Over the past decade, Rohit Shetty has crafted a distinctive cop universe (copverse) centred around the iconic figure of the "hero cop”, with flying cars and brick walls that are often the casualties of the slo-mo entry shot. Shetty's hero cops are prominently portrayed by a restrained and seething Ajay Devgn; the “Khiladi” of Bollywood Akshay Kumar; the buoyant Ranveer Singh with his charm offensive, and now the broody, and dwelling Sidharth Malhotra. These characters not only entertain the audience with their daredevil stunts and intense action sequences but also embody a sense of righteousness that has a populist resonance. The stylized portrayal of cops in Shetty's films has contributed to the creation of an archetype – the "heart-in-the-right-place" cop who not only upholds the law, but does so with plenty of charisma.
The hero cop in Shetty's universe is not just a law enforcer — he often finds ways to bypass it — instead, he is a symbol of hope and justice in a world often plagued by corruption and crime. The copverse persistently glorifies men’s audacity to flout the rules they guard, while presenting a critique of the existing system which warrants this. But this audacity, which can hinge on entitlement, isn’t without its consequences.
Over the years, Shetty's hero cops have evolved in subtle ways, even if maximalism, and not subtlety, has traditionally been the director's forte. Initially, Shetty's cop was an almost invincible man of steel, with an unwavering commitment to justice, acted upon with a black-and-white view of the world. In Singham (2011), Bajirao Singham played by Ajay Devgn was a quintessential "super cop" who single-handedly took on the corrupt elements in society (goons, politicians, bikers), and also fought bad guys by the bunch by not only yanking them by their arms, but also sending them flying out as a group with his herculean upper-body strength. He is committed to assisting everyone, whether it's individuals struggling with loan repayments or children participating in races despite having fractured legs. He practises a universal altruism that aims not only to help the "deserving" but to remind us that everyone is deserving of help.
Bajirao, as a dedicated police officer, prioritises efficiency over strictly adhering to due process. He believes that following the letter of the law often leads to significant delays. Justice delayed is justice denied especially when it comes to the people of Shivgarh (Bajirao’s hometown), which is why he fast tracks all the matters, cuts through the red tape and beats people up himself — all in a day's work, no less.
Sherlock Holmes popularly said, “The law is what we live with, Inspector. Justice is sometimes harder to achieve.” In the subsequent film, Singham Returns (2014) Bajirao is given a more realistic dimension. A tougher battle which isn’t limited to just one bad apple, and unravels the internal struggles and moral dilemmas that come with the badge. In the climax of the film he has to remove his uniform to exact revenge because he cannot get justice within the confines of his role. Singham, then, ceases to be just a police officer — he becomes a man who is more than his badge, a citizen who is grappling with the complexities, and limitations, of pursuing justice in an imperfect system.
Lest you were to think that Shetty only believes in pointing fingers at the system, he made Simmba in 2018. Simmba (Ranveer Singh) is very much a part of the problem. He is a corrupt cop who liberally takes bribes, enables the impunity of those who disregard the law, and seems to abuse his powers as a police officer. However, he undergoes a significant transformation after experiencing personal loss, when a woman he admires is sexually assaulted, and succumbs to her injuries. This leads to a more profound understanding of morality and duty when he is asked to sweep this under the rug by his superior, much like what he has been doing until that point.
In Sooryavanshi (2021) Surya’s (Akshay Kumar) sense of "duty" often takes precedence over his personal life, and shows a more complicated morality. His heroism, much like Bajirao and Simmba, seems to override the constraints of the law. Surya's actions put his family at risk — a misguided understanding of utilitarianism causes him to often act recklessly upon emotional impulses rather than from a level-headed space.
This tendency is also apparent in Kabir Malik (Sidharth Malhotra) in Indian Police Force. From the outset, Kabir is portrayed as a passionate and hot-headed patriot. His charm is supposed to lie in his readiness to beat up suspects and disobey direct orders. One could argue that there’s always immediate punishment for his heroes’ transgressions — a transfer, a promotion that works to hinder their personal goals, or losing someone important to them — if it wasn't obvious that these disciplinary responses are vilified.
Shetty's storytelling involves a common theme among his heroes — each must confront the loss of someone significant, like, for Simmba it’s Aakruti; for Surya it is Constable Tambe, his colleague whose death he blames himself for. It is what forces them to expose their vulnerabilities. Despite witnessing the repercussions of their choices, like Simmba who realises his error in letting questionable actions off the hook, these hyper-masculine figures remain resolute in working outside the established system, not even pausing to consider that it was this very impulse that led them to the present, unfortunate predicament. While it is true that they work within situations which makes it untenable for them to reach swift justice, these cops are also concerningly on the verge of conflating entitlement with righteous critical thinking regarding the system they are a part of.
It doesn’t help that Shetty consistently paints his antagonists with a one-dimensional, dark brush. This deliberate characterisation ensures that, regardless of the circumstances, audiences tend to align with the actions of the hero. While the actions of characters like Simmba, Surya or Kabir may be morally ambiguous, Shetty crafts their behaviours to be easily digestible and forgivable — a harmless bribe, a lapse in judgement, a weak moment leading them to rough up suspects who were culpable in murdering a close one — striking a balance with the moral ambiguity that remains palatable to a large audience.
The problem isn’t that Shetty’s hero cops think they are beyond the law, the problem is that there is very little accountability for the brutality, which feels unnerving. The consequences are minimal and temporary, forgiveness is inevitable. Hindi cinema’s representation of police officers has long been shrouded in stereotypes that has painted them as inept, tardy, and often corrupt. Shetty’s crusade is admittedly determined to overturn these ingrained perceptions and transform the portrayal of cops into symbols of valour, sacrifice, and respect.
At one point in Indian Police Force, when Kabir has to do something dangerous and downright illegal, his superior subtly greenlights it. The boss has also made many reckless calls in his heyday. “Sorry bol diya tha, tum bhi bol dena. Phir sambhaal lenge (I had apologised, you will also apologise. We’ll handle it.)” In Shetty's copverse, the heroic law enforcement officers adhere to a common framework marked by a saviour complex driven by their entitlement and compassion, a discerning dose of the system’s limitations, anger issues, and a lot of style. Despite Shetty's attempts to inject diversity into his initial concept of the hero cop, they ultimately manifest as colour-coded variations within a predictable formula. The core morality remains unaltered, unresolved issues persist, and the narratives become jarring due to their foreseeability. One is left with a nagging persistence to discern what is the distinction between a hero cop and a cop who simply wants to be a hero.