Part of the ‘Doc South’ strand of the festival, The Bengali Detective was perhaps the most enjoyable film that I watched during my festival visit, perhaps because it is set in Kolkata, a fascinating city that I visited in 2009. At its centre is the head of a ‘Detective Agency’, Rajesh Ji. British director Philip Cox had become aware of the rise of the private detective agency in India over the last few years and he saw this rise as a symptom of the widespread concerns by ordinary citizens about the ineffectiveness of local police forces. He met many other possible candidates for the central role of the detective in the film before settling on Rajesh and it is clear from the off that he chose well. Rajesh is massively engaging – enthusiastic, intelligent, well-organised, determined – and someone who seems to care both about doing a good job and looking after both his clients and his staff. But Rajesh also has his extravert side – leading his team in martial arts exercise classes and then entering them in a dance competition. He also has a difficult family situation because his wife is dangerously ill with diabetes and he fears for the future of his young son.
The documentary cuts between the home life of Rajesh, his time in the office as manager of the agency, his motivational work with his team and three investigations which the agency is following. We see raids on wholesalers and retailers dealing in counterfeit hair products, an investigation into the deaths of three young men, seemingly killed in a railway accident but claimed as a murder by a relative and finally a classic case of tailing a married man and the report of his extra-marital adventures to his wife. The three cases are well-chosen in that they represent the range of concerns of Kolkata’s residents. The middle-class wife is upset but needs to know the truth. Counterfeiting is a major problem in India. The relatively poor trader who is caught is perhaps more of a victim than a criminal but this kind of activity harms everyone and Rajesh needs the income from clients as important as the shampoo company. The murder investigation leads to a meeting with the police who listen to the careful presentation of the investigation carried out by the team but who clearly aren’t going to speed up their own painfully slow enquiries.
Philip Cox, like Pål Hollender in Finding Ali seen earlier in the Festival, is a European director who is clearly aware of what he is doing in representing South Asia. Unlike Hollander he doesn’t appear in his own film and he is supported by local filmmaker Sounak Chakravorty who he met via the Satyajit Ray Film and TV Institute in Kolkata. They were able to shoot with two cameras and this provided the kind of coverage of events that with tight editing gives a wonderful sense of street life in Kolkata. The film really bowls along seemingly at a frantic pace but I found it coherent and satisfying. Camerawork and music are both very effective. I’ve seen a criticism that the action cuts too quickly between the potential silliness of the dance sequences and the tragedy developing at home, but I don’t agree. I think Cox maintains a close observation that isn’t judgemental and is respectful of Rajesh who certainly seems sincere whatever he is doing.
The film has been very well received at various festivals including Sundance and in an unusual twist, the ‘rights’ have been bought by 20th Century Fox in order to produce a fictional ‘remake’. I’m sure that this must have happened before but it seems an odd development to me. I can’t imagine how a fictional detective’s story could quite top this documentary. The sales agent is eOne and Channel 4 have some money in the production, I think, so it should get a wide distribution and I imagine it will appear on TV in most territories – but I’d recommend it on a cinema screen. The print we saw was projected from HDCam and looked very good.
There is an interesting ‘Director’s statement’ on this site: Native Films (Production Company) Website