Evolution of the female protagonists

Every comforting and challenging encounter in Precious and Bobby’s personal and professional life forces them to grow out of their fears, ignorance and passivity and create an internal space to embrace new situations with dignity. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, four inter-related incidents propel Precious to shed her baggage, transform and embrace the new opportunities waiting for her.

The heightened climax begins when Cephas Buthelezi invites Precious’ ex-husband Note Mokoti to Gaborone. Note blackmails Precious after hearing that JLB Matekoni is interested in marrying her. An arrogant wealthy Indian businessman Patel suspects that his deviant teenage daughter Nandira is dating an unworthy African boy and assigns Precious the case to confirm his suspicion. Precious tries to dissuade him from spying his daughter but he insults her. He also hires Precious to find the cause for break-ins at Kgale hill where Patel, BK, and Precious have their offices. Cephas Buthelezi’s attempt to snatch Patel’s cases from Precious fuels the greedy side of Note Mokoti. He tries to kill Precious by driving his car rashly into her van, both escaping an accident by a friction of a second. Meanwhile, JLB Matekoni in his uncharacteristic manner is skipping work and spending unusually long hours trying to learn fishing.

Having done her research, Precious finds that she was never legally married to Note and having overcome her fear of him, she handles his physical aggression differently than when she was younger.

The only male detective in Gaborone, Cephas Buthelezi is blinded in competition, scares Precious by driving his car rashly into her van escaping accident by a friction of a second.

Late into night, Precious reaches for the fishing area while JLB heads towards home, their cars driving past each other to their surprise.

They stop to connect after a long time - the only scene in the TV series when Precious and JLB hug each other affectionately, in keeping with the detective genre where romance is not critical to the plot.

These incidents leave Precious feeling vulnerable. Metaphorically, when she chases away the monkeys who are creating a nuisance in the Kgale Hill shops, she overcomes her fear of her ex-husband, leading to the resolution of the narrative conflict. Precious thinks she has solved the case of Nadira only to find that she was outsmarted by her. Precious reaches for JLB Matekoni and asks him to again propose to her. JLB Matekoni proposes to his Real Botswana Diamond. Precious resolves the issue of Note peacefully but firmly.

Likewise, towards the climax of the film, Bilkis is struggling to uncover Khan’s background, find Ali’s whereabouts with Tasawur’s initiative and feels uncomfortable with her unwanted engagement but also unexpected change of feelings for Tasawur. She is also thrown out of the house by her father. She reconciles the conflicts eventually, but still remains unsure of her relationship with Tasawur. When challenged, the better side comes out. Precious and Bilkis are both strong characters in their own ways, but Precious is a more nuanced character in comparison. Yet, their personas are realistic and humane compared to those of their hardboiled counterparts.

De-glamourizing the female detectives

In the TV series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, seeing Precious, a woman in the street comments “she is the size of a small elephant! How could she go undercover?” The writers and directors have chosen actors that can stand against the popular perception of sleek female detectives and assistants that are portrayed in the masculine detective genre. Bilkis and Precious are ordinary looking and traditionally built women who do not undertake physical exercise or sport.[18] [open notes in new window]

“Film sleuths usually exude chiseled sexiness and a noir persona. But as Mr. McCall Smith puts it, Precious Ramotswe is “the fat lady detective”: rounded, not chiseled; softhearted, not dark” (Michael Wines).

Actresses Jill Scott (Precious) and Vidya Balan (Bilkis) seem to be confident of their appearance while radiating star power. The camera loves their charming faces without gazing at them voyeuristically for most of the screen-time. They have enigmatic voices, their eyes do the talking for them and they have a “star smile” (Cynthia Fuchs). Vidya Balan “acts with her eyes, not through constant exaggerated facial play, expressions and self-conscious posturing” (Bose, 2014, p. 400).[19] In the book and TV series, Precious “often sets people at ease by mentioning that her figure is “traditional” and conventionally attractive to older beauty standards within African culture” (Fuchs, 2009). Likewise, Vidya Balan represents an assertive minority in a film industry which is “preoccupied with physical appearance of women, their size and skin tone ([the slimmer] and lighter, the better)” (Bose, 2014, p. 397).[20] In general, Balan’s measured performance, choice of strong female characters and ability to balance feminism (“unconventional image”) and feminity (“earthy image”) draw from the rich tradition of 1970s and 80s “alternative cinema of compelling performances” by iconic actresses such as Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil (Bose, 2014, p. 398).

In terms of their dress, Bilkis and Precious are well-presented but they are unfashionable. Precious has a practical approach to dressing and carries herself with ease. Unlike her on-screen character of Precious Ramotswe, Jill Scott can look very glamorous off-screen. In the Indian narrative, Bilkis is awkward with the “traditional feminine” get-up while wearing stilettos and saree when disguised to pass as an upper class woman entering a five-star hotel to research her client’s background. In the 1960s and 70s, some Hindi films presented a rural and economically disadvantaged female character who would shed her folk culture to embrace (though awkwardly) urban culture by wearing stilettos and saree, learning spoken English and polite mannerism for the approval of her posh urban suitor. In contrast, Bilkis has disguised herself for professional rather than romantic purposes, thus challenging patriarchal conventions of Bombay cinema. Most films in the Bombay industry construct female characters whose entire look (more than their acting) is appealing. Most films tend to concentrate on women’s makeup, hairdo, clothes, accessories, and sculpted bodies to such a degree that actresses are known to get multiple cosmetic surgeries.

On the other hand, Bilkis’ tomboyish demeanor is purposefully constructed as she “stomps about in frumpy salwaar-kameez-dupatta, shod in worn-out keds” (Shubra Gupta). Her look ties in well with the decentralization of romance and unglamorous role of the female protagonist. The choice of Balan to act as the protagonist in Bobby Jasoos is suitable as she doesn’t fit the industry standards and uses her image to “her advantage by putting on weight, wearing little or no make-up, wearing outlandish clothes, and strapping a prosthetic belly [in her previous films]”.[21] Balan represents the voluptuous quintessential Indian woman—a counterpoint to the taller and slimmer contemporaries (Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, and Kangana Ranaut) in an industry obsessed with casting former Miss Worlds, Miss Indians, and foreign and Indian fashion models “who preen, pose and expose, and serve as embellishment, titillation, and distraction” (Bose, 2014, p. 397).[22] She shares her body type with a sizeable portion of Indian women and wears traditional dresses that connect her to traditional and older generation of audience.[23]

Moreover, Bilkis’ lack of sophistication in the way she carries herself is part of her rebellion as a female detective and against the stereotypical female protagonist in Bombay cinema and reflection of the changing notions of female roles for certain sections of the Indian society. In de-glamourizing the female character, the narratives negotiate general issues of traditional and postmodern notions of femininity and gender as well as local and global sensibility through the specific idiom of detective fiction genre.

The female detective —
a product of post-globalized India

In the Bombay film industry, the classic and hardboiled detective genre is almost negligible except on the margins. In post-globalized Bombay cinema, the first detective film with a smart female detective was Bobby Jasoos (2014) who solves the mystery of three missing children, among other petty cases. This was followed by Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (Dibakar Banerjee, 2015), a film based on a male detective from Bengali literature who solves the mystery of a missing chemist and a larger conspiracy unsettling his city.[24] There has been a slow emergence of adjacent forms of mystery genre such as thriller and police procedural in Hindi cinema in the last few years such as Kahaani (Ghosh, 2014) about a wife (Vidya Balan) searching for a missing husband; Talaash (Kagti, 2012) a cop solving the mysterious death of an actor; and TE3N (2016) about a grandfather investigating abduction and murder of his granddaughter while a priest and a cop (Vidya Balan) investigate a similar sounding case.

Because of the introduction of satellite television and internet (from 1990s) in India, audiences have access to home-grown and imported TV programming of the crime fiction genre especially police procedural and to lesser degree the detective subgenre, which is becoming “a staple of the filmic and televisual iconography in the Anglo-Saxon world underlying so much of contemporary culture” (Priestman, 2003, p. 2). Prior to liberalization, English-speaking Indian readers and TV audiences had access to print circulation and imported TV series (1980s) on Doordarshan (the Indian national channel) of detective stories such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple and Indian male counterparts like Premchand Jasoos and Byomkesh Bakshy. Detective novels have been written in various regional languages for a long time, but rarely have they been adapted into screenplays for Bombay. In Bombay cinema, crime, violence and police have been common ingredients of the narrative which have been combined with melodrama, romance, action and comedy into a unique masala (formula) that defies the concept of a dominant genre. The newly emerging mystery or crime genre with a female protagonist in Bobby Jasoos is not a matter of coincidence but rather reflects the larger changes taking place in the industry and the society, which are worth a discussion.

The director casted Vidya Balan as the lead character based on various reasons. The actress has had prior success in unconventional roles in the industry such as Paa (Balki, 2009), Ishqiya (Chaubey, 2010), No one Killed Jessica (Gupta, 2011), Dirty Picture (Luthria, 2011), and Kahaani (Ghosh, 2014). The success of her last two films made it easier “for other heroine led films that followed in Bombay cinema” (Press Trust of India, 2015). Increasingly, there are films that are driven by the female protagonist and Bobby Jasoos falls within this trend though the standard practice is still to use a male protagonist. In female driven films, “portrayal of women characters has become more complex in response to the interplay of global and local forces in popular Hindi films” (Anujan, Schaefer, & Karan, 2012: 110).

Off-screen, Balan has made choices that are different from her contemporaries. She entered into films when she was much older than her contemporaries as she took out time to complete her higher education. Unlike her contemporaries, Balan came as a film actress having honed her skills in TV programmes as a young artist. She and a few of her other colleagues have remained a star despite being married, which reflects the changing standards among viewers who would previously only accept a single woman. For Bose (2014, p. 397), Balan is a rare female star in contemporary Bombay cinema in the way she can deliver such a range of diverse performances. Simultaneously, other actresses—Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Kangana Ranaut—have also begun to deliver consistently diverse performances as the market demands something fresh. Their range and degree may not vary as much as Balan who has acted shades of white, black, and grey in unglamorous roles. Bose (2014) points out that actresses such as Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra who do off-beat roles still do many more item numbers and other things to reinforce their glamour and beauty throughout their careers.[25]

Bobby Jasoos has no item numbers [vulgar song and dance sequence], no cheap thrills, and none of the usual trappings of a wannabe blockbuster” (Chatterjee, 2014).

There is a trend among a younger generation of actors and actresses to do roles that are different from their previous roles and to juggle between serious and small budget along with entertaining films and big budget stories which can sometimes be mindless entertainers. In comparison to her contemporaries (such as Katrina Kaif) most of Balan’s films are not “mindless entertainers”.  

Various broader changes have also influenced the growth of female driven films such as Bobby Jasoos. In 1990, the hitherto disorganized film industry was given official status as an industry, which meant that

In terms of larger societal changes, there has been widespread migration to urban areas. With it, there has been increasing access to education and employment opportunities that have led to rise in the number of working women with disposable incomes and women participating in decisions related to choice of partner, domestic expenditure, children and other matters, as well as being part of decision-making processes at workplace. Private companies and entertainment industries cannot afford to neglect this section of the population and are increasingly focusing on women as an important portion of the consuming class. Since liberalization, Indian society has become very aspirational and Bobby Jasoos echoes this kind of aspiration through the aspirations of the female detective and her supporting characters.

“It is not just a detective story, it’s really also a human story about a girl from a small village in Hyderabad with big dreams and aspirations. It shows that you can actually reach your goal no matter where you come from or who you are” (Samar Shaikh). 

The first song articulates these sentiments where Bilkis takes to streets expressing her joy and freedom, through a song and dance sequence, after she has received her first huge professional fees. She takes her family to a shopping mall for the first time, not ordinarily accessible to them because of their lower middle class situation. The detective genre and the Bombay narrative gives space to express a woman’s choice for professional career and upwardly mobile economic lifestyle while reserves the right to express her cultural freedom in areas such as sexual desire. In the third song and dance sequence depicting a typical grand Indian wedding, the characters are happy and elaborately dressed against the backdrop of a customized marquee. Bilkis is teasing and dancing with Tasawur as others accompany them in the dancing, he clearly desires her but she does not express her desire and instead runs away from him. The songs, as Nijhawan (2009) says, express desires, aspirations, and lifestyles that the narrative does not and hence provide interesting ruptures. Bilkis’ desire as a woman remains unexpressed, but in her evasiveness, she exercises agency by making the "male character await her pleasure".

This may not be as bold as in some other recent Bollywood films that express feminine desire such as Astitva (Mahesh Manjrekar, 2000), Kamasutra: A Tale of Love (Mira Nair, 1996), Queen (Vikas Bahl, 2014) and Margarita with a Straw (Sonali Bose, 2014). However, it is definitely bolder than the female characters of many other films. Her eyes in the songs seem similar to the “dancing women’s eyes that can be honest, direct and alluring, all at the same time” (Nijhawan, 2009, p. 107).[26]  The characterization of Bilkis bridges the traditional and the modern as she remains within a patriarchal code of sexuality akin to a "traditional Hindu Goddess prototype", but she also aspires for professional expression and economic freedom akin to the marginalized, "Anglo-Indian" and "Westernized-Indian"female prototype without being excessively Westernized.

She is definitely not a globalized/Western prototype of the "Westernized-Indian" female characterization.[27] Culturally, she is positioned towards the "Eastern/glocalization" framework as characterized by film scholars (Anujan, D., Schaefer, D. J., & Karan, K., 2012, p. 115). Glocalization refers to the idea of having an Indian essence but being globally acceptable, for example, masala chai (Indian tea) served in a coke bottle to a local and international consumer. In the opening credits of Bobby Jasoos, the colloquial lyrics of the title song convey Bobby’s courage to step into the male domain, posing her as Sherlock Holmes and James Bond’s aunt, positioning her as a detective who has outgrown conventional tools (binoculars or weapons) as she has brains and intuition sharper than a computer. It stresses that Bobby is not just a local version of her international counterparts, but a better version. It’s an assertion of gender but also pan-Indian racial identity in the context of perceived dangers of globalization. Glocalization is an answer to these real and imagined fears of homogenization. Bilkis and Precious are glocalized characters, and Bobby Jasoos and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency are glocalized cultural products in the sense that they bridge "an older, patriarchal, feudal familial structure [with] new modern possibilities brought about by economic liberalization” (p. 113). Glocalized forms of “cinematic culture [are] designed to appeal to traditional tastes” but equally “affirm its functional equality and … pre-eminence … among other nations on the world stage” (J. Cullity as cited in Schaefer and others, 2012, p. 112).

Cultural geography of Bobby Jasoos
and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Unlike most of commercial fiction cinema and television that focus on posh cities, posher part of the cities, and even glamourize the underdeveloped parts or represent them as very dark, Bobby Jasoos and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency have a nuanced representation of specific spaces and places which are located in a cultural context rather than decontextualized geographies. The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is an unparalleled experiment, filmed on location in Botswana, offering an atypical African milieu “against the torrent of Heart of Darkness stories from Africa” (Michael Wines).[28] Avoiding the violence, disease, and poverty-ridden stereotypes of Africa, the McCall novels and TV series showcase Botswana as a politically stable and economically prosperous country abundant in natural resources.

“In modern Africa, ridden by AIDS, destitution and dictatorship, very little is innocent anymore. But Botswana is as close as it comes, a haven spared many of colonialism’s horrors and eased into relative prosperity and democracy by the wealth of diamonds and a history devoid (mostly) of brutality” (Michael Wines).

The TV series challenges popular perceptions by portraying a relaxed-paced country with polite people and the landscape as an important character of the narrative which is anything but ugly.

“Apart from employing local actors (which might allay anxiety about the predominantly white production staff), the city itself expands and deepens to create the cinematic landscape of the TV series that lends a distinct sense of place. The women detectives pursue their case work and go about their daily lives as do others in the neighborhood and in their doing so, Botswana’s dimensions and complexities continue to reveal themselves” (Alyx Vessey).

Bobby Jasoos also maps an untraveled cultural space in Hindi commercial cinema. The story is situated and filmed in the older parts of Hyderabad, the de jure capital city of Andhra Pradesh. [29] Very few Bombay film narratives are located in either the older or newer parts of Hyderabad which has a sizeable population of Muslims. In commercial cinema, most protagonists belong to majority Hindu community. Very few films are located in a Muslim community with a Muslim protagonist. The film shares a common thread with “multiplex” films made by new directors that narrate a universal story but are located in a specific cultural and geographical context of a semi-urban space.

A low-budget film, Bobby Jasoos, reflects the cultural milieu of a conservative Muslim family that observes customary practices during Ramadan (fasting period) such as ‘roza’ and ‘sehri’—communally fasting and eating respectively. Bobby Jasoos strays away from one of typical Muslim characterizations such as a sidekick, a good hearted secondary character, a villain, or a national enemy. Scholars Chadha and Kavoori (2008) trace the trends in representation of the Muslim ‘other’ in Bombay cinema to three stereotypes which are absent in Bobby Jasoos: they are neither exoticized nor marginalized nor demonized. In other words, this film has no completely dark characters as most of them are different shades of grey.

The representation of the Muslim community is far from being exotic though in the second song and dance sequence, which is the only romantic rupture of the narrative, there is a loose acknowledgement of the old world and the tradition of Muslim social films. Tasawur realizes his feelings for Bilkis and imagines being with her. Unlike the rest of the narrative, she is dressed in a traditional feminine look found in Muslim socials (began in 1930s, flourished in 1950s & 1960s and lasted till the early 1980s) with makeup, hairdo, extravagant clothes, bejeweled and expressive face and subtle body gestures. He desires her and she teases him by letting him come close but running away from him. This representation of romance is reminiscent of films of yesteryear. There is nostalgia embedded in the mise-en-scene and cinematography of this particular song and dance sequence which transports the viewer to outdoor locations (location filming at Golconda Fort, Hyderabad) with old grandeur of the Islamic State reflected in the backdrop of ancient architecture, traditional costumes, soothing lyrics, unfolding romance and polished mannerisms of the characters.[30]

But the narrative is less similar and more dissimilar from tradition of Muslim socials, which is a contentious term in itself.[31] The common thread is the focus on the Muslim community and location filming in the old Hyderabad with a sizeable Muslim population instead of its predecessor Lucknow as the favoured setting. Unlike the Muslim socials, Bobby Jasoos has less elaborate production values and mise-en-scene and uses colloquial language (Hyderabadi diction of Hindi) of the place. It steers clear from the sophisticated Urdu language, lifestyle of the upper class (Nawab) with its romantic relationships, and courtesans as the main narrative driver. Likewise, it doesn’t depict a cultural period of decadence of idealized world or predominantly portray the social issues plaguing the middle class Muslim community. Though it represents the middle class and through the petty cases that Bilkis solves, the film does reflect the fissures and deceptions in the community. Landscape as place and space (i.e. Hyderabad) is an integral part of the film Bobby Jasoos as it anchors and shapes the narrative. The plot constructs and negotiates the landscape, yet it is not a main character. This is unlike No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency which combines interior shots with exterior in a way that develops the landscape of Botswana as an important character that develops just as the female detective in the narrative, thereby lending deeper rootedness to No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in comparison to Bobby Jassos and its hardboiled and classic counterparts.

Screen characters, Precious and Bobby are clever though not highly educated, brave yet vulnerable, compassionate without being naïve, and possess traditional values but also have a liberal outlook. Their experiences are insightful and simultaneously entertaining. They are positive role models in mainstream media for those who are seeking to find their own voice. Like Bilkis Ahmed and Precious Ramotswe, Bobby Jasoos and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency are simple and straightforward stories that “reward our passion and appetite for mystery and thrillers without bringing all the concomitant rubbish of violence and cruelty,” (Michael Wines). Mr. Minghella said of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency that “it’s not about misanthropy in an ugly world [but] about venial sins in a good world” (Michael Wines).

Through their shared and disconnected borders with classic and hardboiled crime, Bobby Jasoos and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency reframe the detective sub-genre of the crime fiction genre by celebrating a tolerant and compassionate worldview. The narratives articulate and negotiate issues of gender and intergenerational relations, notions of traditional and modern, local and global sensibilities, conventions and ruptures of genre and its subgenre. They are examples of works that create a simultaneous sense of similarity (stability) and dissimilarity (movement), which are “recognizably part of a tradition but also one that reinvents itself in unexpected ways” (Horsley, 2005, p. 16). As a result, the genre itself is renewed in response to changing times.