Bobby Jasoos, a low-key charmer set in Hyderabad, makes you wonder why more filmmakers don’t step out of their Mumbai-Delhi-London cocoons and locate their tales in the various nooks of India, each of which comes with its own lingo, colours, food, sensibility, cultural and religious complexions, and even architecture that’s a cinematographer’s dream. Why couldn’t Ek Villain have been set in, say, Bhubhaneshwar? Wouldn’t the pathos of Citylights have come through had the couple migrated to Jaipur or Surat? What about Bhoothnath Returns? Why not unleash the ghost on Kolkata? Maybe the identification factor has something to do with it. Because Mumbai and London are such huge markets for Hindi films, maybe it makes sense to give those viewers stories that they instantly relate to or see around them. But what’s lost in the process is flavour. The scent of biryani practically wafts off the screen in Bobby Jasoos. The film appears to be shot in digital, but apart from the flesh tones, you can’t really tell because the city has been filmed so lovingly and with such detail. Even the inevitable Char Minar shots aren’t the usual full-frontal clichés. We see the structure as a Hyderabadi might see it, from the upper floor of a building that’s right across.
The person with that view is Bobby (Vidya Balan), a hilariously inept detective. She has ambition and pluck (she captures a suspect using a clothesline), but not much else. She misses things that are under her nose. And her ‘assignments’ are essentially glorified bouts of snooping, something your gossipy neighbour-aunty would do if she were younger and if she had the energy (and also the assortment of moles, beards and dentures that Bobby disguises herself with). Then, one day, a stranger (Kiran Kumar) drives up in a big car and promises Bobby a huge amount of money if she can find a missing person. The hiring of a private eye by a rich mystery-man is a classic noir setup, but instead of shadows and seriousness, we get a brightly lit world and lots of humour. If there’s something called ‘comic noir’, then this is it.
The other cheerful subversion is that the protagonist – the ‘private eye’ – is now a woman. This is the engine that powers Bobby Jasoos. It isn’t just a detective story, but the story of a female detective from a deeply conservative Muslim family. This is the kind of society where a man dismisses his wife – she’s massaging his head – when he wants to have an important talk with his son. The only person who takes Bobby seriously is Bobby herself. The owner of a detective agency throws her out when she begs for a job. Her sister playfully throws a carrot at her and says, “Apna gaajar leke jaa, Karamchand.” (What she’s really saying, of course, is this: “Why don’t you leave this work to the men?”) When Bobby hands over the first payment for a case to her father (Rajendra Gupta), he says that he doesn’t need the earnings of women to run his household, which happens to overflow with women (the mostly excellent cast includes Supriya Pathak and Tanvi Azmi as Bobby’s mother and aunt). Maybe it’s a mark of revolt, or maybe it’s a reminder to herself that she’s no one’s inferior – she has forsaken the lovely, feminine name of Bilquis and adopted the more androgynous ‘Bobby’.
The investigative angle of Bobby Jasoos is a bit of a letdown. The Big Reveal isn’t about the unmasking of evil (as we’d expect in noir) but something more personal and emotional – and while watching the film, I felt it such a waste that all this time, all this build-up had been expended on something so… domestic. But thinking back, it occurred to me that the film wouldn’t have worked any other way. Given who Bobby is, given her limited skills, her amateur enthusiasm, the plot couldn’t have borne the weight of anything more intricate or elaborate. Bobby Jasoos is only seemingly a noirish film – if that word weren’t in the title, we may not be so disappointed with the story’s priorities, which converge on Bobby’s personal (rather than professional) life. The final scenes, which tie up the detective angle and the domestic angle – namely, Bobby’s professional and personal lives – add up to a quiet kind of feminist statement.
Bobby is adamant on making a name for herself as a detective, but her story is that of any woman who puts career first. Her family is unable to marry off her younger sister because she refuses to settle down. (She’s 30, and people think she’s too old to have children.) And when forced to stay at home, she has to employ little ruses to get out and do her job. (One of these, involving the consumption of copious amounts of biryani, is a riot.) Her sense of achievement on securing an actual office space is palpable – earlier, her ‘office’ was essentially the printout of her name on the doors of an Internet centre, run by a chubby male friend (Prasad Barve) with a fondness for tight T-shirts – and we see why she instinctively slaps a suitor (Tasavvur, nicely played by Ali Fazal) when he brings up the topic of marriage. To the film’s credit, this relationship never becomes a ‘love angle’. (There’s a terribly miscalculated duet, though, one of those dream numbers that’s an instant mood-killer.) Even the superb scene where Tasavvur realises his feelings for Bobby begins as flat-out physical comedy and ends with his defending her right to pursue a career. Balan, in unfussy salwar kameezes, gives a typically assured performance (though one wishes her occasional detours into English didn’t sound so convent-educated; it was the same when she played ‘Silk’ Smitha), and it isn’t a stretch to see this Bollywood actress identifying with her Hyderabadi character, a woman asking for her own space in a man’s world.
* Bobby Jasoos = Detective Bobby
* biryani = see here
* moles, beards and dentures = see here
* “Apna gaajar leke jaa, Karamchand” = Don’t forget your carrot, Karamchand; see here
* salwar kameezes = see here
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.