A look at modern India via the dance obsessed intrepid detective Rajesh Ji and his investigation team.
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1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM
4.5
Festival hit finds universal humanity in unique Indian character.
ANTENNA INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL: The suits at Fox Searchlight were so impressed with Philip Cox’s The Bengali Detective that they snatched up remake rights within hours of its Sundance screening; the buzz surrounding this film is growing with every screening. Two years in the making, the story of the Kolkata private eye with an intolerance for crime, a love of dance, and an unfailing devotion to his gravely-ill wife, makes for one of the most wonderful, moving films of 2011.

Rajesh Ji runs a small but burgeoning investigations agency, handling what one might consider the 'small cases’ that the overworked Indian Police Force won’t touch – namely, counterfeit goods distribution (aka the 'duplicity’ industries), and cheating husbands. But Ji’s agency has been approached to solve a triple murder – an apparent crime-of-passion involving a cabaret dancer and her collection of paramours. (To quote the end credit crawl, these represent three of the 70 percent of India’s annual unsolved crimes.)

When he’s not investigating with his team of self-taught 2IC’s, he’s corralling them into a dance studio to audition for India’s biggest talent producers. Above all else, he cares for his wife Minnie, who is growing increasingly ill with diabetes and complications from eye surgery; paramount is the wellbeing of their small son, who starts the film buoyantly seeking on-camera attention but withdraws noticeably over the course of the production, burdened by the dawning realisation of the gravity of his mother’s illness.

One is immediately struck by the humanity of Cox’s film. Rajesh Ji could have been portrayed as an eccentric – a chubby, giggly caricature of both low-rent private-eyes and shameless Bollywood wannabes. But Cox presents Ji with the same non-judgemental eye that he also affords to the men under Ji’s command, the relatives of the murder victims, the gaoled illiterate shopkeeper/accidental criminal and the cheated wife. Rich in cultural flavour, The Bengali Detective approaches its subjects with a universal understanding.

That’s not to say you won’t have a laugh at their expense; they do and so should you. Cox shares joyful moments – like the dance auditions with a sexy choreographer (Mou) that reveal another side of the hardened investigators – as well as those of anguish, and he doesn’t spare his audience moments of profound sadness.

It will be fascinating to see how the Fox Corporation’s arthouse division handles the film’s 'Americanisation’. It’s not a stretch to envision a Paul Giamatti vehicle set in a struggling urban centre of the US industrial belt – The Detroit Detective, perhaps. It might work. But Rajesh Ji and the complexities of Kolkata society are so intertwined in Cox’s terrific, unique character study, the slightest variation from the spiritual centre of the film will spin the project off into its own universe. I’m sure any reworking will be fine, just not as good.

Details

1 hour 35 min

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