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.

Opening credits of the TV series, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma Precious Ramotswe with a cup of tea in her hand in her office, the visual sequence is interlaced with traditional Botswana music. She proudly points towards Botswana on the map of African continent. Her office is situated at the Kgale Hill marketplace, which overlooks the busy and modern city of Gaborone.

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 [open endnotes in new window] 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.

Precious with her client (Mrs. Curtin) from United States. They are visiting an ex-commune site in Botswana’s countryside looking for clues to the mystery of the client's missing son. Inside a debilitated shelter (used as a dispensary for rural patients), they find a newspaper clipping, a group photograph that gives a leading clue – it shows the closeness between Mrs. Curtin’s son, Michael Curtin and a lady. With help from an elderly tracker, Precious finds the place in the ex-commune site where Michael Curtin was improperly buried.

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).”

Bobby Jasoos: In a local café, Bobby meets different types of clients who expect her to solve petty domestic cases (dealing with intergenerational and marital distrust) that pay her bills but do not satisfy her professionally.

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.

Bobby, aware of Lala’s (a local goon's) reputation for violence, sets up a meeting in a public place. Through his assistant, he expects Bobby to walk up to him but has to relent under Bobby’s pressure. Resentful Lala pays Bobby a huge sum that will pay her bills and an amount unaffordable for Afreen’s mother who was her original client. In exchange, Bobby gives him the mobile-captured photos in a pen drive and promises to keep his affair with Afreen a secret.

Missing people is a common ingredient of many 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.

Precious negotiates with Charlie Gusto in a cake shop at Kgale Hill market place. In exchange for a bag of muti hidden in the cake, Precious gets an important address. Since Charlie eats a bit of the cake, Precious makes sure he pays for it.

Precious is in a vulnerable moment as Charlie threatens to harm people whom she cares for.
Following on a basic map drawn by Charlie, Precious drives through the barren and isolated countryside to reach the house of the people involved in the witchcraft. Precious reassures the boy who went missing. She is relieved to see that his fingers are unharmed. In the meanwhile, the lady who brought her to the cattle post runs away for fear of being caught by the police.

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.