A detective is not a policeman. He is not a family member or a friend of the victim. He is a free agent hired by a client to investigate a crime – or sometimes does so of his own volition. Pipe, magnifying glass, overcoat, deerstalker hat optional.
One of the most popular Bengali – and then Indian – detective characters is Byomkesh Bakshi. Created by the author Saradindu Bandyopadhyay in the 1930s, the detective is still very popular in Bengal, with everything from a Satyajit Ray film to multiple web series based on him. He gained national currency when a TV serial on his adventures ran on Doordarshan to great popularity.
Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee was a fan of the detective since his childhood and after four critically acclaimed films of moderate financial success, he convinced Yash Raj Films to back his grand vision of recreating the detective in a contemporary style. They bought rights for all the Byomkesh stories, and created a script that bound together several tales and an exaggeration of several themes.
The placid Mr Bakshi was converted into an adventurous Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! – a film that is the origin story of a great sleuth. The detection starts with the abduction of a seemingly minor character till multiple threads of WWII, modern Indian history and Byomkesh’s personal life get intertwined. One minor thread running through the original stories in Bengali is around the then home minister Sardar Patel summoning Byomkesh to assist in post-Independence espionage cases. This almost insignificant detail takes centre stage in the film as Byomkesh gets involved in wartime intrigue, spying and counterterrorism, and a grand villain gets created.
It is obvious that the intention was to create a franchise in which the detective would go from being a callow young investigator to an international super-detective. Unfortunately, the tepid box-office response to the first film has shelved hopes of future instalments. But we live in the hope that the detective will return. Return to become a global superhero franchise. Bond. Batman. Byomkesh.
One complaint about Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! was that the adversary was too much of a megalomaniac and the crisis too gigantic (the Japanese attacking Calcutta in the last days of WWII) for a detective to cope with!
This is probably a result of conditioning from the many bumbling detectives we have come across in Hindi cinema – all of whom seem incapable of going beyond messing up on clues or catching criminals only by mistake. And this has been going on for a while.
Raj Kapoor was Gopichand Jasoos, whose primary occupation is to peep into his neighbouring beauty parlour while waiting for clients. Even the so-called assignment of tracing stolen diamonds worth millions of rupees doesn’t have any element of detection or cleverness. This film seems to be the spiritual sequel to the same director’s (Naresh Kumar) earlier venture – Do Jasoos – which has Raj Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar as two detectives tripping over themselves while trying to find a missing heiress. And yes, they have the photograph of the wrong girl.
Chasing the wrong girl and tomfoolery due to mistaken identities have been great Indian traditions, even in the 2000s, like in Mr Joe B. Carvalho, the detective (Arshad Warsi) follows the wrong girl – another eloping heiress – while being mistaken for an international don by his ex-girlfriend. Talk about bumbling!
This continued even when a top star played a detective. In Baadshah, Shah Rukh Khan played a bit of a buffoon who uses a roomful of childish gadgetry to make a girl fall in love with the wrong guy, rescue a businessman’s kidnapped son, and yes, chase some diamonds worth millions of rupees. Some things never change. Oh wait…he is also coerced into making an assassination attempt at a chief minister. And here too he bumbles his way around.
If we move a bit towards competence, there have been a few detectives who have executed their duties with considerable aplomb. For starters, there are a couple of low-profile investigators in low-profile films who aren’t buffoons, but they didn’t get noticed in a big way.
Ava Mukherjee is a septuagenarian detective in Detective Naani, out to solve mysterious goings-on – a child at a newly married couple’s flat, for starters – in her apartment complex. Assisted by her grandchildren, neighbours and assorted busybodies, she goes about her job with good intentions, if not the best of detective skills.
Rajeev Khandelwal runs Samrat & Co, a detective agency in a hill station; he has been employed to find out about the mysterious affairs in a rich household that were about to spiral out of control. The actor revealed that he had heard the narration of the script without the climax so that he could try to solve the crime by himself as the shooting progressed.
Bilqis Ahmad (Vidya Balan) of Hyderabad’s Mughalpura tries to join a private detective agency, is rebuffed and goes on to form Bobby Jasoos Private Limited. Bobby Jasoos is a female star vehicle, and the profession is but an excuse to get Vidya Balan into a variety of costumes. She chases multifarious neighbourhood nasties before she gets a big case: to trace – you guessed it – a long-lost girl!
In Manorama Six Feet Under, the detective is not actually a detective. A detective novel writer (Abhay Deol) is co-opted to solve a crime because the availability of a detective in a small Rajasthani town is as bad as the availability of water. The film has shades of the noir classic Chinatown, though the desi detective Dubey is a far cry from the aggression of American private eyes. The villains are almost as nasty though!
Sometimes you become a detective even when no one hires you. You become a detective because it is in line with your life’s aim. Jagga Jasoos (Ranbir Kapoor) becomes a detective to find his foster father, Badal Bagchi (Saswata Chatterjee), who suddenly vanishes after dropping him off at a boarding school. Ferreting out clues from an annual VHS tape that Bagchi used to send him on each birthday, Jagga hones his detection skills and goes on a mission that takes him from the north-east of India to the south-west of the world. The film – while not following a conventional whodunit structure – still manages to pack several intelligent clues that the hero manages to unravel to solve crimes…including the one about his missing guru and foster father.
Excerpted with permission from Bollygeek – The Crazy Trivia Guide to Bollywood, Diptakirti Chaudhuri, Hachette India.