Violence and female detectives

The narratives of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Bobby Jasoos are not littered with violence, explosion and chases though there is a small element of it in Bobby Jasoos. These stories are “a far cry from the mean streets of Chandler, Mosley, Hammett et al” (Kevin Burton Smith). Bobby bashes up someone in order to extract information. She strangles her first missing person in a typical police procedural and Bombay cinema action sequence, using politically incorrect behavior associated with the hardboiled tradition. She also has resonance with a strand of "butt-kicking feminist private eyes of the U.S. tradition," but in line with female detectives, Bilkis does not glorify in her “physical triumph over an adversary” (Reddy, 2003, p. 199). As an extension, Bobby’s language is far from the polite culture of Botswana that Precious embodies. Though Bilkis is politer than the hard-boiled detective who acts a counterpoint to the good taste and breeding of the classic detective. Christianson (as cited in Horsley, 2005, p. 273) argues that the hard-boiled private eye is “scandalous, indecorous, vulgar, offensive—and violent.”

Bilkis dunks the driver in the water trough. He tells her that Anees Khan has left town though Khan is still in Hyderabad looking for the third missing person. Bathing ritual of taking a dip in the river by a religious group in Gaborone.  
In a street café, seeing a lady cry, Precious introduces herself and offers to help the lady find her missing husband. Precious with her assistant Grace practice using a rifle before she uses it to resolve a case. Precious learnt to shoot in her childhood from her father.

Precious has never resorted to beating people to extract information. In contrast, she has a history of being physically beaten by her ex-husband which made her lose her only child. Both women have never used guns to injure people. The only case where there is use of a rifle and knife accompanied with shooting, killing and blood is when Precious kills a crocodile in search for some evidence for a client. The client’s husband went missing after joining a new religious group. It is suspected that he most likely drowned while having a ritual communal bath in the river. Precious acts violently towards the crocodile but only “when necessary—usually in self-defense or in the defense of another—and understands that violence as having a lasting impact on her” (Reddy, 2003, p. 199). The female detectives do not have a violent disposition nor are they timid. They can handle dangerous gangsters and unscrupulously competitive male detectives because they resist patriarchal control in any form in their lives.

De-glamourizing the professional tools
of the female detectives

The choice of cases and clients informs the style of doing detective business. Precious and Bobby do not require the most technologically sophisticated tools such as fancy cars, mobile phones, computers, guns and other accoutrements, as do their male counterparts.

“Precious Ramotswe has no blue steel pistol, just two desks, two chairs, a telephone and an old typewriter. Then there is Mma Ramotswe herself. (Mma is a local honorific.)” (Michael Wines).

Precious went around town looking for different office spaces in the city. She decides for an old post office which is situated in a modest market place which is accessible to common people and buzzing with ordinary activities. On the other hand, Bilkis rents a shared office space with the owner of a local internet café—she also uses a shelf, chair and desk but none of these belong to her. As she progresses, she moves into a sparsely furnished, rented, but independent office, overlooking her male competitor’s premises. She does not have a mobile phone but borrows from her friend Sohail, as required. Precious does not have a mobile phone, either. In fact, she resists the idea of having a telephone connection in her office, but relents when her assistant Grace Makutsi insists.

“Before": Precious converts an old unused post office into her Agency office at Kgale Hill. “After”: Precious refurbished the space with her feminine and individual sensibility. Clients wait for Precious in the open verandah, enjoying the view of the world going by.
Bilkis’ shared office with internet café owner Shetty. Shetty loves to hear all the gossip and in exchange charges her a nominal rent. But Bilkis prefers to meet her clients in a friend’s (Munna) café where they are more comfortable. Bilkis walks through the streets of old Hyderabad, which she is very familiar with. Like Grace, she cannot afford any vehicle nor can she operate one.

They are mainly uninvolved in kinetically charged chase sequences. While solving cases, Bilkis peacefully walks around the streets but occasionally she is chased or chases someone. Precious follows her suspects in her old van and catches them when they least expect her through employing her tact rather than high-speed chases and fiery stunts. She has never been followed. Bilkis takes an occasional ride on a low speed, two-wheeler scooter driven by Sohail as she cannot drive.[11] [open notes in new window] On the other hand, Precious learnt driving from her father who gave the van as part of her inheritance. In a growing culture of short shelf-life of products, Precious has a traditional worldview. She treats her van as a loyal companion whom she is not ready to replace.

The image of Bobby astride on the pillion of the scooter facing backwards and holding her binoculars seems to be a pun on surveillance and the typical tools used by detectives. Conventionally, sleuthing involves observing and following people without their knowledge—in a way that a hawk watches its prey. Neither of the lady detectives depend exclusively on covert observation. The voyeurism involved in seeing but not being seen and observing but not understanding resonates with ideas of problematic male gaze. In contrast, Precious uses a style of investigation predominantly involving overt observation and talking to people involved in the case, using covert form of obsevation sparingly. Both women possess detailed knowledge of people and places, which explains their preference of methods. Precious’ approach is akin to a participatory ethnographer who builds rapport and empathy to understand the dynamics of the situation. On the other hand, Bilkis mostly enters the field of detection under a disguise. These lady detectives replace voyeurism with other comprehensive forms of investigation. This is unlike the classic male detective, Sherlock Holmes who besides being a shrewd detective,

“remains one of history's foremost masters of disguise. His profession demanded it: Concealing his identity allowed Holmes to trail suspects without their knowledge, slip his enemies' traps time after time […]. Holmes's efforts went much further than simply donning a costume. To master the art of personal camouflage, every aspect of your person, from your clothes and hair to the expressions, mannerism in which you speak and carry yourself, must be altered beyond recognition. His very soul seemed to vary with each fresh part he assumed” (Ransom Riggs, 2009).

Holmes’ character had a degree of seriousness in disguise that marked the classic detective genre. In contrast, Precious’ occasional attempts to disguise prove to be a failure. However, Bilkis easily dons different disguises to solve cases as an amateur but as she progresses, she sheds this method. In addition, there is a comic lightness to some of her incoherently constructed disguises, suggesting a detective-in-progress and a pun on the seriousness of disguise for the classic detective.

Bilkis is in disguise as a maulvi taking pictures on her mobile in the middle of the night. Noticed by the gang, Bilkis smartly runs towards the crowded night bazaar during Ramadan where she can easily disappear.

Bilkis gets her big break when Anees Khan engages her to find missing girls named Nilofer and Amna with a birthmark on their hand and shoulder and Ali with a missing toe. To solve the cases, Bilkis assumes many disguises without much preparation. Disguises prove to be an effective technique for her to solve petty and big cases such as finding Nilofer. While finding Amna, she combines other methods along with disguising herself as an influential person from the entertainment industry. With help from a crew, they organize an audition for a fake reality show. They expect Amna to participate in the event for the promise of fame and fortune.

Bilkis turned entertainment tout (foreground) addresses the crowd of aspiring girls, each one with the name Amna (mid-ground), and her crew of men in disguise (background).

Having successfully solved the case and received a hefty payment, overjoyed Bilkis finds her victory and freedom short-lived as her mother orders her to report home immediately to resolve some private affairs.

We, female detectives instead of
I, classic male detective

“In its own historical context, classic detective fiction is closely bound up with classic liberalism” (Horsley, 2005, p. 18).

In his own time, Sherlock Holmes, [12] for example, can be seen as celebrating the ideals of personal freedom and the rule of law, and responding to the urban problems that were, by the turn of the century, says McCann (as cited in Horsley, 2005, p.19) “providing a serious challenge to the tenets of liberal theory”. Precious and Bilkis celebrate the ideals of personal freedom and rule of law within traditional societies in transition. Though their ways are different from each other and from the classic and hardboiled counterpart. Precious upholds liberal values of tolerance more than Bobby. They are an intrinsic part of their community but their choice of profession and determination to succeed sets them apart. They do not always make the right moves in the formative period of their careers but they are quick to learn and accept their limitations. In the narratives that I am discussing, the female protagonists interact with a rich array of characters ranging from supporting, antagonist, and neutral —few of them are unselfish people, most of whom can be very selfish and deceptive, and couple of them can be dangerous (at least in the TV series).

Other female detective novels written by feminist writers

“focus on solitary central characters, as do hardboiled novels. However, solitariness for a woman has far different meanings than does solitariness for a man, as historically women have been defined by their relationships with men and have been refused the right to self-definition” (p. 197).

The narrative develops the characters, Precious and Bilkis, in a manner that self-definition is integral to them. A sense of I is not an absolute understanding for them but rather comes in relation to a sense of Other. For these detectives, this sense of a collective I is shaped by gender, race, class, community, dispositions and so on. Bilkis and Precious challenge the ‘myth of a lone hero’ as they run small scale, homegrown agencies that require them to depend heavily on personal resources, local knowledge, goodwill of the community and the unflinching support of secondary characters. Bilkis and Precious are neither employed in any top Secret Intelligence Service (FBI or CIA, ex-KGB, MI5 & MI6) nor work for a large private agency. They are neither larger than life characters nor do they derive their power because of proximity to the powerful. In contrast, they depend on themselves and a network of strong relationships. Precious has on her side her loyal and intelligent but tightly-wound assistant Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose).

“Grace prides herself on superlative organizational and administrative skills, often noting that she scored 97% on her secretarial exam” (Alyx Vessey).

Grace has worked her way up by navigating through poverty, prejudice, singlehandedly running a household and caregiving for her sick brother. She is the fastest-typing secretary in Gaborone. She is far from the stereotyped female secretary and has a quirky sense of dressing. Precious respects her inputs and makes the final analysis but trusts Grace with investigation process. Their friendship has some resonance with that of Holmes and Watson, however, the ladies are far intimate than them. They bond well and respect each other though they have their differences.

The narrative of Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency shifts in perspective from Precious (I, main protagonist) to Grace and other characters (We, part of the world of the female protagonist) but the narrative voice favours Precious. For example, the audience can hear her intermittent voice-over, which is autobiographical in nature. The tone of the voice-over is reflective, optimistic and content without being unrealistic. The autobiographical voice in the narrative is an important feature of hard-boiled and U.S. female private detective novels (Horsley, 2005, p. 263). But unlike them, Precious’ autobiographical voice is neither hectoring nor self-lacerating but rather an expression of human emotions and thoughts. Her short spells of the monologue are never aggressive rather human, enlightening and calming.

Besides employing Grace professionally, sometimes Precious seeks assistance in professional matters from her loyal male friends though she doesn’t expect any concessions as a woman from them.They are trustworthy JLB Matekoni (shy suitor and eventually her husband) proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and loving and patient BK, a flamboyant gay hairdresser (owner of Last Chance Salon adjacent to her office). In line with her earlier female detectives, Precious gives “considerable thought to her relationships with others, working out the ethics of friendship” (Reddy, 2003, p. 198). Unlike her precursors in the hardboiled tradition who cannot draw support across age, gender, profession and hierarchy from people around them, Precious can draw support from very different people including children without losing her sense of self. She also has three deceased mentors from whom she draws strength in times of distress—her upright, wise, and kind father Obed Ramotswe; the first President of Botswana late Sereste Khama, a compassionate and visionary leader; and Clove Anderson whose book Principles of Private Investigation is a professional guide for her.

In contrast, Bobby finds occasional inspiration from the detective and police procedurals aired on private Indian channels. As a small time detective, she cannot afford a professional colleague and seeks support from her male friends: “[Shetty] a plump internet café owner,” Munna, a tall guy who works in the café that Bobby meets her clients, Sohail, “a rangy tech support-type fellow” and a “good-looking, ambitious TV star anchor and ex-client [Tasawur] who tags her as she goes about solving the final big case [and eventually becomes her fumbling lover]” (Gupta, 2014).

The female protagonist and supporting characters in Bobby Jasoos and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency are departure from Holmes stories. In the latter (Reddy, 2003) women are dark or disruptive whereby posing a threat to masculine order and must be contained. Secondly, they are inexplicable presences who require male protection. Thirdly, women can never be a detective in a Holmesian world. [13] Instead, Precious and Bilkis are the ‘heroes’ of their narratives though they function with supporting characters. Precious has a very supporting friendship with her close friend, Mma Potokwane, the matron of the orphan farm whose advice and affection she deeply values. Bilkis (similar to Precious) also has a supporting woman in her life. Her mother shields her from constant criticism from her father and other family members in the tradition of some female authored (such as Cordelia Grey novels) female detectives where mothering relationships are presented as more positive and less destructive than fathering relationships. Scholar Horsley (2005, p. 260) explains this characterization as an attempt to turn around the crisis of the “post-second World War American society which betrayed an ideal of mothering that might be said to embody some of the most generous and selfless of liberal values—compassion, tolerance, gentleness”. Precious embodies these values wholeheartedly despite having no memory of her mother. Yet, Bobby and Precious have a strong supportive inner mother that allows them to handle the challenges of the outside world.

The male protagonist of hard boiled noir is seduced by the femme fatale and for him, family, friendships or community are entirely irrelevant. Bobby Jasoos has no femme fatale or its male version and there is no negative female character in the narrative. In contrast, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency has one dangerous, seductive female vamp, Violet Sephotho who seduces influential men for money. Violet ends up rubbing shoulders with Precious and Grace as she is a culprit in many of their investigations. Violet is jealous of Grace’s intelligence and hard-work and her devious plans are always disrupted by them. The character of Violet stands in contrast to the feminist female detective stories where the villain turns out to be female but “she is never a seductress in search of power and money, but either a patriarchal enforcer (such as V. I.’s aunt in Killing Orders, 1985) or a woman trying to end or avenge her own victimization” (Reddy, 2003, p. 198). There are women clients that Precious meets who fall in the two categories of trying to end or avenge their own victimization. But the main and supporting female characters are not sketched in the similar light.

The female detectives solve a case as a team—having discussions and delegating work according to each person’s strength. These lady detectives share a common feature with other women detectives in the British writings where their ‘strength lies in teamwork rather than solitary brilliance’ (Priestman, 2003, p. 5). As the book series continues, Precious transforms into being an ace detective, having a group of friends, wife to JLB Matekoni, mother to her two foster children and managing a household. She takes care of domestic responsibilities since her husband is not a modern husband but she doesn’t complain about it and her family life is far from oppressive.

Precious’ character stands as a critique of the absence of such pressures of ordinary life for her traditional male detective. The experience of parenting and daily household responsibility is shared feature between Precious and fictional writing about black women detectives. This feature ties them to “community concerns and sharply differentiates them from their solitary white counterparts” (Reddy, 2003, p. 2011). In addition, the culture of Botswana and life of Precious are a critique to the normative whiteness of the detective genre itself.

Precious and Bilkis have chosen to work as a matter of choice rather than because of the exigencies of circumstance. They enjoy some economic cushioning which saves them from constant external pressure or the rules of strict hierarchy among men. They are unlike the black male detective such as Easy Rawlins (1940-70s) created by writer Walter Mosley whose ability to live on his own terms is constantly under threat (Priestman, 2003, pp. 218-219). Precious makes decisions that weigh between being morally right and being compassionate. With leadership qualities, Bilkis and Precious lead their personal and professional relationships by functioning collaboratively than hierarchically, in contrast to typical male detectives. Thereby, offering an alternative reading to the intense masculinity of the classic and hardboiled.

Critiquing romance as a central narrative device

Precious does not contend with a patriarch who is bent on forcing her into marriage while Bobby ingeniously uses her “profession” to dodge, manage, and outwit both her conservative father and prospective suitor. None of these aspects of characterization would feature in a conventional detective genre. This theme resonates with the female detective novels that tend to focus on “feminist concerns and to include feminist critiques of culture, with particular attention to the significance of work […] in women’s lives” (Reddy, 2003, p. 195). This poses a direct alternative to other popular fiction genres that focus on centralization of romance.

In Bobby’s homestead, the older (aged aunt and mother) and younger generation of women (sister) are involved with domestic chores and engaged with loud TV serials that act as a smart counterpart to what Bilkis wants to do with her life. On the other hand, Precious is comfortable with balancing professional ambitions with domestic responsibilities though she has a loyal maid to assist her. Her sense of independence is underwritten by her orphan status “a standard qualification for female private eyes” (Horsley, 2005, p. 255).[14] She was brought up by her paternal aunt (in the novels) and loving father who taught her many things about living a happy life for which she is extremely grateful.[15]  In comparison to Bilkis single-minded focus on her career, Precious divides her time between work, friends, home, and herself in the novels but in the TV series she also seems to be preoccupied with her work which resonates with male counterparts. Despite her hectic life, she has moments of solitude but she is not crippled by her loneliness. Despite being single women, Precious and Bilkis are not desperately looking for a suitable match.

This characterization suits Bobby’s positioning in the narrative and Vidya Balan’s sensibility as an actress.

“Often the romantic plot is missing in her [Balan’s] films, which is unusual for commercial Hindi cinema—she is not the trophy who should fit for male characters to win. Invariably, in her most celebrated films, her character’s goals and motivations are not to find love, seduce, look pretty, ‘get her man’, and marry well; instead there are different compulsions that drive her characters” (Bose, 2014, p. 398). [16]

Yet, as the narrative moves forward, Precious and Bilkis have a growing friendship with JLB Matekoni (actor Lucian Msamati) and Tasawur (actor Ali Fazal) respectively. They decline romantic advances made by these men. In fact, both men are far from the ‘ideal parameters of masculine identity, desire, and achievement’ (Horsley, 2005, p. 252). When younger, Precious had burnt her fingers in a short-lived marriage with an abusive and womanizing musician, Note Mokoti.[17] Unlike the passionate romance involving physical attraction and intimacy in the mainstream action genre, Precious’ friendship, engagement and marriage to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is a gradual process of building a bond of trust and understanding. On the other hand, unlike the fleeting and upfront romance between a mainstream hero and his female romantic interest, Bilkis and Tasawur develop an unconventional friendship that unfolds into a romance that is not straightforward till the end. There is no kissing, caressing, and touching between the romantic couple except in a dreamy song and dance sequence. Precious and Bilkis have an equal partnership with their male companions rather than based on manipulation, insecurity, pressure, deceit or fear. Precious has a cultivated charm to handle men who admire her, unlike Bilkis. Romance is neither the center of the narrative nor the epicenter of relations between women protagonists and JLB and Tasawur. These romantic friendships are secondary to the plot development and run parallel in an unassuming manner in the flow of the narrative.

Opposition to the female detectives

Despite their loyal supporters and admirers, Precious and Bilkis also face stiff opposition because of their gender. But they find ingenuous ways to manage it. In the characteristic fashion of a linear narrative, the plot of each story/script advances when the protagonists face resistance from the antagonists. Bilkis’ disgruntled and ultra-conservative father is a well-respected patriarch in the community, and wants his daughter to get married and give up her dream of becoming the best detective.

“Bilkis, accompanied by her mother, walks over to her father’s room to hand over her first big pay packet to him. The old man curtly refuses to accept the money, leaving both his wife and daughter at the end of their tether” (Das, 2014).

Bilkis rebels against patriarchal control symbolized by her father by stepping away from the traditional boundaries. She has odd working hours including late nights which worries her parents. Precious also drives around solving cases that take her to all sorts of places and timings. She defies traditional occupations assigned to women and men of her tribe by being the only detective in Botswana yet is well-versed in the traditional roles, maintains warm relations with people and respects traditions. Hence, each character engages with patriarchy differently.

Bilkis faces more opposition inside home whereas Precious faces more opposition outside home. They are differently equipped to face the problems of the public sphere, namely, the challenge of a start-up company and the aggression from male counterparts. Precious faces problems with three difficult men—her ex-husband Note Mokoti, her Indian client Patel whose patronizing towards her because she is an African single middle class woman and Cephas Buthelezi, a new detective in town. Ex-CID. Ex-New York. Ex-cellent reads the sign outside the Satisfaction Guarantee Detective Agency owned by Buthelezi, an incompetent and a dangerous rival, who uses devious means to project himself as superior to Precious and Grace. On the other hand, Bilkis’ competitor Sodhi is insulting and denies her a much-needed opportunity. He insists that a formal training is a necessity for becoming an apprentice. This close minded attitude prompts Bobby to open her own agency, opposite to his office.

“It is obviously a man’s world and the odds that Bilkis is up against are revealed in a scene early in the film. The protagonist walks into the office of a private detective agency in Moghulpura. It is staffed entirely by stuffy-looking guys” (Saibal Chatterjee).

By proving their superior competency as detectives and as human beings, the lady detectives silence aggression, competition and criticism towards them. These women break the glass ceiling by solving cases successfully and sustaining their small-time detective companies.