Trust in police
Democracy requires a level of trust between citizens and government. For citizens to fulfil their duties – vote, pay taxes – and to further hold public institutions accountable, necessitates faith in the ability of those institutions to prove, improve and evolve. Research suggests that when this trust in government is low, civic participation suffers, and ultimately so does the quality of democracy.
In India, the police – one of the most frequent points of interaction between citizens and government – face a large trust deficit. For many, the sight of khaki can invoke a sense of trepidation rather than relief. This is especially true for people from disadvantaged communities- migrants, women, Dalits, Muslims, and sexual minorities who live within smaller networks of resources and privilege.
Psychological research indicates that there are two keys ways in which our trust of government and public institutions get shaped. The first from what we rationally see of their track record ('trusting from the head'), and the second from our emotion towards them ('trusting from the heart'). While our rational understanding is often mediated via real life experiences or news facts, entertainment media can play a powerful role in shaping our emotional perceptions. Several studies have proven that characters we see on screen influence our own thought and behaviour.
Representation of police in Indian media
Recent representations of police in Indian media have varied from the fantasy heroes Chulbul Pandey, Simmba, or Rowdy Rathore, to the smaller roles of more quotidian policemen often shown to be corrupt, inefficient, or then political pawns. Caught between the superhero and the stooge, there is minimal portrayal of the virtues of the more real-world police hero.
Examples such as this woman police officer who developed mobile police stations to reach over 1.5L villagers, the work of the Delhi police in reuniting nearly 3,000 missing children with their families within five days, or the Rajasthan station that adopted a young girl who had lost all her family members are important stories from the line of duty that rarely get recorded in our collective imaginations.
The lack of such representation is even more significant when you take into account the conditions under which the Indian police function. India has far too few police with just 1.2 per 1000 citizens, resulting in long work shifts that often last 12-15 hours 7 days a week. Further, the force is significantly under-funded and the police often have to work without resources such as consistent electricity and even paper to file FIRs. In the case of the 2008 Taj Hotel attacks in Mumbai, several police personnel put their lives on the line even though they lacked the basic arms and bullet-proof vests required for their job.
Delhi Crime: An ode or ad for the Indian police?
A departure from this trend of negative portrayal is Netflix's recent show Delhi Crime. Written and directed by Richie Mehta, the series is a dramatized re-telling of the expeditious Nirbhaya investigation undertaken by the Delhi police in 2012. Delhi Crime is in many ways an ode to the work of the police in this case, while also being an exposition of their challenging work conditions.
The show centres around DCP Vartika Chaturvedi (played by Shefali Shah), the leading investigative officer in the case, and her team who are shown working tirelessly to solve the case. They do this amidst under-funded police stations facing power outages, insufficient fuel for vehicles, and heaters that double up as roti-warmers. Whether it is ailing wives or children failing in exams, we see how the officers on duty are unable to pay heed to their families' needs.
From the outskirts of Delhi to high-risk Naxal territories, the team is shown chasing the minimal leads like a well-oiled machine, with each breakthrough giving the sleepless officers the push to keep going till they get to the bottom of the case. While even in difficult conditions they follow due process such as sealing hospital evidence, in other scenes they use creative, off-the-book tactics to get ahead with the investigation.
From one angle, this presents to the audience a chance to reimagine our police as a smart, efficient and nimble work force that we can be trusted and relied on.
Yet from another, there is a sense that the show has perhaps tried too hard to make a case for the police. In creating a world where the investigation moves like clockwork precision by honest and sensitive police officers, the show may seem to some audience members as a disconnect from their existing perceptions of the police.
While it might be possible that such model behaviour was on display through this particular investigation to some extent, the show's accuracy is weakened by recent accusations of their misrepresentation of the facts of the case. A piece by the Patriot reveals how there are several discrepancies between the police's handling in reality and that depicted in Delhi Crime. The show also feels over-focused on the perspective of the police when presenting the role of the media and citizen activism i.e. those of inconveniences rather than forms of accountability.
A key departure from reality in the show is the erasure of sexism in Delhi Crime. DCP Vartika, Trainee Neeti Singh (played by Rasika Dugal), and Sub-Inspector Vimla Bharadwaj (played by Jaya Bhattacharya) work in a universe sans any pressures of being women in a hyper-masculine space. This is far from the harsh truths where less than 1% of policewomen in India occupy senior ranks, and sexual harassment is rampant.
How much good cop and how much bad cop?
One could say that perhaps in focusing more on the positive attributes of the police force, Delhi Crime plays its part in balancing the existing negative media narratives of the Indian police & catalysing empathetic conversations on their working conditions.
But it may also be that presenting this other extreme misses an opportunity to address the audience's existing perceptions. As shown from some of the social media conversation generated around the show, while there is clear praise for its direction, acting, and cinematography, there is also a disbelief in the idea that reality is all good cop and no bad cop.
So what is an engaging yet empowering way to represent the police?
How do we acknowledge existing problems, while also fostering trust in the force?
How can entertainment encourage citizens to take a more sympathetic and empathetic view, while modelling things like police reforms through civic action?
Join Film Companion (@FilmCompanion), Civic Studios (@Civic_Studios), and police reforms activist Dolphy D'Souza (@dolphydsouza) for a Twitter chat on Wednesday 8th May at 3:00pm to discuss police representation in Delhi Crime and consequences of entertainment on citizen participation.