Netflix’s Class Of 83 Is A Strange And Scrambled Police Drama, Film Companion
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Director: Atul Sabharwal
Writer: Abhijeet Deshpande
Cast: Bobby Deol, Bhupendra Jadawat, Hitesh Bhojraj, Sameer Paranjape, Ninad Mahajani, Prithvik Pratap, Joy Sengupta, Anup Soni
Editor: Manas Mittal
Cinematographer: Mario Poljac
Streaming: Netflix

At the end of Atul Sabharwal’s Class of 83, I was still waiting for it to begin. The closing credits rolled as though a narrative had unfolded for 95 minutes. But the entire film plays out like an extended movie trailer – with poker-faced voiceovers, newspaper montages, compressed timelines and dimensionless characters who only exist because it’s based on a book. I haven’t read S. Hussain Zaidi’s The Class of 83: The Punishers of Mumbai Police, but it’s not always wise to interpret an ‘80s story as ‘80s storytelling. (The treatment is as confusing as the title: Is Mumbai Police being punished or is Mumbai Police the punisher?). I suppose that was the idea behind hiring veteran music composer Viju Shah as well as using grainy stock footage of the city as transition shots.

But the ‘method filmmaking’ is flaccid; moments come and go as if the book were being translated back into a lesser book. Even the shootouts are so rushed that you’d think the characters’ parents were calling them home for dinner. A dreaded gangster appears after being spoken of for years, and he is shot so casually that I wondered if the film itself had failed to recognize the poor chap. (The unintentional hilarity reminded me of Sohail Khan’s last words from Lakeer: Forbidden Lines: “Bhaiya, maara toh…maar hi diya?”). In that sense, everything – including the resolution and the release – adopts the language of a buildup. This is a Scorsese-esque crime-drama template, but this film lacks the scale to justify its brusque tone. The result is a strangely distant anti-procedural.

Class of 83 opens in the Nashik police training school. The narrator says: Sometimes, the law has to be broken to maintain order. Not the first time Indian citizens have heard that, and it won’t be the last. Five backbenchers – Khan, Shukla, Varde, Surve and Jadhav – attract the attention of the mysterious dean, ex-hero Vijay Singh (Bobby Deol), because the syllabus is too small for them. Naturally, Singh wants to recruit them. He trains them to be “anti-bodies, like a vaccine in the rotten system” – a ruthless squad of encounter specialists who can carry out the institutionalised killing of gangsters. However, there’s trouble in paradise when two of the cops become too competitive. If nothing, this is a premise that allows the production department to have some fun. Posters of 1983 releases like Hero, Justice Chaudhury and Nastik dot the bus stops, white Contessas look like suspicious cars, and blood shoots out from bodies as if tiny water balloons were exploding behind shirts. But there’s only so far an “immersive experience” can take you when the narrative lacks a sense of occasion and rhythm.

It’s also hard to figure out whether the film is a private redemption story, a historical snapshot of Mumbai’s crime landscape or a glorification of the encounter-killing culture. Much of this has to do with the fact that Vijay Singh is presented as a haunted man. His flashbacks are incoherent, so the exposition suggests that Nashik is his ‘punishment posting’. His wife died (presumably of boredom), his celebrated career is over. He uses the boys as his weapon, but it’s unclear whether he wants to clean up the city or avenge his own fate – or maybe kill two crows with one vulture. I understand the casting of Bobby Deol. Singh is essentially a numb soul, akin to a retired action hero plotting a return; he’s lost his ability to feel and emote. Yet, Deol’s vanilla stoicism looks more robotic than romantic, and the moral ambiguity is edited out. At one point, when Singh sees his wife’s body, he’s about to break down, but the shot instantly dissolves to her funeral – evidently, the movie doesn’t trust the actor or the character.

At another point, when questioned by his junior officers, Singh delivers an impassioned monologue about being too good for the system. “Talent is my burden; should I have embraced mediocrity to join the 50 and 100-crore club?” are his exact words. Given that the film is produced by Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment, it’s tempting to imagine the superstar speaking through the character here. Or it could be the director, too, whose series Powder and film Aurangzeb were critically acclaimed but low-profile YRF productions. It’s a brief but layered moment. Until it occurs to us that terms like “50/100-crore clubs” might have been invented and force-fitted into Mumbai’s ‘80s gangster milieu only to create this moment. The spell breaks, and all we see is irony in a police uniform.

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