“Bengali Detective” curves and swoops. It goes down alleys (literally) and into rivers, mimicking the chaos of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) where it takes place. The film follows charismatic detective Rajesh Ji, whose seeming indefatigability carries him through days that include a murder case, counterfeit hair oil sellers, badly done dancing classes and quiet nights singing with his wife and child. This documentary gives new life to the hackneyed word “romp” used by lazy critics (like me, I guess, right now). Director Phil Cox indeed makes a romp of a film – with a poignant twist that helps the viewer see more clearly this true thing: “Bengali Detective” is a film about the sheer and utter inertia of living. About how we keep going by putting one foot in front of the other.
It is a film about living, one where four stories weave around and through the city to tell us not just Rajesh Ji’s story, but the story of modern India, where the world’s largest middle class live alongside hundreds of millions of poor people. With Rajesh, Cox found a quirky, kind and pragamatic lover of life to guide us through tragedy and comedy, sadness and heartache. He oversees a group of cocky-sloppy detectives who hire themselves out to solve crimes ignored by police. (Apparently, Indian police are notoriously slow and bureaucratic.)
Rajesh’s charm crackles off the screen. From the minute Cox swoops his camera down from the sky and drops us into Rajesh’s world, we bump about in taxis, on foot and in trains. Like the path of own lives, our Hero Detective travels across the emotional landscape, going from chasing down leads on the murder of three young men to dancing badly as he prepares (preposterously) for a chance to be on a popular Indian TV dance show. He investigates a cheating husband, consoling the wife who hired him. Then, Rajesh busts a shopkeeper for selling counterfeit hair oil. The man is carted off to jail, scared but understanding his position on the bottom of Indian society made it much more likely that he’d end up on the wrong side of a prison wall. Through these episodes, the chaos of Indian life comes into focus.
But the humanity of the film rests on the scenes of Rajesh, his wife and his young son. The camera brings us into the close confines of the family’s small apartment. We are not voyeurs; instead, we are welcome visitors, sharing moments in their lives. The three sing and tussle, smile and brush their teeth, eat and talk and sleep.
From this intimacy, Cox slowly unfolds the seriousness of Rajesh’s wife’s illness. She is near blind from diabetes, we learn, believing at first that this is tragic but isolated. It is not. The film takes us through medical visits puffed with hope and dashed with reality until a hospital dialysis scene cuts to her funeral pyre and Rajesh with dignity and agony setting fire to his wife. It is here where we understand a deeper truth about Rajesh when he sits on the banks of the Ganges River and says, “Only an Indian can understand what I am feeling right now.”
This is the point where the movie reminds us that it is more than the story of a goofy gang of detectives. It is here that we see that the film is really about the struggles of a new country, in its infancy, learning how to reconcile the old with the new, all on the world’s stage. One of the detectives laments that India is more greedy. It is a place now where without money one does not survive. As Salman Rushdie’s novels prove, the clash of old and new India, with its myriad turns and twists, is a place ripe for story, ripe for examining the human condition. “Bengali Detective” is both a portal and mirror, where we peek not just into Rajesh’s life, but our own as well. Check it out.
(Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the rights to a remake of “Bengali Detective.” If any documentary can be turned into a great feature film, this one can. If I knew some Bollywood leading men, I’d suggest one to play Rajesh. On second thought, he should play himself. I caught the documentary last week at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. You can look for it at film fests in Los Angeles, Canada and Boston over the coming weeks.)