Director: Atul Sabharwal
Writer: Abhijeet Shirish Deshpande
Cast: Bobby Deol, Ninad Mahajani, Bhupendra Jadawat, Sameer Paranjape, Hitesh Bhojraj, Prithvik Pratap
Cinematographer: Mario Poljac
Editor: Manas Mittal
Streaming on: Netflix
Class of 83 is a gritty drama about a batch of police officers who become famed encounter specialists. The backdrop is the early 80s, when Mumbai was in the grip of notorious gangsters. The film is inspired by a book named The Class of 83: The Punishers of Mumbai Police by S. Hussain Zaidi, which in turn is based on the lives of real-life cops, like Pradeep Sharma and Vijay Salaskar, who trained under DGP Arvind Inamdar when he was head of the Maharashtra Police Academy. These names are the stuff of legend and controversy in the Mumbai police archives.
However, the film begins with a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction, which is followed by a quote from Plato, which says: Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws. Which presumably provides the justification for killing bad people without arrest or trial.
The vigilante cop is a staple of Hindi cinema. From Salman Khan in Dabangg to Ajay Devgn in the Singham series to Rani Mukerji in Mardaani, we've seen a slew of trigger-happy cops who sidestep political interference and institutional corruption by breaking the law. It is an immensely satisfying fantasy, which allows us, the audience, to believe that justice has been served. But in a year in which police brutality has repeatedly made headlines, this movie archetype has become even more problematic.
Class of 83 offers little innovation on the time-worn theme. Except perhaps the counter-intuitive casting of Bobby Deol as Dean Vijay Singh, the tough and tortured head of the Academy. Deol, best-known for putting his urbane good-looks to good use in 90s blockbusters like Gupt and Soldier, does an about-turn here. The dean is a man with a tragic past and a poker face. Bobby's frayed handsomeness underlines the Dean's grief. He's a committed, honest cop, which is why he's at the Academy on a punishment posting. But Vijay Singh decides to subvert the system by training five cadets to take down gangsters.
He calls it an experiment – as he puts it, the five will function like antibodies who will cleanse the disease from within the body. He gives these backbenchers a talk about why he has chosen them saying, "Tum log dosti nibha lete ho lekin sach bhi bol lete ho, rules todte ho lekin usool nahi chodte, fail hote ho lekin apni shadton par." Which instantly took me back to Thakur in Sholay explaining why Veeru and Jai are the perfect candidates to hunt the notorious dacoit Gabbar Singh – he says: Woh badmash hai lekin bahadur hain, khatarnak hai isliye ki ladna jaante hain, bure hain magar insaan hain. Class of 83 uses the same trope of a senior cop executing justice through young and brave men whom he handpicks. The only difference is that in Sholay, Veeru and Jai are criminals. Here the Dean's instruments are cops.
The cadets are played by newcomers Ninad Mahajani, Bhupendra Jadawat, Sameer Paranjape, Hitesh Bhojraj and Prithvik Pratap, all of whom deliver solid performances. Casting new actors as newbies adds conviction to the narrative because no actor asks for more attention. Each one serves the story. The first part of the film follows their lives in the police academy and the latter follows the batch as they embark on their careers, ferociously demolishing gangs. As one of the five, Aslam tells us: To maintain order, law ko bali chadana padta hai.
This is familiar turf for director Atul Sabharwal, who 18 years before Sacred Games, gave us Powder – the seminal television series about cops and gangsters. Atul has a great talent for creating grim worlds. Here he and DoP Mario Poljac work with a palette of brown and dull green. There's mist, rain, shadows. The sun rarely shines, literally or metaphorically. The textures of 80s Mumbai are skillfully constructed with attention to period details. There are gorgeous shots of Marine Drive with minimal traffic and a shoot-out in a dhow in the middle of the Arabian sea, which reminded me of gangster classics like Nayakan and Parinda. The atmospherics are enhanced by Viju Shah's thumping, old-school background score.
I especially liked two key scenes in which the five friends share a meal together. Atul choreographs the changing dynamics between them and the slow splintering of the group with finesse.
And yet, these parts don't coalesce into a whole with heft. To begin with, the subject matter induces fatigue. Little about the plot feels new or urgent. And the script by Abhijeet Shirish Deshpande relies too much on exposition, which is provided by Aslam's voice-over. The writing doesn't flesh out either the cadets or the Dean enough. Some are provided a defining feature but we don't get a sense of them as people. They are, for the most part, one note-characters.
Bobby delivers the pathos and frustration of the Dean in several scenes but in others, he seems to be posturing. And some of his dialogue is melodramatic, not in a good way – at one point, he says: Koi kya kare agar woh apne aas paas kaam karne walon se behtar ho, system se behtar ho, gala ghot de woh apne talent ka, ban jaye mediocre kisi 50 crore, 100-crore members ki tarah? As I watched, I wondered, is Atul here perhaps speaking for himself and scores of other filmmakers and actors who feel undermined by Bollywood?
Geetika Tyagi, who played a key role in Powder, helps to break up the overwhelming masculinity of this world with her graceful presence but there isn't enough for her to do. She's only there to give the Dean a backstory and again, it's one we've seen before.
Too much of Class of 83 feels like a retread. The faces are new but the portrayal of the system, corruption, the utter lawlessness of both cops and criminals, is familiar. The film doesn't offer new insight or characters compelling enough to make the material feel fresh. Which is why, despite the talent on display, it doesn't soar.
You can watch Class of 83 on Netflix.