When Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy releases today, its fate at the box-office will decide if the private detective will become a more popular character in Hindi films.
Last year’s Joe B. Carvalho, Samrat & Co and Bobby Jasoos failed to make the grade, and Jagga Jasoos is still in the making. Even today, say the word Indian detective and the first name that springs to mind is Karamchand, the famed, carrot-munching detective on TV played by Pankaj Parashar; some might name Feluda, because of the Satyajit Ray films and TV series; a few might remember Byomkesh Bakshi (based on Saradindu Bandopadhyay stories), in the Basu Chatterjee series starring Rajit Kapoor.
Hindi films have had many spies, hundreds of police officers going undercover, but hardly any private dicks. One reason could be that the private eye is not yet considered a very respectable or lucrative profession in India, which is why even pulp fiction has not created a great sleuth; in the West, there are hundreds of writers doing series of books with detectives who then get their own fan following. From the legendary Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple to the younger ones like Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawki, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, the very interesting The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith and JK (Harry Potter) Rowling’s Cormoran Strike, who is two books old but a bestseller.
Filmmakers probably prefer spies to private detectives, because of the glamour that can be infused into films about international espionage—think Agent Vinod and Ek Tha Tiger in recent times. The suave James Bond remains an inspiration. As opposed to a flamboyant spy or intelligence agent, the private eye, has to be ordinary and blend into the surroundings to be able to do his or her work better. Their work is also tedious—following people, surreptitiously taking photos, compiling notes. Not for them the exotic locations and shootouts with terrorists and drug dealers. Most of the cases involve jealous spouses having their partner followed, to find out about secret affairs.
Then there is the problem of repeat value; once the case is solved and the audience knows whodunit, it’s no point watching the film again, unless there are other entertaining angles to it. And when romance and item numbers are added to a detective story, it becomes like any other cops-and-gangsters film. To create a series of books or films with detective protagonists would take a lot of imagination, and with what writers earn in India, who would make the effort?