By: Cinema Cynic
Hollywood has long had an attraction with the vigilante-cop character. From the days of the Lone Ranger the unknown dispenser of justice (as opposed to the upholder of the law) has been idolized. Even when later films like The Untouchables came along, the portrayal of the heroic cop has always been one willing to twist, bend or even break the law to deliver some version of justice. One look at the Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon series and Stallone’s Cobra (all of which, despite their stars, are pretty mediocre films of dubious quality) or even the very good LA Confidential, the tough, no-nonsense, “procedure and due process be damned” cop is very much the hero to be admired and his by-the-book counterparts are held up to ridicule.
The parallel in Bollywood is becoming more evident. For a long time the police were either portrayed as actively corrupt or heroic defenders of people whether innocent or guilty, upholding the law and due process. Films such as Aakhree Raasta, Sholay Aan: Men at Work, and Sarfarosh set this precedent. This was taken to new levels of excellence in A Wednesday and the superlative duo of Gangajaal, where Ajay Devgn’s impassioned plea to follow the law and not be lured by vigilante justice rings true to this day and Dev, where Amitabh Bachchan’s role as the honourable police officer being pressured by vested interests but standing firm in defence of the law has resonance today.
While Bollywood has toyed with the vigilante cop before, it was more nuanced in showing how the push for vigilante justice and extra-judicial killings came about. From the magnificent Shool with Manoj Bajpayee, the under-appreciated classic Sehar with Arshad Warsi, to the absolutely magnificent Ab Tak Chhappan with Nana Patekar and a superb cast, Bollywood did some fine work in showing the cynicism, moral corruption and exigencies that led to the encounter-squads and extra-judicial killing. However, these films never portrayed such actions as being praise-worthy but rather a reflection of a broken system.
Unfortunately, things are no longer so nuanced. In a decision that is at best questionable, Bollywood has embraced the renegade, break-the-rules concept with a vengeance. From the fun but somewhat silly Dabangg and its sequel to Singham and its sequel where we saw [tooltip id="c1b465420d07c688942ed18eadfd9f92" keyword_color="#000000" background_color="#ffffff"][tooltip id="4db8f5608d45f5de7881d9bce162f4bf"]Salman Khan">[/tooltip][/tooltip] and Ajay Devgn taking on evil and dispensing their own brand of rough justice without any regard for law or due process. The films became mega-hits but despite their questionable approach to law-enforcement, there were lines that were not crossed. This was not the case with the wholly unnecessary Ab Tak Chhappan 2 where Nana Patekar’s character now kills gangsters and corrupt politicians alike and is a hero because of it.
This deeply disturbing trend sank to new depths of repugnance in 2016. Strangely enough that brings us back to Priyanka Chopra as it was her film (although Prakash Jha contended with her for screen time) Jai Gangajaal that perhaps crossed all lines of cinematic propriety. Cinematic defects like the dubious acting talents of the entire cast, Chopra’s spackled on make-up and unconvincing demeanour (somebody unkindly described her appearance as being Ajay Devgn in drag) to the vicious, horrible and deeply worrying stereotyping of Biharis and Bihar (even though Prakash Jha is Bihari) can be ignored to some extent (although they shouldn’t be). What was truly reprehensible was the fact that the movie advocated violent vigilantism with police beating and killing at suspects at will and encouraging and assisting civilians to do the same. The sight of a schoolboy strangling the MLA with his belt was gratuitously repulsive.
Is Bollywood reflecting the wishes of Indian society? It can’t be denied that encounters, summary executions and rough-justice are common in India. Yet it is still very worrying that Bollywood has done such an abrupt and unusual volte face in its approach to its portrayal of the police. One hopes that Jai Gangajaal (abysmal movie that it was) does not become a blueprint for the future. Bollywood – indeed all Indian cinema – must get back to making solid, nuanced police films that neither glorify vigilantism nor gloss over glaring defects in the Indian system. It is not beyond Indian cinema’s ability to do so and if the past is a guide, the results can be quite impressive. One thing though, lip-synched song and dance routines do not go with gripping police drama: stop it.