It’s been a tradition in Tamil cinema that an upcoming actor plays a cop, and the trajectory of his career changes. Over the years, we’ve had almost every big actor play a cop sometime or the other in his career, but few of those films have the ability to entertain you during multiple viewings.
A cop movie fails when you start anticipating what’s next. It fails when the cop becomes a comicbook hero whose slap weighs a tonne. A cop film should have the ability to make us appreciate the larger-than-life work done by humans, who are trained to go through this grind every day. A cop classic can be re-watched, enjoyed and even celebrated for decades. So, what makes a good cop movie?
Immersion — Kaakha Kaakha
A film that got its realism right is Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Kaakha Kaakha. The fight sequences hit all the right notes, because nobody was being tossed around, and when people fought in this film, it felt like a brawl between two men and not an elaborate hype sequence. This film managed to inspire a generation to aspire to join the police force. The character of Anbuselvan (Suriya) is grounded yet isn’t as straight as an arrow – he operated in a grey area to serve justice, and, in a perverted way, he enjoyed the violence. He was a cop who was hot headed and sacrificed a lot in his service. However, the one thing that Kaakha Kaakha had in plenty was immersion. You are inside a world where PowerPoint presentations are made to plan an encounter, where threats against your family are a badge of honour for doing your job right, and death is just Tuesday at work.
Characters — Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu & Saamy
Cop films have the innate ability to pique our interest as we explore a world that we usually don’t have access to. Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, again by Gautham Vasudev Menon, is brilliant in getting inside the head of a cop, and details the frustrating process of solving a murder. Leads sometimes lead to nothing, and a planned murder by a psychopath can be psychologically draining. Raghavan is fawned upon in the first few frames of the film, and the whole point of that is to show how his ego allows him to break rules because of how he perceives himself. His ego also causes him to lose people and parts of himself. But that ego is something developed over the years, because of how good he is.
A louder example of a complicated character is Aarusaamy in Hari’s Vikram-starrer Saamy. Aarusaamy is a cop who believes he is the best in maintaining law and order. He accepts bribes, kills people without a second thought and also entraps local politicians for his personal agenda. So, how does he become a saviour or hero? The beauty of this character is that all these unlawful deeds are with the intention of serving justice. However, Saamy’s over-the-top antics and the fight sequences distract you from the complicated man and the game he’s playing. That’s why the second film failed critically and commercially; Saamy 2 took all the distracting bits of Saamy and blew them up drastically.
Puzzles – Ratsasan & 8 Thottakal
The new generation of cop films seems to be heavily reliant on technology to hunt down criminals. Ram Kumar’s Vishnu Vishal-starrer Ratsasan is an exception to this rule, and the emphasis is on understanding the criminal’s process. Much like Sacred Games and Paatal Lok, you have cops investigating something way above their rank. The story about the story-teller searching for a killer from the stories he has read adds a meta psychological layer unseen until then.
8 Thottakal is also one of those films that puts you in a spiral as the case progresses. The narrative of the film is structured in a manner that lets the viewer solve the case of the missing police pistol, as the film unfolds. A simple case of a missing gun leads you to a place of utter chaos.
Antagonists – Chatriyan & Thani Oruvan
Most new-gen generic cop films show us repeated counters by the antagonist and protagonist; very few stay in mind though. A well-crafted conflict really doesn’t require words; you tend to feel it on screen before a word is uttered. K Subash’s Chatriyan, starring Vijayakanth and written by Mani Ratnam, understood where and how to employ dialogue to create a sense of conflict between two characters. However, what stunned was the use of silence. There is a scene where the antagonist, played by legendary actor Thilakan, threatens to murder the children of the cop played by Vijayakanth; he responds with a glare of indifference. Later, when Vijayakanth vows upon his children to return to the police force, Thilakan shoots a glare and smiles at the man. The conflict in this film has been imitated multiple times, but few could capture the essence of the original. Even though Chatriyan doesn’t display any of the elements mentioned earlier, the conflict stands tall.
In the modern era, a film that understood the power of a good conflict was Mohan Raja’s Thani Oruvan. The conflict of ideologies between the two leads is so powerful that the tension on screen is palpable when these characters face each properly in the third act of the film. Thani Oruvan beautifully showcases that you don’t necessarily require pages of dialogue to be exchanged between the protagonist and antagonist to establish conflict in ideology, and that leads driven by ideology are far more interesting to view than those driven by personal vendetta.
Realism – Kuruthipunal
A remake of Govind Nihalani’s Drohkaal, Kuruthipunal, directed by PC Sreeram and starring Kamal Haasan, Arjun and Nasser, gave us a lead who is not invincible. The film follows the story of two honest cops who seek to curb a deadly Naxalite organisation. Set aside the twists-filled plot and gripping narrative; what makes this film a classic is that it beautifully showcases how police officers are human beings with human struggles, and how the unique nature of their job taxes their body, mind and relationships. Nothing Adhi (Kamal) says can silence Badri (Nassar), and that feels so real.