The Bengali Detective: Film by British and Minnesota filmmakers

Detective Rajesh Ji investigates a triple murder in Kolkata

For his latest documentary, British director Phil Cox wanted to get beyond the political affairs that usually dominated his work and develop a film around a character.

He certainly found that in Rajesh Ji, an Indian private detective, dedicated family man, and dance enthusiast who is so improbably colorful that he sounds like a fictional character. The fruit of Cox's labor, The Bengali Detective—a recently completed film that was co-produced by Minnesota native Annie Sundberg—is featured at this year's festival. The documentary profiles Ji as he investigates a murder, takes care of his seriously ill wife, and practices for a dance competition.

Both Cox and Sundberg say that what they found in Kolkata, India, was something special.

"My previous films in India were more current affairs and reportage, but I had long been looking for a story that would be a character-based film, with a character who did something that revealed other people's lives," Cox says. "So I was looking at lawyers in Russia, psychoanalysts in Argentina, and eventually detectives in India."

Sundberg, who is from Edina, met Cox in 2006 while working on The Devil Came on Horseback, a film about the genocide in Darfur.

"We were in post-production and looking for footage shot in Darfur around the same time our main character, Brian Steidle, was on the ground as an African Union monitor," says Sundberg. "The internet led us to Phil, who's based in London, and his amazing work. Remarkably, Phil and his partner Giovanna were in New York shortly after we sent a random email to him inquiring about licensing some of his material, and we all met for a drink and a great friendship was born."

The production team began looking at a film set in India in 2009 after being invited to a documentary film conference in Kolkata.

The India setting allowed Cox to also explore some different techniques he wanted to try, to "allow a crossover of styles, mixing Bollywood dance and song with a narrative drama following a real character shot in classic British observational style."

Finding the right detective was key. He needed someone with plenty of charisma and character, and who also investigated cases that would allow a window into modern-day India. Ji fit the bill perfectly. Born in a small village, the detective built his business from the ground up, tirelessly working to solve cases. At the same time, he had a family, including a young son and a gravely ill wife, and an unusual desire to get a dance group of detectives together for an upcoming competition.

"Usually we came up with rather square and rather dull ex-military men who ran detective agencies," Cox says of the search. "I wanted to find an 'everyman'—someone who could connect with the audience and who also had qualities that would allow me to mix up the Bollywood and documentary observational styles."

Sundberg's role developed organically, as she first worked just as a consultant and then moved into a more formal production position as filming started in India.

"We had ongoing discussions about visual approach and how to set a style that would translate the incredible fantasy and dance element of Rajesh's life for an audience, while also expressing the rough and raw intimacy of his daily work with crime victims. It's a tricky balance to strike, and it also demanded incredible perseverance by Phil and his partner, Giovanna Stopponi, to earn the trust and the access that is so apparent in the finished film," she says.

Another factor for Cox was the setting. "From my first moment in Kolkata I also knew this city was the backdrop for a detective film," he says. "There is simply nothing like this wonderful crumbling jewel and its charismatic people."

That comes through in the cases explored throughout the film, from a rather typical investigation into a philandering husband to a heart-wrenching triple murder of three young friends. The family turned to the private detectives with Ji's firm, Always, because they knew that two-thirds of all murders in the city are never solved.

"The reason for the rise in private detectives, I discovered, was that people had lost trust in the authorities. Citizens were turning to detectives, and once in their offices would reveal a side of Indian society that was normally kept hidden," Cox says. 

And there was the dancing. The detective isn't afraid to show his moves, and he eventually convinced a team of his employees to band together as "the Detectives" and audition for an upcoming contest.

All of these elements made the film a hot item when it was shown at Sundance earlier this year, and Fox Searchlight purchased the remake rights. The warm reception has certainly pleased Cox.

"As a filmmaker, one never knows really the impact of one's film. Every long documentary takes the filmmaker on a journey of despair and 'What am I doing?' and 'Nobody will see this film apart from my mother' type of moment," Cox says.

After Sundance, the film played in Berlin and is now making its way across film festivals in the United States. For Sundberg, there's a thrill in sharing the piece with each new audience.

"I'm excited to bring this film to my home state of Minnesota not only because it's a film I'm very proud to have had a small hand in making, but because I think it's a rich, inspiring, funny, and profound journey that is completely different from any documentary you've ever seen," she says. "And it's all completely, 100 percent true."

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