Rajesh Ji is a private investigator, an unlikely hero who seeks justice for his clients when the Kolkata police can’t or won’t. When not fighting crime, he’s caring for his ailing wife and pursuing his dream of being a famous dancer. Ji and his crime-fighting team will track anyone from an abusive spouse to an industrial counterfeiter, through affluent suburbs and teeming slums alike. It’s an enviable work-life balance that just might tip when Ji takes on solving a brutal triple murder.
The citizens of Kolkata, India, one of the world’s most populated cities, have – at every caste level – lost trust and confidence in the authorities that are responsible for public safety and good governance. And so, many people in need of help decide to hire private detectives to aid them in solving various crimes and misdemeanors, running the gamut from raids on stores selling counterfeit hair products to grisly homicides.
With a spare crew in tow, director Phil Cox trolled the streets of Kolkata, trailing detective, Rajesh Ji, and his small team of devoted men. The sharp observational and deeply intimate camera work and overall production are so stylish and sophisticated, one feels constantly off-center. Much of the film has high comedic moments, music video-like aspects, and atmospheric elements that would befit a slickly produced television crime series. To add to the tragi-comic aspects of this documentary, there was a central character that died during the time Cox was shooting; a subject who discovered her husband was sleeping with her brother’s wife; and, a grieving mother who becomes the main suspect in her own son’s death, a teenager whose grisly remains are found alongside those of two of his friends on the train tracks north of the city.
Just when one thinks it can’t get any more surreal, detective Rajesh appears in front of Cox’s camera in a tight silver-and-gold sequined costume, replete with headband and large belly bulging over too-tight trousers, in order to play out his alter ego of a dance star. In an effort to battle what he calls “stress management,” from both the traumas of his daily work, and that of caring for a severely sick young wife, he enlists all the men who work for him at the Always Detective Agency in dance lessons, pursuing his dream of winning a national television talent show. The men, ranging in age from early thirties to mid-fifties gamely don sequined costumes, as well, and manage to evoke a motley version of the Village People as they boogie together in scenes of unmitigated hilarity.
At the time of filming, the detectives become engaged in three compelling, and very different, cases. The first one, dubbed Operation Tiger, involves counterfeit products, the biggest growing crime across Asia where big multinational companies go after poor shopkeepers who are just trying to eke out an existence to feed their families and are generally ignorant about whether or not the products they sell are authentic or fake. The second case involves adultery and domestic abuse of a middle-class, middle-aged woman who decides to risk finding out what her husband is up to – the results leave her with a profound decision to make. And the triple murder case sheds ghastly light on the common practice of family killings that take place across India, this one not involving codes of conduct about family honor, but, seemingly, sheer greed for a valuable inheritance.
In every case, each encounter is handled with that remarkable Indian politesse on the part of the investigators – no raised voices, no accusatory tones, all of the clients, as well as the suspects, dealt with in a civilized manner in the midst of what would appear to be situations that would evoke rampant incivility. Even when a suspect is arrested for selling counterfeit hair products from his storefront, the police officers do not handcuff him, but gently hold his hands as they lead him into prison. As well, there is much tenderness and pathos in the intimate family scenes with Rajesh and his ailing wife Minnie, as they cuddle on their bed with their young son while Rajesh reads him stories about heroic detectives.
Kolkata, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, has alternately been dubbed the City of Joy, the Cultural Capital of India, City of Furious Creative Energy (!), City of Palaces, and the Paris of the East. Once the center of Indian modern education, science, culture, and politics, the city experienced severe economic stagnation in the years following the country’s independence in 1947. Since the year 2000, an economic rejuvenation has led to the acceleration in the city’s growth. However, this has also brought severe problems with pollution, overcrowding, huge swaths of paralyzing poverty, and lots and lots of crime, with accompanying corruption from city officials.
There is a staggering 70% rate of unsolved murders in India, and this last point – if not an illustration of downright corruption, then certainly one of bureaucratic apathy – is potently driven home. Armed with his months-long investigation file in hand, Rajesh goes and visits the police inspector to ask for help in obtaining key phone records that will go a long way to solving the case of the murdered boys, for only the police can gain access to these records. The inspector tells him dispassionately that he is not willing to requisition these records until after the autopsies have been performed and it is determined whether or not the boys committed suicide. Their naked, beaten bodies were abandoned on the train tracks, so we know that the likelihood of suicide is an absolutely absurd – and chilling – notion.
The film ends when Rajesh experiences something that would cast most people into an abyss of permanent emotional despair. But he has a young son to raise, a booming business, and a responsibility to his devoted team of men and his many, many clients in need. He gamely says to Cox, “Only an Indian can understand what I’m feeling.”
Through expert pacing, style, much substantive material and an abiding rapport and respect for all of the subjects who appear before the camera, Cox creates a thoroughly entertaining and profoundly human portrait of a teeming and complex society through the quiet and heroic efforts of one man to make the world he inhabits a better place. With seamless editing by Taimur Khan and Tom Hemmings, The Bengali Detective weaves so many disparate elements together, it is dizzying. Yet, it all somehow makes perfect sense.