The Bengali Detective is the kind of movie that reminds me why I think cinema is important. It is a documentary that has all of the imaginative power of a narrative, able to make us smile, cringe, laugh and perhaps even cry, all the while showing us a world we might have never seen otherwise.
The detective in question here is Rajesh, head of the “Always Investigatings and Security Concerns” detection agency. Rajesh, along with his motley band of PI’s, feels it’s his duty to help the citizens of Kolkata, India that the police have either forgotten or ignored. The agency takes cases involving counterfeit shampoo (which they codename “Operation Tiger”), a wife who suspects her husband of infidelity, and tries to solve their first ever murder case. They conduct makeshift surveillance and go on night time raids, each one filmed with handheld cameras and quick cuts to fashion them so that they could fit into any other cop movie around.
At home there are different problems. Rajesh tries to care for his wife, who’s being worn down by illness, while also raising his son as best he can. He is often surrounded by the poverty and corruption that have woven themselves so deeply into Kolkata, and yet, he remains hopeful.
Part of the reason that The Bengali Detective works so well is because Rajesh is a truly great character. When he feels his detective team needs a break to relieve stress, he enters them in a group dance competition, complete with sparkling sequined costumes and props. At times we may smirk or laugh at his profession or the way he goes about his business, but he handles it all with absolute sincerity. This is a man who truly believes he has a call to make his world a better place, and is doing all he can to answer it.
As directed by Philip Cox, Bengali Detective is crafted as a sort of genre-documentary. It shows us something real (with what we assume are a few recreated scenes), but it presents itself stylistically as a caper, full of mystery, comedy, and some very real tragedies. There are moments that we can’t believe what we’re watching is real, and still other moments when knowing it’s non fiction makes it so much better. It is a documentary that isn’t content to sit back and inform. It desperately wants to entertain us, and for the most part, it succeeds in that mission.
The film also gives us a closer, more intimate look at some of the social conditions in Kolkata. One man, arrested for selling counterfeit goods, tells the camera that because he is illiterate he didn’t know he was selling fake products. Still, he must be punished all the same, leaving the well being of his family in jeopardy. When clues in Rajesh’s murder case begin to grow scarce, he must work even harder to ensure that it doesn’t join the 70 percent of unsolved murders in the area. These are very real tragedies, and knowing that they’ll continue even when the cameras have been packed up makes them hit even harder.
Still, the film continues to operate with a sort of smile, trying its hardest to stay optimistic no matter the circumstances. When we see some of the hardships that pollute life in Kolkata we are taken aback with pity and grief. When we see people like Rajesh and his detectives, we are given at least a small dose of hope.
Part comedy, part detective story, The Bengali Detective is a creative, powerful, and wonderfully entertaining documentary: B+