It isn’t easy to make a documentary that is as dramatic and riveting as a feature-drama, a narrative film. Too often, that form has been caught in its own heritage of simplistic camera compositions and a droll pace that maintains interest only because the viewer is committed to subject matter. But the form has matured now. To many, this is an age of the renewal of documentary form. Coming from a weighty heritage of didactic and propaganda, the documentary form has pushed the limits of drama, reality, poetics and incisiveness.
Phil Cox’s The Bengali Detective (2011) claims a simple territory of portraying an unusual dimension of the subject, a detective in Kolkata that runs a small firm to solve problems of its clients. He has a severely ill diabetic wife and a young son. A dedicated father and a husband, he also nurtures a small team at work as a “family.” The dramas of his attempts to solve crimes move along while his own narrative of coping with his wife’s failing health unfolds. There is drama is both and what we get is a gripping portrait of a traditional working middle class professional (before middle class shifted to a higher ground) with firm grounding in his own values.
This is an admirable work. Director Phil Cox says in FilmMaker Magazine that one the central characters died in the middle of the production and the film itself focuses on another death. It is a grim tale, underscoring the gritty commitment to the film maker and Rajesh, the central detective who sticks with the production of the film through his own films. These background narratives often make for the increased merits of documentary films. These are few remaining, effective acts of political interventions. When we have become numb to everything else, with a steady diet of commercials and TV programs, with excesses of the news organizations who insist on staying on the air without anything to report, it may just be that the documentary form allows for that important moment of waking up.