How Hindi Crime Web Series Have An Upper Caste, Anti-Minority Bias
‘Operation Parindey’ & ‘Bhaukaal’ are essentially stories that pit Hindu heroes against Sikh & Muslim villains.
“To nab every Pabbi and Monty Singh, there will be many Abhinav Mathurs in this country”.
This is the punchline delivered at the end of Sanjay Gadhvi’s Operation Parindey, an under-55-minute short film on Zee’s OTT platform ZEE5. It is not clear what the protagonist (played by Amit Sadh) is trying to say, but the juxtaposition of Sikh “villains” and Hindu “hero” isn’t entirely subtle.
In another web series – Bhaukaal on Times Group’s MX Player – this is even more direct. The hero, police officer Naveen Sikera (Mohit Raina), says “Eid Mubarak” to the villain Shaukeen Khan (Abhimanyu Singh) before ordering his men to shoot him.
Operation Parindey and Bhaukaal are both part of the rising number of “inspired by true events” crime shows on Indian Over the Top (OTT) platforms.
And in some of these series, the dramatisation of events end up pushing a certain majoritarian narrative.
A Take on Nabha Jailbreak
For instance in Operation Parindey, which is based on the infamous jail break that took place in Nabha in Punjab in 28 November, 2016, the Khalistan and Pakistan angle is constantly overplayed.
The jail break is shown as Pakistan’s retaliation against the 2016 surgical strikes, when there’s no substance to back this.
The antagonist here is Monty Singh (Rahul Dev), based on Harminder Singh Mintoo, leader of the Khalistan Liberation Force, who escaped from Nabha Jail in 2016.
He is weirdly shown as calling up his handlers in Pakistan and greeting them with “Asalaam Alaikum” soon after escaping from jail.
Monty is portrayed as the mastermind behind the jailbreak, when in reality, militants Harminder Mintoo and Kashmir Singh were smaller players in the episode compared to gangsters Ramanjit Romi, Harjinder Bhullar alias Vicky Gounder and Gurpreet Sekhon alias Sonu.
The portrayal of Sikhs in Operation Parindey is largely negative – they are shown either as militants, gangsters or incompetent policemen.
One elderly turbaned Sikh policeman is shown as having been “influenced” by Monty, even referring to the militant respectfully as “Babaji”. He ends up being humiliated by “good cop” Abhinav Mathur for “glorifying a terrorist” besides getting sodomy threats from Mathur’s sidekicks.
Another important Sikh character is the gangster Pabbi (loosely based on Palwinder ‘Pinda’) who is shown as being arrested by a Uttar Pradesh police officer named Komal Bharadwaj in Shamli.
The only token positive turbaned Sikh character is a minor one – Mathur’s boss, who has no role but to monitor the protagonist’s progress.
On the other hand, most of the “good guys” have Hindu names and there are no turbaned Sikhs among them.
The reality was actually the opposite. The Punjab Police Special Task Force that re-captured Mintoo, Palwinder ‘Pinda’ and others, largely comprising turbaned Sikh officers but was led by the then ADGP Dinkar Gupta, currently Punjab’s DGP.
The film also uncritically propagates State propaganda by asserting that the jail break was almost scuttled because of demonetisation.
Uttar Pradesh’s Encounter Specialist
MX Player’s Bhaukaal is similarly inspired by real life Uttar Pradesh cadre IPS officer Navneet Sikera’s stint as Superintendent of Police in Muzaffarnagar in the early 2000s.
Here the protagonist Naveen Sikera (played by Mohit Raina) spars against two gangs led by Dedha brothers and Shaukeen Khan (Abhimanyu Singh). However as the first season progresses, it is Khan who emerges as the main antagonist.
The filmmakers put a great deal of effort to build up Khan as a cruel, sadistic and menacing character, while also showing him as a practicing Muslim.
There’s also a manipulative Muslim politician dressed like Azam Khan thrown into the mix.
The series does pretend to give some political nuances by showing the role of gangsters in fuelling communal violence and puts forth a few positive Muslim characters as well, like the quintessential good Muslim cop and the informer. But it largely degenerates into a bloodbath between Khan’s men and the cops.
Like most cop stories in India, the series glorifies encounter killings. But even while doing that, it focuses mainly on Sikera’s standoff with Shaukeen Khan, even though many more encounters took place in Muzaffarnagar in his tenure.
This isn’t even Sikera’s most famous encounter. That status belongs to the killing of gangster Ramesh Kalia in Lucknow in 2005.
Uttar Pradesh in general and Muzaffarnagar in particular has a history of glorifying encounter killings. Officers like SN Sabat, Ashutosh Pandey, Navneet Sikera and more recently Anant Dev Tiwari and their subordinates have been “hailed” for eliminating criminals through encounters in Muzaffarnagar.
Humanising Upper Caste Gangsters
The extremely black-and-white treatment of the battle between the Hindu cop and Muslim/Sikh villain is in sharp contrast to how upper caste gangsters are portrayed in crime series on OTT platforms.
For instance Rangbaaz Season 1 humanises the lead character Shiv Prakash Shukla (played by Saquib Saleem), based on infamous gangster from Gorakhpur, Shri Prakash Shukla.
Unlike the villainy of Monty Singh and Shaukeen Khan, Shiv Prakash Shukla is treated with a lot of sympathy, with the plot giving a lot of space to his anxiety regarding his sister’s marriage and his romance with a hotel receptionist.
The real life Shukla became a big figure in the mafia in eastern Uttar Pradesh when he was barely in his 20s until he was gunned down in 1998. He was the topic of the 2005 film Sehar directed by Kabeer Kaushik. One of the best gangster flicks to have come out of Bollywood, Sehar at no point humanises the lead character Gajraj Singh (played by Sushant Singh) nor does it exaggerate his villainy.
The second season of Rangbaaz does pretty much the same, by showing the lead character Amarpal Singh (Jimmy Shergill) as a bit of a tragic hero.
This season is based on Ravana Rajput gangster Anandpal Singh, his rivalry with Jat gangster Gopal Phogawat and how he was used as a pawn by politicians in Rajasthan.
Even Sanjay Meena (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub), the police office sent to catch Amarpal, is shown as a fan of his from his college days.
If Brahmin pride is a running theme in Rangbaaz Season one, in Rangbaaz Phir Se, it is Rajput pride.
The upper caste gaze in Rangbaaz Phir Se is such that the IPS officer Sanjay Meena, who hails from a backward community, is glorified for “clearing IPS under general quota”.
Anti-reservation sentiment is part of Rangbaaz season one as well, with the character played by Tigmanshu Dhulia saying that “Brahmin youth are being tortured in the name of reservation”. He goes on to say that “Brahmins will remain superior and will stay that way”.
When Ram Gopal Varma was asked in 2005 if the film ‘D’ produced by him was based on Dawood Ibrahim, he replied, “No the context is different...D is Maharashtrian Hindu”.
Even though filmmakers have humanised Muslim gangsters in films like Gangs of Wasseypur, Once Upon A Time in Mumbai, Raees and Haseena Parkar, this is an important admission from Varma, who shaped the way Bollywood made gangster flicks.
Perhaps filmmakers realise that it is safer to humanise Hindu gangsters but not minority ones. The Hindutva backlash against Rahul Dholakia’s Raees (2017) starring Shah Rukh Khan may have further strengthened this belief.
With filmmakers increasingly seeking to play to the majority gallery, given the larger political atmosphere in India, it is not surprising that this is reflected in web series as well.
So it has become acceptable for a series like A Family Man to show a Kashmiri and a Malayali Muslim as ISIS recruits trying to carry out terror strikes in India. And for its lead character Srikant Tiwari (Manoj Bajpayee) to tell his Muslim subordinate “what’s wrong in proving your nationalism repeatedly?”.
Given the popularity of crime- and terrorism-related web series, minority communities should be prepared to be reduced to villains and traitors, while the Tiwaris, Mathurs, Sikeras and Bharadwajs save the country.
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