Monday, 2 May 2011
HOT DOCS 2011: The Bengali Detective
By Alan Bacchus
Rajesh Ji is like a growing number of regular citizens in Kolkata, India, plying his trade as a private detective, which due to an ineffectual police force, has seen a boom. Our first impression is that Rajesh, a bumbling, slightly chubby family man, has no business serving the law, except for the fact that he's a fearless adventurer with delusions of grandeur and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. He makes a fascinating first-person case study, which in the most entertaining and easy-going manner, enlightens us to the state of policing, pop culture and private enterprise capitalism in modern India.
Philip Cox follows Rajesh through three key cases: a grisly homicide involving three seemingly innocent youths caught in a complex web of familial betrayal; the infiltration of a counterfeit shampoo branding operation; and a salacious and sexy case of adultery. When he's not in the field or managing a staff of investigators, he's angling to become the leader of the next great dance crew, moonlighting as the captain of a troupe in search of reality TV stardom. Yes, this is a real world documentary.
Rajesh is portrayed with the affable intensity of The Office's Michael Scott and the naive charm of Inspector Clouseau. Add in the strong sense of showmanship and false bravado, like the goofs in This Is Spinal Tap, or the zany terrorists in Chris Morris's Four Lions, and the effect is oddly humorous and tragic in equal measure.
I suspect there may have been some fudging of details or recreations of certain sequences, but the film is as much about the construction of its titular character as it is about Rajesh's investigations. The theme of celebrity runs strong throughout. We all know the idolatry of cinema and celebrity in Indian popular culture, and Rajesh and his colleagues' awareness of the camera actually aids in the overall kookiness of this picture.
Cox captures a unique tone, moving naturally from the unintentional hilarity of Rajesh's demeanour and the emotionally complex, downright tragic nature of his clients. Though Fox Searchlight has apparently been developing a dramatic version of this story, this is truth far stranger than fiction, which is the film's main attraction, and thus any dramatic version would lose all this wonderful irony.
This review was first published on Exclaim.ca