In Rohit Shetty's Simmba (2018), the titular cop, played by Ranveer Singh, asks a group of women what they think should be done to rapists. The responses are variations of "Unko maar dena chahiye/They don't deserve to live/Kaat dena chahiye/Unse jaan se maar dena chahiye." Singh turns, thumps his gun repeatedly as the music swells and declares: Encounter ki bohot cases suni hai na? Chal, aaj dekh bhi. Jab tak apan log tokhenge nahi, tab tak kuch badlega nahi. (You've heard of several encounter cases, now come see one. Until we eliminate them, nothing will change.)
Simmba's not the only Bollywood film that advocates vigilante justice. A recent report, 'Crime & Punishment in Indian Entertainment', by Civic Studios – a production house incubated at MIT Media Lab, USA – found out that as much as 37% of crimes depicted in Bollywood films released between 2016 and 2019 are vigilante killings. This was compared to murder (20%), kidnapping (11%) and rape (9%). It concluded that framing these killings, carried out by either public officials or the victim's family, as the only means of achieving justice promotes acceptance for them among audience members. If this sounds far-fetched, a follow-up study conducted Mumbai analytics and consulting firm Ormax media as part of the report found that 35% of Simmba viewers supported police vigilantism and fake encounters, as opposed to 25% of non-viewers. This could either mean that the film encouraged these ideas among the audience or that they already supported police vigilantism and were hence more likely to watch the film.
The report analyzed more than 30 mainstream Indian films, television shows, and web series of the crime and courtroom genre from 2016 to 2019. Its findings, released at Godrej Culture Lab, Vikhroli, on Friday, were similar to what Film Companion heard from police officials ahead of Simmba's release last year. "There's too much dhadaam dishoom in Hindi cop movies. In reality, you are only allowed to use necessary force to restrain someone or bring them under your control. None of the Bollywood police movies I've seen so far depict reality," police inspector Ramesh Mahale told us.
Among the key findings was that if the public perceives police institutions to be corrupt or inefficient, entertainment that reinforces this image is partly to blame. In the media analyzed, characters were mostly likely to use the term 'inefficient' while talking about the police. In movies, the word accounted for 32% of all descriptive references made to the police, compared to 'slow/lazy' (26%) and corrupt (16%). This number rose to a whopping 71% in TV shows.
At the ensuing panel discussion, 'The Reel vs Real of Crime and Punishment', director Neeraj Ghaywan, documentary filmmaker Esha Paul, human rights lawyer Vijay Hiremath, Devika Prasad from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Civic Studios founder Anushka Shah discussed the real-life implications of reel depictions of the police force. "There's the rude, aggressive, honest cop, the corrupt cop, the flamboyant hero cop. These three roles exist. I want to bring in some nuance, some humanization to the custodians of justice and the perpetrators of crime. We villainize them and we're asked to do so in Hindi cinema," said Ghaywan, whose National Award-winning Masaan begins with an act of police brutality.
For Prasad, a fourth type exists – the righteous cop, who stands up against evil politicians and organized crime – but is no better as even those portrayals glorify police violence. "In a lot of northern states you see people saying, 'He's our Singham' or 'He's our Simmba.' That's not a good thing because it cuts out police accountability." She added that there seems to be a link between lawmaking and films. "There's an enthusiasm for the death penalty in cases of rape. I think watching all these movies that are like, 'Bass rapists ko maar do.'…That's why instead of moving towards the abolition of the death penalty, Parliament wants more of it."
Conflating shows such as Crime Patrol with reality is just as harmful, said Hiremath, recalling a case for which he was assigned to defend a man accused of murdering his mother and brother. "In court, the moment people realized what the case was, they said: Yeh Sony pe dekha hai, sab isi ne kiya hai. I didn't even get to cross-examine him," he said. The panel also discussed misleading depictions of police interrogations in film, which rely on the use of brutality.
This negative perception of the police is what prompted author Hussain Zaidi to write Class Of 83, which looks at the Mumbai police's encounter specialists active during the 1980s and 90s. "There's a certain police psychology we should all know about. They get nervous, sometimes they get scared in public. They are as human as we are, the khaki uniform doesn't make them all-powerful or all-potent," he said in conversation with Indian Express reporter Dipti Nagpaul.
Not all of the report's findings were negative. Ormax Media discovered that 53% of people who had watched State vs. Jolly LLB2 were aware of Public Interest Litigations (PILs), compared to 28% of non-viewers. Similarly, 20% of viewers said they trusted the objectivity of Indian courts, as opposed to 7% of non-viewers. Discussions of Constitutional provisions through the medium of Tik Tok after the release of Article 15 was taken as another positive.
The final finding was that 80% of senior lawyers, judges, and police officers in movies, 50% in web series and 83% in TV shows were written as Hindu high-caste men. Ghawyan addressed this and spoke of the importance of representation in cinema. "In all my work, I ensure that there is 50% female participation. I advocated for a female police officer in Sacred Games season 2. We also realized Maharashtra had never had a female chief minister. So we put one in the show," he said. Change might be slow to come though – Ghaywan said that when he put out a job post seeking Dalit applicants, it was reported to the police.