The dingy entrance to Globe Detective Agency could not be more deceptive. The dusty exterior and crumbling staircases don't prepare the eye for the clinical shop floor, with agents hurriedly typing away reports and answering frantic phone calls from clients, sitting in their air-conditioned glass cubicles.
Globe was set-up in 1961 by Captain Premkumar, an army officer, who moved to the UK and later returned to India to set up a chain of private investigating agencies in the country.
The first agency was set up by him in Delhi, and he called it International Detective Agency. A few years later, he rechristened his business to Globe Detective Agency and started a branch in Kolkata, before opening one in Chennai.
Managing the Chennai operations now is an imposing Commander Jagadeesan, who was previously with the Indian Navy. He heads a team of nearly 100 people at their Mount Road office, picking up his phone to give brief orders to his operatives. “I guess this part is what is most interesting to people,” he smiles.
If you think detectives should look as distinct as Arthur Conan Doyle’s most memorable character or as strapping as Benedict Cumberbatch, you're far removed from what these agencies look for. “They have to slip into any setting, they have to be ordinary. If a 6-foot-tall man were to apply for the job, we'd reject him. What's the point if the detective himself is so noticeable?” laughs Commander Jagadeesan.
While the agencies claim that they only look for above average IQs from potential recruits, most in the business have a background in criminology or law enforcement. This also remains a viable career prospect for those who have legal knowledge. The training ranges from practical classes to an on-the-field apprenticeship with senior investigators.
Now, with the glamour stripped away, what does a detective really do?
“Well, you need to wait and watch. This is not a movie. One fact amiss and we could ruin lives. It is a huge responsibility, so we need to get our facts right and only report what we observe. That could mean anywhere between two weeks to six months per case,” says Commander Jagadeesan. Anticipating what I’m going to say next, he helpfully mentions that films are sped up versions of reality.
Police vs detective?
With the law enforcement having more teeth now and the advent of pervasive social media, why do some people prefer detectives over the police?
Manimaran of Star Detective says, “The uniform doesn't always do the trick. If there is a pre-marital or post-marital suspicion, the police can't do much about it.”
Amudha, one of the few women in the business, runs Major Detective Agency. While she always dreamt of being a journalist, she was married young and gave up on her dream due to personal reasons. Many years later, she decided to be a detective and, later, turned entrepreneur, after heading investigations at Globe.
She says women who have suspicions are often unsure about what to do. “They feel free in their interaction with us. There are some things they cannot tell a police officer, especially if he is a man. So they are comfortable with us,” says she.
“What may be significant to you may be a minor issue for the police,” says Commander Jagadeesan.
Well, doesn’t that fall in the grey zone both legally and ethically?
Commander Jagadeesan points out that what they do is strictly legal. “We employ a wide range of discreet methods by which we make our enquiries. We either conduct surveys or we observe persons. And we follow them and collect details only from public places. Anyone can do what we do,” he says.
In fact, the detectives have become so efficient at what they do that they frequently receive tip-offs from the police (and that is where I found my one similarity between fact and fiction).
Amudha says they are okay with the police taking the credit and making headlines. “It's our job not to make it to the newspapers,” she says.
While detectives admit that they have seen a rise in what they call pre-matrimonial and post-matrimonial cases, they have also diversified their businesses.
According to Amudha, “A pre-matrimonial report of the prospective bride or groom is now budgeted as part of the wedding.”
While a day's worth of following a ‘subject’ could cost you up to Rs 10, 000 a day, a pre-matrimonial package could range anywhere between Rs 15,000 and Rs 25,000. The others are usually decided on a case-by-case basis.
These agencies, however, run parallel verticals, such as security services, assets verification, employment verification, etc. Commander Jagadeesan says, “We call this the fifth pillar. Our employees would also work undercover in large factories where thefts are reported.” Sometimes, this service is also used by the owners to identify anti-management feelings.
Social media has also made their work much easier, since they enjoy the cooperation of their clients who are known to the subjects in most cases.
Amudha cautions that in addition to interest, the job demands absolute honesty. She recounts the tale of a pre-matrimonial report asked of her. “After we had sent the report, which was positive, the father of the bride, who didn't like the groom, demanded a biased report. We sent attested copies that could not be tampered with and asked him to leave.”
High risk mix of work and ethics
Manimaran was staring down the barrel of a gun in the hands of a high-ranking police officer. He had just confirmed the officer's wife’s suspicions that her husband was having an affair.
While Manimaran managed to escape unhurt after much bargaining, he points out that job satisfaction for people in his field comes at a personal cost. “When clients use our reports as evidence in court, we end up making enemies. It becomes stressful because the accused party wants to know where all the information came from,” he says.
The more familiar these agencies become and the more they rub shoulders with politicians and police officers, the more trouble this creates for detectives.
Work also takes these detectives far and wide. While uncovering the case of a thievery in the house of a popular Tamil actress, Amudha’s detectives followed a 'subject’ all the way to Guntur. These additional costs are covered by the client.
However, each organisation has its own clearly defined ethical code. For example, Amudha doesn't take up missing cases as a policy. Globe doesn't work with clients for whom price is a problem.
The one thing they all 100% ensure is client privacy. For example, a field operative often doesn't know who he is following and why. Dummy numbers are assigned to the 'subjects’ they follow with codified reports, which then make their way back to the client. In fact, Amudha signs on every page of reports just to be sure her reports are not tampered with.