The Bengali Detective – A Documentary

I’m still sorting through the myriad of wonderful films that I caught at the Full Frame Documentary Film FestivalThe Bengali Detective, by Phil Cox, is one that I particularly enjoyed and appreciated as a creative educational tool.

Here is the trailer:

This film is about the life and work of Rajesh, a private detective with 15 years in the business. He is a lovable man – jovial, sincere, expressive, pensive and a doting husband and father. He investigates everything from cheating spouses to brand corruption to his first murder case during this period of filming. His team, a brilliantly funny group of men, accompany him to dance lessons as a way to help ease the stress of their work. The seriousness of the detectives’ cases juxtaposed against their attempts to ‘get down and boogie’ in their first dance competition is the stuff great films are made of.

This documentary is an excellent educational tool.  It touches on a three notable cultural lessons that are viewed through the overarching theme of crime and corruption in Kolkata:

1) Marriage: Rajesh is married to a woman that he deeply loves and admires. They have a beautiful young son who is the light of their lives.  Sadly, Rajesh’s wife is seriously ill with diabetes and he loses her during the taping of the documentary.  The film follows Rajesh and his wife to doctor appointments, where it is increasingly clear that she will not improve.  Suffering from complications of diabetes, she passes away, much to our disbelief.  Ironically, this happens while Rajesh is investigating a client’s concern that her husband is having an affair.  The woman, Deepti, describes her arranged marriage and the domestic violence that took place over many years.  Rajesh has to inform her that her husband is likely having an affair with her sister in law and that he likely also has a child from a previous relationship. Interestingly, Deepti decides to confront him and work on their marriage.  It is a sharp contrast to the love marriage that Rajesh had with his own wife, and one that sparks discussion about marriage in India. (Note: this is not mean to be a judgment about either type of marriage;  it is simply documenting the case that took place while filming.)

2)  The human condition: We see Rajesh and his team research crime in Kolkata, West Bengal, India.  We realize that the his cases are not unlike what we would witness in the US – people having affairs, random murders and corruption in businesses. However, in India, 70% of cases given to the authorities go unsolved, ensuring a long and successful career for Rajesh. Witnessing Rajesh’s “down time” from work with his wife and son, his passion for Bollywood dancing and his pain through the loss of his young wife, we learn that the gap, on a very human level, between those in India and those in our own country, is smaller than one may realize.  The human condition connects us all, no matter our place of birth or culture.

3)  Death rituals: Rajesh did not allow the filmmakers to document his wife’s cremation. However, he did provide footage that was used in the documentary.  These moments are particularly touching, as viewers have grown to love his family over the course of the film and the ritual of the cremation is particularly moving, as well as educational.

I personally found the serious tone of the film’s criminal investigations (especially the murder case of an only son and his two friends) and the death of Rajesh’s wife, balanced by the humor, to be completely appropriate. It felt like India to me: a place that I interpret to be a land of extremes (e.g. financial wealth vs poverty, bright colors of saris against more subtle landscapes, incredibly spiritual yet with undertones of corruption, etc.) It should generate conversation about the contrasts in daily living in India.

The Bengali Detective is a film that is fun to watch, full of engaging characters (led by Rajesh, who is incredibly lovable) and it will easily hold your attention. Despite all of the difficult situations addressed in the film, you will find yourself laughing, just when things are about to get too serious.  I applaud Phil Cox for managing to strike such a delicate balance.