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SUNDANCE REVIEW: 'Bengali Detective' an Entertaining Documentary About a Dazzling Private Eye

The Bengali Detective

The Bottom Line

A most entertaining documentary about an Indian detective who penetrates an urban world of crime with a sharp eye, keen sense of humor but a heavy heart.

Venue

Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Documentary Competition

Director

Phil Cox

It's easy to see why Fox Searchlight recently purchased "remake rights" to the British-Indian film.

PARK CITY -- You can see why Fox Searchlight Pictures made the unusual purchase of "remake rights" to the British-Indian documentary, The Bengali Detective. Its protagonist, Rajesh Ji, one of an emerging breed of intrepid private eyes that have sprung up in India to do the jobs that corrupt and lazy police forces fail to do, is a dazzling character. At once funny, determined and tragic, Rajesh could star in a series of films as he sleuths his way across the sprawling, chaotic metropolis that is Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). He's a real person but such a wonderful leading man you might imagine him to be the invention of a dazzling, young Indian novelist.

Director Phil Cox interviewed countless detectives across India before hitting gold with Rajesh. A village boy who has made good in the (very) big city as the head of a small PI company, the slightly chubby man tackles his work with inspiring tenacity yet dreams of becoming a dance star. He even persuades his team of detectives to enter a TV dance contest under the direction of a pretty professional choreographer.

So like a good Bollywood film, dance numbers get interspersed with the dirty work of hitting Kolkata's teeming streets as the movie follows three of Rajesh's most pressing cases.

The first concerns counterfeit goods, fake shampoos that are causing an Indian hair products company to lose considerable profits. The second is a horrific triple murder where a cousin of one victim, suspecting his own family may be involved, asks Rajesh to investigate when the police won't even call the crime a homicide. The third arises when a middle-class wife asks Rajesh to follow an abusive husband she suspects of adultery.

Rajesh's world revolves around his home and the office of the Always Agency which, according to the sign on the door written in the hybrid that is Indian English, specializes in Investigatings and Security Concerns. He married his wife in a love match rather than an arranged one and is proud of her and his young son but suffers silently as she is gravely ill with diabetes.

The dancing and martial arts training with his detectives, comical as they may seem to the viewer, clearly help relieve him of the stress caused by his wife's illness. Not to mention the exasperating roadblocks he runs into trying to solve his first murder case.

His optimism and good cheer in the face of daunting troubles is not all that unusual in Indian people. It is part of a coping mechanism necessary for survival in a society where corruption and incompetence can overwhelm you.

Cox has chosen his hero and the cases he investigates exceedingly well to reflect issues in the subcontinent. Fake goods cost businesses billions. Seventy percent of murders go unsolved. And domestic abuse is all too common.

But Cox has the good sense to show you the world of his character without explanations or judgments. Rajesh makes a terrific guide into the dark side of Kolkata. He is a resolute man who tries to puzzle out the murders and various leads with pen and paper even as he confidently directs a team of detectives, who often disappoint him and must be admonished not to waste time gazing at pretty girls.

The doctors' offices, emergency rooms and futile medical tests for his wife take their toll, but he remains strong for his beloved wife and son. He is their rock, and they are his great strength and hope. It's no small thing that The Bengali Detective has more to say about true love than most romantic films ever will achieve.

Cox's access to Rajesh's world and clients willing to be filmed is extraordinary. Working with two cameras, he catches details that give an audience not only a sense of who these people are but of Bengali society and the tumult that is Kolkata. The editing is smooth and smart, blending personal dramas and tragedies with lighter, comical moments. That balance enriches this portrait of a quixotic character who means to right the wrongs of his world and somehow make that world a better place.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Documentary Competition
Production companies: A Native Voice Films presentation in association with Almega Projects, Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation and Sabotage Films
Director: Phil Cox
Producers: Giovanna Stopponi, Annie Sundberg, Himesh Kar
Executive producers: Angus Aynsley, Karol, Martesko-Fenster, Gernot Schaffler, Thomas Brunner, Jon Thompson
Director of photography: Lisa Cazzato-Vieyra
Music: Dennis Wheatley
Editor: Taimur Khan, Tom Hemmings
North America Sales: Schreck Rose Dapello Adams & Hurwitz
International Sales: Annie Sundberg, Himesh Kar
No rating, 96 minutes