Rajesh, owner of Always Detectives, gathers his team of private detectives and informs them that he was just called by a "big hair oil company" that wants to put an end to "fake oil" being sold in the markets and streets of Kolkata. They want action, whether a shopkeeper is selling "one or a thousand bottles." Surveillance, raids, whatever is necessary to stop them. Later, as two of his men are in a busy marketplace to observe, they begin a discussion on hair products. One of them tells the other he just got his hair dyed, sparking a debate between the two on which brand is good for hair coloring. At the end of the day, Rajesh and his team of Always meet up to rehearse their dance routine to audition for Zee TV's Dance Bangla Dance.
These scenes could very well be in a fictional film script, fleshing out a motley crew of private detectives that lead bizarre yet socially conscious lives. However, director Phil Cox's documentary The Bengali Detective, is glowing proof that often the best and most fascinating stories are happening all around us, in real life. It's a film that is at once funny, thrilling and heart-breaking, unraveling various facets of life in modern Kolkata and the growing pains of a culture trying to adapt and evolve as it charges into the twenty-first century.
Cox and his crew follow the day-to-day activities of the Always investigations. Rajesh describes his work as the need to clean up society where the corrupt police and authorities fail to do so or simply turn a blind eye. There's the ongoing case on fake hair oil, which takes them to markets around the city and raids on unsuspecting vendors. They juggle this with an investigation of a much more personal nature when middle-aged housewife Deepti seeks Rajesh's help in following her abusive and adulterous husband's daily routine. She is a woman burdened by doubt and regret, keen for Rajesh and his team to confirm what she suspects.
Their work often takes an even uglier turn, especially when the team is hired to investigate the mysterious deaths of three best friends, whose mangled bodies were found on train tracks. In a case that the police refuses to label as homicide, Rajesh is determined to reach his own conclusions after interviewing family and friends and even checking out the scene of the crime.
Weaved in with the various investigations, Cox also follows Rajesh into his personal life as a husband to an ailing wife Minnie and father to a mischievous little boy. Rajesh's family moments unravel a whole different side to his no-nonsense private detective persona. At home, he cherishes the playful bickering with his wife to keep her spirits up, dutifully guides and supports her through her numerous visits to the hospital and even takes her on a date on a private boat ride on the Hooghly River. And to get respite from all the dangerous work and the stressful family life, Rajesh dances, getting inspiration from the Youtube videos of dance competitions he constantly watches.
Cox tells the story with the right mix of quirkiness, 'who done it' suspense, and raw, heartbreaking human emotion, all with a completely non-judgmental approach. The work that Rajesh and his team do is serious and important, tackling dangerous cases on a daily basis. However, there is a constant bizarreness to the entire premise. Cox successfully sucks the viewer into the thrill of the investigations, at par with any good television crime mystery drama (suspenseful music, included). Then there are moments when you're jolted out of their world and reminded that these private detectives are functioning at a wholly different, parallel, level to the cops or legal authorities. Rajesh still has to involve cops in his raids, and is forced to plead with an inspector to dig deeper into the case of the train track deaths. He does the investigative work of the cops, probably more efficiently, but ultimately has to hand it over to them when it comes to legal justice. T
he Bengali Detective has been making waves since it first premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, prompting Fox Searchlight to swiftly buy its remake rights. How such a textured and multi-layered character study is fictionalized into a feature film remains to be seen, but until then this original documentary deserves to be watched and shared. It's a fascinating look at the layers of Kolkata as a city, a representative of modern India grappling with culture clash, and a petri dish for private citizens like Rajesh taking it onto themselves to clean up the societal ills where official authorities fail to do so. Best of all, it's real.