordarshan. Actress Anita Kanwar played inspector KC, a CBI officer and chief of the homicide department. The episodes focus on the howdunit part of murder cases.
Raja and Rancho (Hindi)
Detective stories were, once upon a time, the backbone of Doordarshan. Among the popular sleuth stories telecast on the grand old channel is Raja and Rancho. And it had a twist. The series featured a detective who solved complicated criminal cases with the help of his trusted associate, a monkey. Raja and Rancho broadcast on Doordarshan’s Metro Channel (DD2) in 1997 at 9 pm. Produced and directed by Murali Nallappa, the serial was re-aired in 2001 and later on on SAB TV in 2003. Ved Thapar played detective Raja. Due to his television popularity, the monkey that played Rancho subsequently appeared in over 50 movies.