copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

Breaking the glass ceiling: women detectives in the Bombay-based fictional film Bobby Jasoos and in the British fictional TV series The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

by Sonika Jain

In English literature, the crime story, “far from being a somewhat sleazy black-sheep cousin belatedly admitted to the house of fiction by a side door […] has some claim to have driven the main structural transformations of narrative for (at least) the last half-century” (Priestman, 2003, p. 6). The film entitled Bobby Jasoos and the English novels and TV series entitled The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency raise the status of crime genre to a sophisticated member of the house of fiction. Both the narratives are contemporary interpretation of detective fiction, a sub-genre of crime fiction. Bobby Jasoos and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency share less with other sub-genres of crime fiction namely, “the non-investigative crime novel (centered on transgressors or victims) and the ‘mixed’ form of the police procedural” (Horsley, 2005, p. vi). Both the narratives are informed by the classic[1] (1880s onwards) and the hard-boiled [2] (1920s onwards) strands of detective fiction but they also reimagine the traditional boundaries in refreshing ways. The genre of detective fiction is not a fixed terminology as it has undergone constant innovations whilst somewhat holding on to a widely understood set of conventions of a satisfying mystery story. Thus the genre is reconfigured with the “shifting socio-political [economic] circumstances and the dominant anxieties and preoccupations of different periods” (Horsley, 2005, p. 5). Bobby Jasoos and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency are rooted in a specific geography and cultural landscape.

Bobby Jasoos and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency are character driven stories where the characters are rooted in their complex milieu and converse in the colloquial language. The characters interact with the space and in turn it shapes their identities. Thus landscape becomes an important character of the story especially in The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

My essay will explore the broader contexts and specific undercurrents which shape the narratives of Bobby Jasoos, a Bollywood film, 122 minutes (approx.) and the British TV series The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, 6 episodes of 60 minutes each. While The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency could not be made beyond 6 episodes and Bobby Jasoos was unsuccessful at the box office yet their contribution to story-telling cannot be either neglected or undermined.

While two continents of Asia and Africa separate these stories yet they echo more than they diverge from each other, as will become clear in the essay. The central characters share in common a sense of respect for cherished human values, belong to humble backgrounds, love their land and know their people.  They are determined to be successful in their unconventional professions and personal lives despite the pressures and challenges they face. They resist the ‘inherent maleness’ of the profession and the detective genre in which detection would seem an ‘unsuitable job for a woman’ (Horsley, 2005, pp. 245-246).

Historical legacy of women detectives

 “Until quite recently, the story of the development of crime fiction writing was most commonly told as a movement from man to man, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe, then Arthur Conan Doyle, followed by Dashiell Hammett and so on” (Reddy, 2003, p. 191).

Female detectives Bilkis Ahmed and Precious Ramotswe function in times that are very different from the early period of detective fiction where writers (male and female) created predominantly male detectives and a few created well-sketched women sleuths. It was commonly held that women, both writers and detectives “appeared, seeming from nowhere, first in the golden age[6] and then again with the rise of feminist crime fiction” (Reddy, 2003, p. 191), coinciding with the feminist movement.

“[This] distorted and partial history began to undergo revision in the late 1980s […and] it is now widely acknowledged that the woman writer and the woman detective have as long a history in crime fiction as do their male counterparts” (Reddy, 2003, p.191).

As will be clear in the essay, the female characters Precious Ramotswe and Bilkis Ahmed are a departure from early examples (during the period of 1890s-1950s) of male writers sketching cartoonish roles for female detectives or making them as “nosy spinsters or the helpmates of male detectives” (Reddy, 2003, p.193). [7]  While the narratives commence with Precious and Bilkis being single and on the ‘wrong side’ of the marriageable age, the situation changes as the narratives progress. They are neither cartoonish nor helpmates of the male detectives. As the protagonist, Bilkis assumes cartoonish roles to comment on conventions of the male detective genre and her own inadequacies as an amateur detective.

“The rise of hardboiled fiction in the 1920s in the United States and its eventual dominance in critical opinion ensured that female detectives would be relegated to the ranks of amateurs and seen as marginal in the development of the crime fiction genre [during that period]” (Reddy, 2003, p. 193).[8]

Precious and Bilkis commence their career as amateurs with no formal training underway but they refine their abilities with each case and by the end of the narratives, they are seasoned professionals. Re-reading of "British writer Agatha Christie’s female detective Jane Marple (1920s onwards) shows the richness of the ‘nosy spinster’ character who left her legacy for later writers." (Reddy,2003, pp. 193-195) It is another research exercise to examine Ms. Marple in relation to Bilkis Ahmed and Precious Ramotswe. But briefly speaking, Jane, Precious and Bilkis share certain traits of a female detective — singlehood, independence, close observation, perceptiveness, solving domestic crimes, and confined sphere of action.[9] The striking difference is that Bilkis and Precious have professional acceptance that Ms. Marple never had—“the police found her to be an old pussy and she never got credit for solving cases” (Reddy, 2003, p. 193)—a reflection of the times in which these characters were developed. Yet, all three of them are strong women detectives in their own right. These narratives should be read as not merely solving of mysterious cases but human interest stories exploring the nuances of human behavior within specific temporal-spatial conditions.

Shared borders with the classical and hard-boiled detective traditions

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Bobby Jasoos have in common with the classic detective tradition the fact that the “reader’s attention is focused on the process by which a brilliant or at least uncommonly perceptive detective solves a case so intricate and puzzling that ordinary minds are baffled. The detective’s solution brings a satisfying sense of completion and closure” (Horsley, 2005, p. 12). The female detectives have keen perception combined with intuition in the sense that they can see, hear and feel in a way that most people, including their male predecessors, wouldn’t.

In an episode, The Boy with an African Heart, Precious visits an ex-commune site with her client, Mrs. Curtin, whose son is missing for years. Precious can sense that there is something in the premises. An elderly tracker leads her to an exact place where the body of Michael Curtin was improperly buried. Detectives take note of evidence consisting of “obvious signs” and combine them with “clues that are over-looked or dismissed as irrelevant by others” (Horsley, 2005, p. 26). In the same place, Precious finds a hand carving on a wooden log, signs of extinguished fire and an old group photograph of the members of the commune. After completing the investigation, she comes to the conclusion that the missing son’s wife and child had visited the site and carved the log with his name. She shares with the classic detective the ability to solve cases by combining clues and evidence.

Bilkis and Precious are smart though they are not well-educated in the sense that they have “the sort of true grit and clear-eyed pragmatism that readers of more hard-boiled fare will instantly recognize” (Kevin Burton Smith). In the feature-length pilot episode, a client asks Precious to bring her solid proof that her husband was unfaithful to her. Precious meets the husband in the bar, they go to her house, she pretends to be interested in him while taking pictures of them getting close. She shows the evidence (pictures) to prove her client’s suspicion correct. She solves the case successfully with her pragmatism but loses her professional fees by annoying her client. Bilkis and Precious possess capacity for inductive and deductive reasoning which is shared with their classic predecessor such as Sherlock Holmes but they do not seem to have great affinity for science as Holmes.

The inductive part of this procedure involves the “drawing of inferences from observed facts and particulars [that] is a potential cause of indeterminacy” (Horsley, 2005, p. 24). As highly intelligent detectives, Holmes, Ahmed, and Ramotswe have

“the ability to form a theory rapidly about the way in which facts are connected and to construct a chain of reasoning that leads from this theory to […] conclusion. It is this deductive process that in the end produces determinate meaning” (Horsley, 2005, p. 24).

Inductive and deductive reasoning is combined all the time—in a case every Friday at 2pm in the hospital ward, an old patient dies. A junior Zimbabwean doctor who is at risk of losing his job approaches Precious to investigate the matter. There are many possibilities for potential cause of the death but Precious and her assistant Grace eliminate all but one. They find out that every Friday at 2pm, the cleaner plugs a vacuum cleaner in the same socket which connects all the wires and machines supporting the old patient. The plugs are disconnected and the patient dies.  Precious negotiates in such a way with the senior doctor that the junior doctor and the cleaner are protected in their jobs and newer patients do not die in the same bed for the same reasons—combining compassion with pragmatism.

Precious and Bobby are tenacious, self-reliant and trained to deal with the harshness of life as much as their male counterparts. They can cope with dangerous people and difficult situations such as threat, physical danger and violence that is part and parcel of sleuthing, bringing them in line with their male detectives. However, they are not “tough” in terms of embracing or perpetuating violence. Unlike Precious, Bilkis tends towards the cynical (so-called “tough”) attitude towards one's own emotions, which takes an extreme form for the hardboiled detective. Precious and Bobby solve occasional cases involving threat, physical danger and violence. Scholar Horsley argues (2005, p.19) that

“[…] the convoluted crimes central to the [classic] tradition is not just a formal requirement (permitting the exercise of the detective’s solving intelligence).”

In fact, underneath the differences of cases and approaches of female and male detectives, lies a shared probing of the “elaborate deceptions of a sophisticated society” (p. 19). In Bobby Jasoos and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the cases reflect the hidden tensions beneath the surface of the transitional culture of Hyderabad and Gaborone where instability in identities of people plays out in their domestic problems. Bobby solves more cases of intergenerational distrust while Precious encounters several cases of infidelity and familial mistrust. In a case, Precious disguises as her influential client’s secretary to investigate the reason for a family falling sick after having food. Her cover is blown as soon as she enters the family home. After having dinner, everyone including Precious has an upset stomach. The phone lines are disrupted. In the morning, she is served two separate sets of tea. Precious brings the family and the cook on the same table and reveals the truth. The younger brother is jealous of elder brother’s success and is disrespected by his wife and elder brother. He gets into smuggling in order to earn quick money and become as powerful as his brother. Poison is added to the dinner and morning tea by the younger brother and his wife hoping that the cook will be blamed as he went scot-free in his first attempt of poisoning the family many days ago. Precious raises the fees (most of which is donated to an orphanage) for risking her life. Emphasis on characteristics of reasoning, perception, clues and evidence, courage and ability to solve deception points towards the “connection with an identifiable tradition” (Reddy, 2003, p.199). However, Bobby and Precious are also uniquely different from the classic and hardboiled detectives.

Departure from the classic and hard-boiled detective traditions

Comparing points of resonance and departure is not an easy task as the male detective tradition is not a homogenous one because of the existence of a range of characterizations that vary from cynical and violent to an oversimplified image of an all-solving and smooth functioning private eye to "Agatha Christie-style feminized tradition” (Horsley, 2005, p. 7). Moreover, fiction writing is read differently by each reader according to their context and sensibilities. Yet as Horsley (2005) says, detective fiction—classic and hardboiled is identified with predominantly white, middle class, heterosexual “male values and roles” (p. vi). In comparison, Bobby Jasoos and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency are non-white, non-middle class, female heterosexual characters. As Horsley (2005, p. 28) points out the classic detective occupies a “liminal” position compared to the hard-boiled private eye though he is “less implicated in (and less threatened by) the underlying disorder of contemporary society”. McCracken (as cited by Horsley, 2005) stresses that the character of classic detective explores a variety of “subversive identities which reflect the different facets of contemporary anxiety within an individual” (p. 31). As Horsley (2005) suggests, Holmes’ conflicting tendencies are apparent in the way he is a “melancholic and drug-taking bohemian aesthete” but equally he is an “energetic exemplar of intellectual power” (p. 31). Bilkis and Precious combine intuitive and rational traits without being an intellectual giant. They are creative problem solvers and logical thinkers as Holmes. They share a strong sense of intuition with Holmes and Marple but they are far from melancholic or bohemian nor are they gripped in addiction. They share a sense of adventure with the classic detective without suffering from mood swings or major inconsistencies. Their personalities (especially Precious) are grounded but not fixed.

Bobby Jasoos and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency are very different from the mainstream detective novels as they offer specific gendered and cultural inflections to the genre. The female detectives handle cases dealing with small-scale, intimate crimes and dishonesty in human relationships. The narrative trajectories shift the focus from the crime itself to the investigation (Priestman, 2003, p. 4). Precious settles her cases, assisted by her female assistant Grace Makutsi using observation, understanding, tact and talking to different people involved in the case. Bilkis, on the other hand, bends towards experimentation and verification of her premises by deliberately setting herself up in situations supported by a motley crew of local men of her neighborhood—a tea shop assistant, an internet café owner and a techie young boy.

Bilkis and Precious solve petty cases of human weaknesses and sometimes bigger ones too, bringing reconciliation for the clients and some sort of financial rewards. Cases involving murders were a central driver for the stories of golden age of detective fiction. In The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the cases deal with domestic infidelity, professional malpractice, insurance fraud, negligence, missing animals, missing people (living and dead), smuggling, witch craft, burglary, attack by wild animals and intergeneration conflict, among others. In Bobby Jasoos, Bilkis solves cases that range from parents spying on their deviant adult progenies, a client getting rid of marriage proposals brought to him by his parents, missing people, and illicit affairs of married and unmarried. Her cases take on troubled social and filial relationships.

In a case, Bilkis is hired by Saida, a mother to spy on her marriageable daughter (Afreen) whom she suspects is having a secret affair with someone. Through Afreen, Bilkis negotiates a very high price with Lala (a local gangster) for keeping their affair a secret. She is not afraid of Lala, who is a terror in the whole community. She handles her cases with a presence of mind though she carries a general angst which spills into rough handling of people.

Missing people is a common ingredient of detective plots, but the cinematic treatment determines how the conventions of the genre are repeated or pushed to new levels. They both solve cases where someone is missing. Bilkis and Precious handle them in ways that is different from not only their male counterparts but also from each other.

In a case, Precious hears of a boy missing. Through JLB Matekoni, she finds a bag of muti containing material for black magic in a car in his garage. Precious devices a plot to reach the owner of the car, Charlie Gotso, who would not risk losing his belongings. Without involving the police or weapons, she manages to return the bag to Charlie (a dangerous criminal) and in exchange gets the address of a man who uses the limbs of young children for witchcraft. No one could dare speak to Charlie Gusto in a public place and negotiate the way she could. Both Precious and Bilkis can handle criminals but Precious can be vulnerable in a few moments while handling them especially if she risks those dear to her.

Bobby is younger and closer to hardboiled detective in terms of range of emotions, so her vulnerability remains unexpressed. Precious drives alone, deep into the countryside, stretching into Kalahari Desert, without a companion or gadgets by her side. She reaches her destination to find that the concerned person is away but she scares his wife enough for her to lead Precious to a cattle post where the missing boy has been kept. The wife runs away into the wilderness while Precious reassures the frail boy. After an exhausting overnight journey, she reunites the missing boy with his father. This is a familiar suffering to her as she has suffered the loss of a newborn baby, but hasn’t hardened to others' suffering. Charlie Gusto is handed to the police and Precious solves the case on a suo motu basis. In her characteristic way, she’s tough with problematic people and considerate with co-operative people who are assured of confidentiality.

As a female African character, Precious resonates with other black female detectives created by black women writers. Christian’s study (as cited in Horsley, 2005) shows that black female detectives “subvert two of the most common stereotypes in white Southern literature, the mammy or Aunt Jemima figure (black, fat, nurturing, kind, strong) and the concubine” (p. 235). Precious is “black, fat, kind and strong” but she is far from a mammy or Aunt Jemina character as she has the agency to meaningfully negotiate the course of her life and the lives of those around her.

In Bobby Jasoos, a wealthy Muslim NRI, Anees Khan hires the services of Bilkis to find three missing people. Bilkis enters those spaces where she is likely to find them by becoming an insider. For instance, she disguises herself as a client in a beauty parlor, a bangle shop owner in a crowded market, a horoscope reader in the street corner and a student enrolled in English speaking classes. She eventually meets the first missing person (Nilofer) in the English classes. Having learnt her lessons, to find the second person, she acquires a list and sends an invitation with new clothes to all the girls with the name Amna so that they can participate in a fake audition for a TV serial. Bilkis disguises herself as the superstitious owner of an entertainment channel and is successful in finding Amna.

The recurrence of certain types of domestic cases in each narrative points towards the wider social problems that the narrative seeks to explore.

“While the male-authored hardboiled novels repeatedly invoke a world whose corruption and decadence threaten to engulf us all, with the hero standing alone against the forces of evil” (Reddy, 2003, p. 198).

On the other hand, the world of the lady detectives is not so dark and solitary, as there is a sense of wisdom, compassion and community. When the narrative of Bobby Jasoos plants clues to implicate Bobby’s chief client-patron in the global sex-trade, suggesting a decadent world, this suggestion is subverted in the finale to reveal a different truth. It’s a genre specific narrative strategy that has prevailed in other detective plots as well. [10]  Anees Khan hires Bobby’s detective services not to abduct young girls but rather to reunite his family which was scattered by communal violence. The female detectives deal with deception, a form of corruption but not a completely dark one. It is presented as a form of selfishness, weakness, anxiety and mistake that can be forgiven.

In The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a butcher hires Precious’ services to investigate the truth about his family. With Grace’s assistance, she arrives at the truth that the butcher's wife is having an affair with a rich married man who is paying the expensive school fees for his son, who is actually a biological offspring of the rich man and not the butcher. She confirms the butcher’s suspicion but hides the son’s information. She is prepared to live with its uncomfortable consequences because she realizes that the married rich man will not have a second wife and the butcher will be devastated by losing his wife and son. She finds a way to maintain the status quo in her client’s life but also rendering her services to him. Precious says, “everyday our work brings marriages of deception, compromise, and convenience and perhaps I have added to that” (Episode # 4: Problems in Moral Philosophy). Despite the contradictions in people’s behavior, Precious believes in human relationships and manages to build and enjoy good friendships.

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 Bollywood 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.”

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.

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] 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 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.

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, starting and sustaining their small-time detective companies.

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 Mokot. 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.

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]

“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. As a consequence, the following changes in media production occurred:

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.


1. Classic detective tradition is also labelled as “analytic detective fiction, the ‘whodunit’, the mystery story, the clue-puzzle story, all refer in one way or another to the basic structure of the sub-genre––to its characteristic pattern of death–detection–explanation. […] Sherlock Holmes is, of course, the tradition’s best-known father figure, and he has a vast number of descendants, each giving his or her name to a different series of stories––the Father Brown stories, the Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey novels” (Horsley, 2005, p.12).

2. “The hard-boiled private eye’s self-conscious toughness and his aggressive involvement in his city’s criminal milieu gave him a very direct investment in the world he investigates” (Horsley, 2005, p. 67). Horsley’s study shows the writers of this subgenre offer a stiff response to the soft-boiled ‘feminized’ mysteries of the classic British tradition in terms of setting, language and gesture, plot structure, attitudes towards violence, the methods and motives of the murderer, the relationship between fiction and contemporary reality. “His [hardboiled detective] objective is to delineate a distinct form of detective fiction that he thinks is capable of capturing American experience in the early part of the twentieth century” (p. 79).

3. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency’s pilot (144minutes) was written and directed by Anthony Minghella who directed the much acclaimed The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and The English Patient (1996). It was broadcasted posthumously on BBC One (23 March 2008). The remaining episodes were written and directed by other directors.

4. In the film, Bilkis’ family is waiting for her to get married so that her younger sister can also get married.

5. Alexander McCall Smith is celebrating 16 years of writing the book series, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. The series has been translated into most of the major languages. 

6. “The inter-war period (1920s) sees the flourishing of golden age, British crime fiction, epitomized by writers as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and others. The mystery was set in the archetypal country house or London, crime within the restricted milieu of fashionable society. In either case, it took place in an exclusive setting. The enclosed community itself was the source of tensions, deceptions, betrayals, and death— this being the period during which murder came to be an essential part of the detective story. Numerous male writers contributed to the golden age (Anthony Berkeley [A. B. Cox], for example, together with U.S. imitators like John Dickson Carr, S. S. Van Dine, and Ellery Queen), and the detective figures themselves remain predominantly male. A period of highly stylized crime writing, it has also been labelled ‘cozy’, reflecting the preference for plots in which a comfortably recognizable pattern is acted out […]” (Horsley, 2005, pp. 37 &51).

7. “At the time, women were debarred from most law enforcement positions and were unlikely to be found working as private detectives; they thus are also debarred from the world of the fictional private eye” (Reddy, 2003, p. 193).

8. This stereotype began to change forever with Amanda Cross’s first Kate Fansler book, In the Last Analysis (1964). This series’ debut coincided with the beginning of the second wave of the feminist movement, marked in the United States by the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. (Reddy, 2003, p.195).

9. Ms. Jane Marple was “an elderly woman of independent means in the tiny village of St Mary Mead. She seldom got credit for the mysteries she solved by the police”. Unlike Precious and Bobby, she was a lifelong spinster and her “lifetime of nosiness—which might also be called close observation—constitutes her special power as a detective” (Reddy, 2003, p.193).

10. The narrative of Bobby Jasoos plays with the idea of misleading the viewer in keeping with “the nature of a genre in which it is particularly true that the art of narrative is the art of misleading. One of the main means of achieving retardation of the plot is, of course, the inclusion of various possible culprits […] as is the suspicious behavior of other characters” (Horsley, 2005, p. 26). In Bobby Jasoos, it’s the misplaced suspicion about the behavior of the chief-patron and client. Instead of finding Ali, in an unconventional manner, Bilkis gets suspicious of Khan’s motives and investigates her own client’s background to ensure that she’s not involved in anything unethical. Eventually, she finds Ali and also figures out Khan’s good intentions and clean background.

11. Bilkis, is a lower middle class woman and cannot drive. Her educated middle class counterparts will be more likely to have the opportunity to join the white collar workforce outside home and her upper middle class contemporaries will learn driving for other reasons. Bilkis represents the section of Indian society who do not have easy access to opportunities of a self-owned vehicle and a skill to use it.

12. Doyle created Sherlock Holmes and McCall Smith created Precious Ramotswe. Both writers are Scottish and trained in natural sciences. They both became important writers of popular detective fiction, though in different ways—one as a symbol of classic detective male genre and the other as a symbol of retaining some elements but refreshing it with gender and cultural nuances of post-globalized times.

13. “Even the woman Holmes most admires, Irene Adler, his equal in disguise and in logical thought, is not allowed to put her obvious gifts in the service of detection” (Reddy, 2003, p. 192).

14. “Independent, isolated male protagonists, whether of the Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade variety, may, of course, also have been orphaned at a tender age, but we do not really know—and this is the point [of difference]” (Horsley, 2005, p. 255).

15. She feels fortunate to have had a very supporting father who raised her well in absence of her mother and left his substantial wealth for her so she could live her life on her own terms. She was able to start her own detective agency in the city and buy a posh house from her inheritance.

16. With the exception of her breakthrough role as the eponymous Parineeta, Vidya Balan has been less compelling when portraying conventional romantic protagonists (Bose, 2014, p.398).

17. In the TV series, Precious declines JLB Matekoni’s marriage proposal a few times before agreeing to it. She gently refuses the first time. Next time, they are interrupted by a client and the third time Precious is actively involved in both pronouncing and accepting JLB’s proposal. In the novel, Precious declines once and then accepts the second time. While she wonders when a day for the wedding will be named, but she never puts pressure on her fiancé. These are creative differences between the written text and adaptation for audio-visual media. The important aspect is that the essence of the narrative is respected in the TV series.

18. Precious liberally indulges in homemade cakes, African bush tea, doughnuts and spending time with traditionally built ladies and thinks very little of those women who are desperate to become size zero. Precious has dieted once in the entire book series, only to give up for a fruit cake and bush tea.

19. Acting with her eyes is unlike her contemporaries, but very similar to her predecessors of parallel cinema and black and white cinema of the 1950s such as actress Waheeda Rehman in director Guru Dutt’s films.

20. Balan is not the only star who has to handle her physical appearance carefully amidst lot of criticism, rising male star Nawazuddin Siddiqui has revealed the prejudices he faced due to physical appearance which denied him opportunities to showcase his acting talent.

21. Vidya Balan (aged 37 years) of Tamilian descent, was raised in the metropolis of Mumbai. Prior to her generation, some of the most successful actresses of the 70s-90s were also Tamilian but they migrated from Southern India. Balan shares her body type with these actresses such as Rekha, Sridevi, Hema Malini and Jayaprada and others. In those days, their voluptuous bodies coincided with the idea of ideal femininity. In Balan’s film Dirty Picture, she plays a sexy South Indian actress of yesteryears.

22. In films such as Kismet Konnection, Balan was awkward, self-conscious and clad in western wear, which according to fashion experts did not suit her body type” (Bose, 2014, p. 398).

23. She also symbolizes the small but growing band of outsiders (traditionally men) who are making it big in the industry which is controlled by certain families—for example Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Irfan, Anushka Sharma, Ranveer Singh, Randeep Hooda. They represent the possibilities that the corporatization of Bombay cinema offers.

24. In an interview about the film Byomkesh Bakshi, the director Dibakar Banerjee said that the character is an Indian answer to Sherlock Holmes. It would be another research project to compare this film with Bobby Jasoos and The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

25. Though, after her international presence, Priyanka led the film Jai Gangaa Jal as a female cop with no frills and glamour element. But Balan has not taken the same path when she was a newcomer nor as a veteran.

26. But Bilkis’ eyes are unlike the “poignant eyes of the traditional courtesan, transparent and loving eyes of the wife [and] desperate and manipulative eyes of the vamp” (Nijhawan, 2009, p. 107).

27. According to Anujan, D., Schaefer, D. J., & Karan, K. (2012, pp. 113-115) four roles have evolved in the cinematic representation of Indian woman: the traditional Hindu/Goddess Sita of 1950s, exemplified the ideal woman and wife; the marginalized Indian woman role, a relatively independent female character of 1960s who had violated the dominant patriarchal structure and, thus, suffered social stigma and personal anguish for transgressions; the Anglo-Indian role of the 1990s was a non-resident Indian, chaste, upper class liberated, hybridized female protagonist; and Westernized Indian role, after the turn of the millennium, as an educated, modern, socially adept, and sexy lady playing a central rather than secondary role. She is a role model for celebrating global mass culture and consumerism.

28. The government of Botswana sealed the deal to make “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” on location and not in a Johannesburg, contributing $5 million to finance it. In return, Botswana received not only the economic benefits of housing and servicing a major film but also hands-on training in moviemaking that officials hoped will sow the seeds of a film industry. Botswana is also counting on a tourism benefit from the film: The Kgale Hill set that includes Mma Ramotswe’s office is being preserved and will become part of a “The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” tour for those drawn to Botswana by Mr. Smith’s stories” (Michael Wines). They have also renamed the National Park in Gaborone after the author Alexander McCall Smith as it draws international tourists to the country.

29. “A lesser known fact is that the film also had an almost all-Hyderabadi cast. Sutradhar, a city theatre group, was approached for the casting of the film and had about 17 actors who got to act in a Bollywood venture, sharing screen space with Vidya Balan” (Sanchita Dash).

30. Muslim socials according to Chadha and Kavoori (2008, pp. 136-138) have certain features: the narrative is centered on the Muslim socials and issues related to it, limited terrain of lives of former aristocratic elites of Northern State of Awadh (Lucknow being the capital), subject matter was romantic relationships and family melodrama, Shairi (Urdu poetry), Qawwali (form of singing) and the Tawaif (courtesan), Tehzeeb (high culture), Adaab (formal manners), men in Sherwanis and women in Ghararas as ‘Muslim’ attire were the leitmotifs. Islamic architecture represented by domes, minarets and scalloped arches interspersed with glimpse of crescent moon acted as signifiers of the Islamic culture of South Asian subcontinent.

31. Director M.S. Sathyu who made Garam Hava (1973), called it [Muslim social] a skewed way to look at cinema. When there is no Hindu social or Christian social, how can there be a Muslim social" (Kumar, 2014).


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....... (2010) Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. London: Abacus.
....... (2011) The Double Comfort Safari Club. London: Abacus.
....... (2012) The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party. London: Abacus.
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