Does Bollywood’s Depiction of Cops Normalise Police Brutality?
Popular films have normalised police brutality in India.
In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, the issue of police brutality has once again come to light - both in the USA and India. As protestors flood the streets of America, those on social media recently found a new bone to pick: popular American sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine and its depiction of cops. While some used the word “propaganda” to describe the show, others defended it for giving a voice to minority communities.
As usual, Twitter was divided but the discourse made me wonder - is B99’s portrayal of ‘friendly, neighbourhood NYPD cops’ as (or perhaps even more) problematic as the portrayal of police officers in Bollywood films?
The Bollywood Cop Template
The Bollywood cop today is a larger-than-life (super) hero displaying exaggerated machismo. The Bollywood cop is mostly male, his entire personality is his khaki uniform, he’s extremely fit and can throw punches with an unrealistic amount of ease. But most importantly, he cares deeply about the safety and well-being of the citizens. So much so, that he’s even willing to turn violent and take the law into his own hands - what a sacrifice, haina?
Salman Khan’s Radhe in Wanted (2009) or Chulbul Pandey in the Dabangg trilogy, Ajay Devgn in the Singham series, or Akshay Kumar in Rowdy Rathore (2012)- all these characters have cemented this distorted depiction of violent cops in Hindi cinema. For an average Bollywood viewer, a police officer isn’t just responsible for maintaining law and order, he’s also meant to hunt down villains and take revenge.
Suspension of disbelief while watching Bollywood is nothing new. We’re all expected to keep aside our critical thinking instincts and enjoy the ‘entertainment’ on screen - but at what point does that ‘entertainment’ become irresponsible? Moreover, to what extent does the onscreen violence in such films add to the large-scale normalisation of police brutality witnessed so often in India?
Bollywood cop films are known to glorify violence. A cop can flout all kinds of laws as far as his intentions are moralistic. But this isn’t a phenomenon confined to cop films alone. Generally speaking, Bollywood is extremely liberal with its portrayal of violence.
However, what does make cop films stand out is violent language. In Dabangg, Salman Khan’s Chulbul Pandey says “Police waale ko thokne ka anjaam pata hai kya hai? Ikkis saal jail aur thukkai alag se. Aur ussi police waale ne agar tumhe thoka, toh promotion alag se aur bahaduri ka medal bhi” - essentially implying that police officers get rewarded for violence.
Both Dabangg and Singham are full of such hyperbolic dialogues. In the latter, Ajay Devgn’s character says, “Jo kanoon todega, mai uski haddiyaan todunga.” Sometimes, humour is used to package such violent language. For example, one of Dabangg’s most famous dialogues, “Hum tum mein itne chhed karenge, ki cofuse ho jaoge ke saans kahan se le aur paadein kahan se”, is funny but also…extremely violent!
Of course, it helps to use star power to justify such storytelling and avoid any kind of critique that may come your way. Rohit Shetty, with his unique ‘cop universe’ films starring the biggest Bollywood faces, has mastered this technique.
Perhaps the only film that really moves away from this templatized depiction is the Ranveer Singh-starrer Simmba where Singh’s character initially starts out as an antihero of sorts but the story ends quite predictably.
One of the dialogues in the film, “Jab tak yeh rapist logon ko apun police log thokte nahi na, tab tak kuch nahi badlega,” pretty much lays the foundation for the justification of the fake encounter killing that happens later in the film.
No Place For Women
Mainstream cop films in Bollywood seldom have women playing the heroic police officer. Mardaani, starring Rani Mukerji, probably being one of the very few in that category. But the portrayal in Mardaani 1 & 2 is more or less the same. Rani Mukerji has the same machismo-fuelled, hyper-aggressive passion for her job. She beats up criminals, takes the law in her own hands, and delivers justice regardless of the cost it comes at.
In the climax of Mardaani 2 (2019), Mukerji’s character can be seen beating the criminal black and blue; she whips him repeatedly in public.
It’s painful to watch but somehow, her character’s subversion of traditional femininity kind of legitimises her violent actions because it appears empowering.
Even in Drishyam (2015), Tabu’s cop character is not without its flaws but the portrayal is slightly more realistic than Mardaani.
Will Things Change?
The gap between a real-life police officer and one on the big screen is massive. Having said that, there are a few films that do opt for a more realistic depiction. In Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, Ayushmann’s character is still heroic but he doesn’t endorse violence in the same flippant manner. On the other hand, films like Seher (2005) starring Arshad Warsi, have tried to showcase the not-so-glamourous side of being a police officer but the box office hasn’t been all that kind.
Perhaps OTT is where such stories could thrive? Netflix’s Soni and Delhi Crime pretty much nailed the depiction of women cops. Paatal Lok too succeeds in capturing the helplessness of the average Indian cop (played by Jaideep Alhawat) without glorifying his violent ways.
This is not to say that police brutality is the direct result of the depiction of cops in popular cinema, or vice versa. But there’s a certainly a connection here that seems to be going unnoticed.
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