The Bengali Detective
(HBO Documentary Films)
HBO2: 16 Nov 2011
“I have had information that a fake shampoo is being sold.” Rajesh Ji lays out the job for his team of detectives. “If a shopkeeper has one bottle or a thousand, our client wants action, surveillance and whatever is necessary.”
That client, a “big hair oil company” wants to put a stop to counterfeiting that cuts into its business. “They are losing millions,” reports Rajesh, “They want somebody caught.” And because the police in Kolkata are ineffective, this company—along with private citizens and other business—are increasingly turning to private detective agencies. One of these, Rajesh’s Always Detectives, is the focus of The Bengali Detective, which premieres on HBO2 on 16 November. As Rajesh describes his “daily routine,” the camera offers close-up shots of his office: plaques and awards (at least one for soccer) on a mantle, a pistol mounted on a showcase stand, his photo in a block of glass, a wall-mounted air conditioner and a ceiling fan. Detectives in India are heroes, he says.
Moved to the city from a small village, Rajesh is something of a perfect film subject, open and collaborative. At the same time, his story on film hints at difficulties he doesn’t state outright: as director Phil Cox and crew follow along during his investigations as well as into his home, you observe a remarkable personal optimism. This even whether he’s slapping at counterfeiters who refuse to answer questions, running through alleys in hot pursuit, or playing with his young son and caring for his ailing wife Minnie. During his off-hours, Rajesh and his team head over to a studio, where they’ve hired a choreographer to prepare them for a dance competition. In another movie, these rehearsal montages might seem glib: here they suggest the multifaceted ways Rajesh finds to spend his energy and find focus, as well as bind his men together as a unit.
“I had to do a lot to build this small business,” Rajesh remembers. “I started without an office. I ran everything with two mobile phones.” Again, the film illustrates, in images that are at once abstract and specific, signs of the many years Rajesh has been at work and the fruits of that labor. A TV monitor now sits on a shelf, wires sprouting from behind I, the surveillance footage showing his men seated at their desks, one by one. A secretary takes calls at her desk, and Rajesh takes seriously his mission, to help citizens who have nowhere else to turn. “We are detectives,” asserts Rajesh. “We can conquer the world.”
On the street, Rajesh and his men gather to discuss a next move. Following the gathering of evidence through interviews and surveillance, Rajesh continues, they will do what they need to do, including “raids and arrests.” It’s not quite clear how these arrests are made, or when the cop must be called in for official paperwork, but the film suggests that the police don’t precisely reject (or outlaw) the work of the detectives. Then again, police don’t appear enthusiastic either: when Rajesh presents a file of research to one near the end of the film, the man behind the desk acknowledges the help and then shoos him away.
Throughout The Bengali Detective, the irrepressible Rajesh displays his commitment and enthusiasm. He works out with weight machines, his belly hanging slightly over his tracksuit pants. Pausing during his routine, he addresses the camera, “We do real stuff,” he says, “We do the work authorities don’t do.” The film supports this claim, in as much as it shows Rajesh and his crew tracking down leads, not only for the counterfeit shampoo case (which he deems Operation Tiger, as his men make their way through the streets, communicating by cell phones as they spot likely stashes), but also for a woman who asks them to find out if her husband is cheating on her, as well as a triple murder.
The woman, Deepti, explains that she’s suffered domestic abuse during her 34 years of marriage, and now believes her husband is seeing other women. Both she and Rajesh assume the abuse: it’s regrettable, surely, but it’s also common. What she wants, Rajesh surmises, is “evidence of his movements,” phone calls and hotel stays. He sets his men on the case, while the camera crew follows Deepti home: she pages through a photo album, recalling her relationship - not fondly, but with all kinds of regrets. “Of course, I faced a lot of domestic violence. I used to be locked up in this room,” she says. “I should not have lost my identity to please him all those years. He is a man, that does not mean he is lord and master.” Deepti’s experience runs counter to what you see in Rajesh’s home. He takes Minnie to the doctor repeatedly, takes care of their child, and takes great joy in singing with both of them.
At same time, the Always Agency pursues the murder investigation, their first. Invited to look into the deaths of three youths on the railroad tracks by one of their cousins, the detectives interview anyone they can find who knew the young men or their families. The case seems uncrackable—one of the 70% of murders that remain unsolved in India each year.
And yet the detectives persist, taking photos of the battered dead boys to the crime scene, laying one of their on the tracks to approximate a body’s position. When they’re spotted by neighbors, Rajesh moves them off (“We’re getting attention, time to go”), but their work continues: they make Xerox copies of photos, the canvas the streets, they interview variously distraught relatives, and they find themselves at a few dead ends.
The film submits that as Rajesh pursues justice in individual cases, he wages a larger battle, to give his clients some sense of individuality and a voice in the rush of business and violence that characterizes life in Kolkotta. It turns again and again to shots of the street, crowded and chaotic, incessantly lively. If the detectives can’t provide their clients with answers every time, they do at least offer a sense of direction.