When the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire released in 2008, it faced a barrage of criticism in India. Amitabh Bachchan called it “poverty porn", filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan called it “anti-Indian", writer Salman Rushdie said it was a “kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name".
“There was no public uproar about the fact that this film opens with a scene of astonishing police brutality where the Indian policeman is shown torturing the hero with electric shocks to get him to confess," MP Shashi Tharoor noted in a Parliamentary debate around the time. “We took these scenes for granted. No one said how outrageous it is that our country should be shown in this way because, in fact, the assumption appears to be, well, this happens all the time."
The custodial violence in the film hadn’t escaped the authorities, said Christian Colsen, the film’s producer, in an interview with The New York Times. But they had different concerns. “They took umbrage at a scene in the script in which a suspect is tortured by a police commissioner during interrogation," the Times report says. “No police officer above the rank of inspector should be shown administering torture, they said. The makers of Slumdog Millionaire obeyed."
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though. Police brutality is a regular feature in Indian films. Too often, it has a celebratory tone to it. The Indian censor board, known for being conservative towards physical intimacy, hasn’t opposed the police portrayals like Dabangg, Singham or Satyamev Jayate, even when the films glorified officers resolving conflicts through threats, violence and extra-judicial means.
Last week, the Delhi-based law collective Project 39A invited filmmakers Hansal Mehta and Vetrimaaran to discuss custodial violence in Indian cinema. The webinar started with clips from popular movies that seemed to justify such violence. In the clip from Simbaa, a police constable says, “Jab tak yeh rapist logon ko apun police log thokte nahi na, tab tak kuchh nahi badlega (Unless we kill the rapists, nothing will change)." . In another from Mardaani, the cop played by Rani Mukherjee seethes, “Ye India hai, yahan aise bhi faisle kiye jaate hai (This is India. We serve justice in many ways)." A montage of slaps, thwacks and karate-chops follow, and Mukherjee’s character tells the bad guys what her violent acts mean: “Some call it encounter, some kharcha-paani, some Lokpal Bill."
Such portrayals have an impact on both the audiences and the police, said Anushka Shah, founder of the Mumbai-based Civic Studios, who was moderating the session. She cited a study by the NGOs Common Cause and Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) on the perception of police violence. Three out of four personnel felt justified for the police to be violent towards criminals, the study had found. Nearly half of civilians felt the same.
“I think vigilante films come out of lazy writing," said Mehta. He recalled an instance from the making of Shahid, his biopic on Shahid Azmi, the human-rights lawyer from Mumbai who defended Muslim youths accused of terrorism. “I had gone with the idea to a star [actor]. He had his own fixed idea on how things work in the courtroom. For him, the lawyer was like Sunny Deol in Damini: rippling muscles, almost going to hit the other lawyer... ‘This is what the audience wants to see,’ he said. ‘They don’t want to see a boring court’."
“Authenticity doesn’t come easy," Mehta said. “With engagement comes a lot of effort."
In 2016, Vetrimaaran directed Visaranai (Interrogation), based on the real-life incident of three Tamil labourers in Andhra Pradesh who were picked up by the police in connection with a robbery sometime in the 1980s. The trio was innocent but the police tortured them for weeks, hanging them by their feet, whipping them for hours, coercing them into admitting to a crime they did not commit.
The film is an adaptation of a book called Lock Up by Chandran, one of the three labourers accused. “After watching it, a high court judge called me and asked me to arrange the screening for 108 magistrates," said Vetrimaaran. In spite of the graphic scenes in the movie, it was only a small glimpse of the source material, he added. “The film has only 20% of the torture in the book. And the writer told me that he’d written only 60% of what he’d suffered."
As Visaranai shows, it’s often the marginalized who get targeted, tortured and indicted. And when someone is caught in connection to a high-profile crime, like those accused in the Hyderabad gang-rape last year, "encounter" killings find popular support as well. Following one such "encounter" of gangster Vikas Dubey by Uttar Pradesh police last week, The Indian Express reported that the UP police had completed probes on 74 out of 119 encounters done during chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s tenure. The number of policemen indicted: zero.
Some filmmakers have called out extra-judicial violence. In the web series Paatal Lok, a police constable is shown thrashing murder-accused Hathoda Tyagi to get him to reveal his name. But all he had to do, an officer shows him after, was check his pockets and he’d have found an ID. In most films, though, there’s an acceptance of violence in police custody. In Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Bangali, a burglar played by Manu Rishi, is shown returning to his cell, howling after an interrogation by the police. “Did they beat you up?" Abhay Deol’s character asks him. “Abbe aise hi do-chaar yaar, formality ke liye (a couple of times, as a formality)," Bangali replies.
Although it might seem like we are ruled by a “vigilante state" at times, says Mehta, it is important to repose faith in the system. The process is long, and often tedious, but it has enough provisions for justice to be served. The Indian judiciary, he adds, still “holds out hope".
And if the torture victims were people accused of heinous crimes? “When you shoot a person, just because you’re a cop doesn’t change that it’s a murder," said Vetrimaaran. “The person has to be taken to the courts and due process has to be followed. The cop doesn’t have a right to beat a person. That’s not acceptable in any circumstances."
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