It has been over two weeks since a hashtag calling for justice for Jayaraj and Bennix showed up on our feeds. The chilling details of a minor infraction, multiple eye-witness accounts of custodial torture, bloodied veshtis and the subsequent deaths of a father and son in Thoothukudi have managed to slice through the thick daze of a population shell-shocked by the pandemic and led to an outpouring of protest. Close on the heels of the murder of George Floyd and the blatant misuse of power that was on display during the recent Delhi riots, India is witnessing what feels like a definitive turning point in a timeline filled with instances of police brutality.
But one of the unfortunate side effects of national outrage is that there comes a moment where everyone's favourite punching bag i.e. cinema (Pakistan comes a close second) is ceremonially trotted out and blamed. No matter what the crime, the nation's outrage compass invariable points north to one entity; Bollywood and its mainstream cohorts.
This is not a defence of Chulbul Pandey or RSU (Rohit Shetty's 'S'inematic Universe). Mainstream cinema does exert tremendous power on public imagination in India. But to flatten that relationship to a simple cause and effect model is so simplistic that it makes Sangram Bhalerao look like Tyler Durden. The problem with blaming an upcoming release like Sooryavanshi and revelling in an apology by filmmaker Hari (whose brainchild the original Singham was) is that it is a bit like burning an Oppo phone to protest Chinese incursion and then tweeting about it from Redmi phone. Empty symbolism coupled with a wilful blindness about the actual issue at hand.
The other thing is that the superhero cop and his brand of vigilante justice and toxic masculinity is only one of the many ways that cinema has portrayed the police. If you want to step away from the Vijay-Iftekhar-Chulbul axis of Bollywood, here are 5 films that have taken an unflinching look at police violence.
Director: Govind Nihalani
It is some cause for concern that even though it has been 37 years since Ardh Satya released, it still remains the most powerful Indian film about a conflicted cop navigating an overwhelming corrupt system. Om Puri's portrayal of Anant Velankar remains an unsurpassed character study of a good cop turning bad. The scene where Om Puri recites the poem which gives the film its name is proof that there is no expiry date on goose-bumps.
Streaming now on Zee5
Director: Vetri Maaran
Tackling two major issues of urban migration and police violence, Visaranai makes a strong case for how easily and violently the marginalised get screwed over by a corrupt system. Vetri Maaran presents us with four almost anonymous characters who are immediately branded as criminals without any due process. Long after the film ends, what will stay with you are the sounds from the scenes in the lockup where they are brutally beaten. If it all feels a little too surreal, remember that it is based on a novel by Lock-up by M Chandrakumar which in turn was inspired by his first-hand experience of police atrocity when he was picked up on a wrong charge and jailed for two weeks.
Visaranai is streaming on Netflix
Director: Shaji Karun
This is not a 'cop movie' but it is one of the most gut-wrenching films about a custodial death out of India. Inspired by the real life case of an engineering student P. Rajan who was picked up on suspicion of being a Naxalite and then went missing, Piravi is a gut-wrenching look at the aftermath of police brutality. Only a few scenes in the entire film are set inside a police headquarters but the consequences of their actions is writ large upon this film and on the unforgettable face of actor Premji who plays a father in constant wait of a son who we know will never come back.
Shaji Karun's debut feature won a Camera d'or Special Mention at the Cannes Film Festival back in 1989 but it's hard to watch it even today and not end up feeling a pang for a phantom child. There is a passable print of the film with German subtitles up on YouTube. Do watch it in whichever form you can.
(Fun fact is that Google mistakenly identifies the lead actor Premji as billionaire Azim Premji, which we can assure you, is not the case)
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
This black-and-white tour de force follows three hustlers living in the French projects over a day after riots have broken out in the area. It's been called a French Do The Right Thing, but that's doing two great films an equal disservice. Kassovitz started writing the film the day of the killing of Makomé M'Bowole who was shot point blank by a police officer in Paris in 1993. He was also propelled by the death of Malik Oussekine, a student protestor who died as a result of being beaten up the police in 1986. La Haine remains explosive, much like the Molotov cocktail that lights up onscreen in its opening credits.
*Can be watched unofficially on Youtube
Director: Ryan Coogler
Like La Haine, Fruitvale Station also opens with real footage of the murder of Oscar Grant before pivoting to fiction and imagining a day in the life of the victim who was mistakenly gunned down on New Year's day by a white police officer at Fruitvale Station in Oakland California. The incident was shot on mobile phones which went viral and provoked a wave of protests. Sounds familiar? The parallels to George Floyd are all too evident. The film also features a breakthrough performance by Michael B. Jordan who imbues Oscar Grant with such humanity that at points you feel like you are watching a documentary.
Streaming now on Netflix.