Bollywood and its tryst with the ‘detective’ genre

Bollywood and its tryst with the ‘detective’ genre

Try thinking of a detective film in Hindi. Jog your memory for an onscreen detective that you remember from Bollywood. Chances are you will draw a blank. If, like me, you are a Doordarshan child who transitioned to cable TV in her teens, you will remember two TV series that entertained with eccentric but interesting detectives- Karamchand (with Kitty & the carrots); and Byomkesh Bakshi starring Rajit Kapoor.

Beyond that- the detective genre never took roots in Hindi films.

This stands in stark contrast to Western film & TV. Be it the USA, which is hooked on to police procedurals/ law procedurals (CSI, NCIS, X FILES); or the timeless appeal of literature based detectives like Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes in Great Britain; white collar crime tackled by the wily detective always makes for popular viewing. In fact, variations of Sherlock Holmes continue to emerge as TV success stories abroad (Elementary being a prime example).

Hindi films are quite willing to be inspired from English cinema (sometimes international cinema). Which is why its even more surprising that the cop saga/ detective tale has not been photocopied here in Bollywood.

Why is the detective missing sorely from Hindi films? Ask Dibakar Bannerjee and he gives you a detailed perspective. He says, “ A detective usually emerges from a mature urban background. Detective fiction is primarily urban. When did the first detective fiction come in being? Early 19th century. Guess why? Industrialization had rung in change- breakdown of families, emergence of urban slums, over crowding, labor angst-which created the unexplainable urban crime. And thus emerged the mystery of whodunit. In a village, if someone commits a murder, 10 people get to know who did it. But in an anonymous overcrowded, over populated urban world, when crime happens, it essentially become a mystery because of this over populated background. That is why you need a detective to solve it. Usually, there is a breakdown of social laws, family laws & community laws, so the standard justice mechanisms don’t deliver. Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin; or Sherlock; emerged in post Industrial Revolution literature. Typically the urban question didn’t enter the Hindi heartland for a long time; nor did it enter Hindi cinema. In the last 20 years, urban angst that has entered the Hindi film industry is usually connected to the criminal underworld or the political injustice. So since the detective is missing from true blue Hindi literature or art, the tradition of a detective can also be found to be missing from Hindi films.”

In contrast, Bengali literature has had popular detective fiction for a long time. Sharadindu Bannerjee, creater of Byomkesh Bakshy and by Satyajit Ray through his ‘Feluda’ books, wrote their best-known detective fiction. The original capital of the East India Company, and an international port since the 19th century, Calcutta’s detectives emerged from the Anglicised influence that still holds forth on Eastern Indian popular culture. Says Dibakar, “Calcutta has been influenced by Westernization since the 19th century. Panchkari Dey, who wrote police procedurals about a Bengali daroga around 1895, wrote the first detective fiction. Apart from that, pulp fiction around escapades of bhadralok with ladies of the night was also read. All of this, along with the intensely urban, overcrowded melting pot of ethnicities- English, Bengali, Marwari, Parsi, Jews, Armenians, Kabuliwalas, cooked up the perfect milieu for urban crime. That’s why Bengalis have this passion for the detective. “

The Byomkesh films in Bengali continue to be popular till date. Dibakar’s version starring Sushant Singh Rajput is also highly anticipated. And Bengali cinema, from it’s very beginning, has drawn from literature extensively to make content driven films.

But there have been experimental filmmakers in Bollywood who have ventured into detective films, based on Agatha Christie’s writing or Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing. Some succeeded at the box office..Apradhi Kaun? (1957) Was based on Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervillles; Gumnaam (1965) and Intaquam (1969) developed popular detective fiction from the West successfully in Hindi. I might be missing out on some, but two others, Dhundh (1973) directed by B R Chopra & the masterful Khamosh (1985) directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, are considered brilliant films till date.

So the detective film genre has always had scope to evolve and emerge. But that hasn’t quite happened so far. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the producer & director of ‘Khamosh’, explains the lack of detective films in a larger context.

“Our biggest problem really is that we are scared. We are really chasing success & not excellence. People talk about films not as movies, but about the numbers they garner. It’s very sad.”

Chopra’s comment succinctly covers the lack of focus on good writing and research in Bollywood films. Detective films require reading. That’s not a common habit sadly even amongst writers & filmmakers here. Building a detective saga for the big screen requires meticulous research. While rip offs are harder to get by these days, since copyright issues emerge almost immediately, remakes of international films tend to focus on comedies & thrillers than are thin on plot.

Adapting a police procedural or a detective film requires research & adds up to extra work. It’s a lot simpler to make CID instead, which elevates stating the obvious to a whole new level. Naturally, research requires patience & reading on the part of the writer- a rare animal in Hindi cinema. As Shoojit Sircar puts it, “Directors also want to take the credit of writers these days. Why? Its still very difficult for writers to find a foothold in Bollywood. The system is not supportive.”

Sircar works with Juhi Chaturvedi on his films. But as most directors also prefer to write their own films, the profession doesn’t offer scope to grow or develop. It’s a lot easier to write CID instead-a TV show that takes stating to obvious to a new level.

Another difficulty in adapting detective fiction to film to present times in Hindi films is the sheer brazenness of crime. Dibakar says, “Today we know whodunit; the main question is that now, what do we do. How do we bring a criminal to justice? Today, a detective catching the man wouldn’t be that effective. After he catches a man, audience will say, so what. If he is rich or powerful, he will get away. Today, crime is so open & brazen that all mystery has been sucked out of it. It becomes political. The real mysteries are the encounter cases, or say the Arushi Talwar case. There you realize that the actual mystery is why does law & order behave the way it does.”

Bannerjee raises a valid point there. Urban angst is transferred to the breakdown of democratic & civil institutions in contemporary India. The 9PM Rage Shows cover that bit. Solving a complex crime might not necessarily appeal to the audiences.

But the detective film still endears. Look at Rahasya.The film had zero publicity support from the studio backing it (Viacom 18). Yet the film made 7 crores quietly. It wasn’t expensive to make, & is a taut, engaging police procedural with a couple of brilliant performances.

Will ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy’, with its slick production values, detailed research & unfortunate leaked bits bring back interest in whodunit flicks? While that’s perhaps too big a burden to place on a single film, times are changing. If Byomkesh wins over even a small section of the multiplex audiences, perhaps whodunit flicks will become a popular genre bringing in a much-needed gust of fresh air in Bollywood’s repetitive storytelling.