Likely more the result of self-curation during a four-day festival with some 100 films than a real trend, a preferred method of recent documentary filmmakers is seemingly the single-character study. I Will Marry the Whole Village, Raising Renee, A Matter of Taste, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, and Resurrect Dead all dealt with one person’s life in uncomfortable—or in the case of Being Elmo, prodigious—circumstances. None of these are as well rounded as The Bengali Detective.
Filmmaker Phil Cox takes his high-definition camera straight into the crowded intersections and imperturbable pageantry of Kolkata, India. Within lush, gorgeous images of the vibrant lives down every crooked alleyway, this polished film follows its eponymous character, Rajesh Ji, and his team of semi-professional detectives as they pick up the slack where the police have dropped it: counterfeiters, truant husbands, and, to even Rajesh’s surprise, a triple homicide. The narrative progression is striking in its familiarity from any movie in which a seedy P.I. tries to make good; Chinatown is a particular echo, and you could have effectively placed one of Rajesh’s comrades just off his shoulder, smoldering cigarette in hand, saying “Forgedaboutit” as one of the above-named cases falters. A documentarian may have avoided the comparison to such well-treaded territory, but Cox, to his credit, embraces it, brilliantly incorporating a Hawaii Five-O-style intro sequence into the film’s first images, and later a music video. It reflects his film’s range, its defining characteristic. Rajesh isn’t just a gumshoe, he’s a father, a husband, a boss, and—in the most riotous sequences at this year’s Full Frame—an aspiring Bollywood dancer. His team occasionally breaks off its investigations to prepare their audition routine for a So You Think You Can Dance?-type reality show.
That Cox follows the best of these slapstick moments with perhaps the most tragic event in any man’s life is an indication of his daring and sophistication as a director. The London-based documentarian and head of Native Voice Films is well traveled in his career, winning awards for films about the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and events in Darfur. This film, his second feature, showcases a profoundly compassionate voice, and a talented one in earning the trust to capture certain private moments. The Bengali Detective is a conspicuous blend of happy and sad. For all the attraction of its more ludicrous scenes, the times when Rajesh is in very real emotional pain are the images for which it deserves to be remembered. The film’s few blemishes are when it gets away from Rajesh or his ongoing investigations to use Rajesh’s clients as conduits for the larger story of Kolkata’s problems, namely intractable bureaucracy. No need: Our man Rajesh is as good as it gets, a courageous family man, a dreamer, for whom little seems to go right. What more could we want?
This year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ran from April 14 - 17.