Supercops in cinema; breaking the law in real life? A look at how fawning portrayal of police violence on screen valourises excesses.
07, Dec 2022 | Legal Researcher
In fact, Dabangg (2010), is a film made originally in Hindi, which got re-made in the Telugu language with the title, ‘Gabbar Singh’; whereas Singham is a remake of the original film from the Tamil Film Industry. Then there is the director Rohit Shetty’s ‘Cop Universe’ of Singham (2011), Singham Returns (2014), Simmba (2018) and Sooryavanshi (2021) — all of blockbuster fame, all made in the Hindi language. Apart from the fact that all these films — while receiving mediocre critical reviews became box office successes, these cop movies generally underline a theme of the messiah supercop, they are films with scenes that glorify unlawful torture and “encounters” (read extra-judicial killings) and all this, in the interests of the ‘greater good’. Or, more specifically, to portray, and underline, just how powerful the supercop protagonist is. This article discusses this depiction and portrayal within the lens of existing law. Before we go further, this is not an exclusive discussion on “encounters” within Bollywood movies. Encounters, as has been long established, are extra-judicial in nature and all the instances of such extra judicial killings, except the ones undertaken in self-defence, are illegal and unlawful, and should be condemned —irrespective of what crimes the accused may be guilty of.
Cop Universe, in fact is an idea and a philosophy as far as the money churning director/producer Rohit Shetty is concerned, Apart from the four films and one forthcoming (Singham Again, forthcoming), this production house has an animated web series, Little Singham and two mobile games, Singham (2014) and Singham Returns (2018). Where and how far these have reached to transform Indian minds addicted to this version of occupation and entertainment, while further deepening people’s commitment to an unlawful violent police force, remains to be measured. The production house is also soon to be releasing one more web series, The Indian Police Force.
All such instances of extra-judicial killings depicted in the scenes by Inspector Sadhu Agashe in Ab Tak Chappan, (2004, Hindi language) played by Nana Patekar are both illegal and would, or should, attract some introspection and questioning. This article is not only about the depiction of extreme scenes and “acts of encounters”. It is also about the excesses of the police, including the violence on peaceful protesters, the use of violence and torture to extract confessions, everyday violence and unchecked use of “encounters” in tackling crime, which are seriously questionable under existing law.
Anurag Kashyap directed Black Friday, (2004, Hindi), a movie that revolves around the investigation into the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts. As the narrative unfolds, the point at which the investigation stops (or is unable/unsuccessful) in tracking down the location of where Yakub Khan/Yeda Yakub is, the investigation team brings in the brother and sister-in-law of the accused protagonist, Yakub Khan. They are both tortured, as depicted in the film despite the woman being unwell. The prolonged use of torture goes on until the investigating team “finds” Yakub Khan. When a journalist asks DCP Rakesh Maria – a role played by Kay Kay Menon — about these Human Rights violations-he responds by saying- “Human rights? – Yes. Tell those people to try solving this case. More than 400 innocent people were blown to shreds in the blasts. There was no criminal among them. What about their human rights? For every ten guilty, we may bring in someone who’s innocent. I’m not perfect, nobody is. They aren’t small-time criminals. They think this is jihad. They’re the worst kind, they work like terrorists. Chop off their fingers and they still wouldn’t say a word. They won’t open their mouths until you strip them of their dignity. They can’t bear to see their women, children and near ones humiliated.” This is the justification presented in this film, for torture.
Apart from the mocking at the principles behind Human Rights as being an “impediment” to the investigation rather than looking at both processes and their honest and decent application (keeping human rights parametres in mind) as complementary processes, this statement, as reflected in the words of a senior policeman heading the team, goes against everything the criminal justice system of this country embodies. Moreover, it does not question how the use of quick fix methods (mentioned above) actually undermine the quality of investigations and the investigation process.
First and foremost, Section 330 of the Indian Penal Code deals with Voluntarily causing Hurt to extort Confession, or to Compel Restoration of Property.
Section 330 states that “Whoever voluntarily causes hurt for the purpose of extorting from the sufferer or from any person interested in the sufferer, any confession or any information which may lead to the detection of an offence or misconduct, or for the purpose of constraining the sufferer or any person interested in the sufferer to restore or to cause the restoration of any property or valuable security or to satisfy any claim or demand, or to give information which may lead to the restoration of any property or valuable security, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
Under this section, the investigating officer would/should be punished for his conduct. However, torture has been the go-to method during investigations, first in real life and also depicted in film making. Existing law, however, outlaws the use of torture.
In Mardaani 2, (2019, Hindi), Rani Mukherji sits on the table while a person is hung, upside down, as police officers hit him with lathis, to elicit (read, forcefully extract a confession) for information on a hitman. This scene of visible torture to elicit information is one of the most normalised and sometimes glorified portrayal of violations of Indian criminal law, not just in Bollywood but other regional language film industries too, like in Telugu cinema.
The film called Krack (2021) which was originally made in Telugu, has since been dubbed into Hindi and has been made available on Youtube. It has garnered 36 million views. In this movie, in one of the scenes, the protagonist-cop reaches a location where protestors have gathered to chant slogans against a movie and are calling for a ban on it. The cop unilaterally concludes that the sentiments of the protestors require law and order maintenance and he proceeds to lathi charge the protesters without any previous, navigation, warning or provocation. The protesters have been protested peacefully.
The cop proceeds to also physically thrash the media that is placed there. Ironically, the power of the cop is established by hitting unarmed and unprovoked protestors. Although there are no concrete provisions specifically regarding ‘lathi charge’ within the Indian law, there are enough limitations placed on exercise of use of force. Different judgements of both the Supreme Court and various high courts have emphasised and on the need for proportional use of force. The (mis) use of an unprovoked lathi charge on a group of peaceful protestors cannot surely be interpreted as proportional. Not only is such an act shown as one committed in the normal course of action/duty of a policeman, but it is also glorified.
In Anita Thakur v. State of J&K, the Supreme Court awarded compensation to those who were at the receiving end of Lathi Charge by the police because even the police personnel continued the use of force beyond limits after they had ‘controlled the mob’.
Police excess is a recurring theme in Telugu films, sometimes even used to evoke funny/humorous reactions and at others used to create an aura of heroic masculinity around the police officer. A Telugu movie called Golimaar (2010) directed by director of Lige, Puri Jagannath, is about a police officer who shoots people with utmost impunity, all in the name of punishing criminals. The plot does not come as a surprise, going by the title-Golimaar. The Hindi dubbed version of this film has 12 million views on Youtube.
The Telugu film industry is not alone in the repeated usage of this theme. The Tamil film industry has its own share of glorification of police violence with impunity. A Tamil film Kaakha Kaakha, (2003, original in Tamil, re-made in several languages) starring Suriya and Jyothika in the lead roles, was a film filled with glorification of police encounters. A scene in the film where a team of cops discuss the forthcoming arrest of an accused, suspected of rape embodies the pinnacle of police impunity. One of the officers mentions that there has been no complaint on the suspect accused –even while the information department had received some information on him. Undeterred by this absence of evidence, the protagonist policeman goes on to kill the suspect since he thinks the victim will not –otherwise– be able to give her statement as a witness. There is another questionable scene that portrays all the officers laughing and giggling while a Human Rights Enquiry is held against their actions. This film, Kaakha Kaakha was remade into multiple languages, owing to the original being a box office success in the Tamil film industry. In Hindi, it was remade with the title, Force, starring John Abhraham and Genelia D’Souza.
Imagine going to a police officer, to say something and him just hitting you. It seems like an inherently unlawful act. Now, let us add some element of complexity into this hypothetical scenario. Imagine you were going to the police officer to offer him a bribe, when he caught you while driving in excess of speed limits or without a licence and thereafter, the policeman (or woman) simply slapped you for your audacity. You might think that this is a ‘reasonable act’ while it is not. Even though Section 171E of the Indian Penal Code penalises the act of offering a bribe, slapping the person is not the punishment. In the movie Singham Returns, Bajirao Singham played by Ajay Devgan slaps a boy who offers him bribe and goes on to lecture the miscreant boys about how their lumpen activities are condemnable and they should, instead, work hard for their future. The scene normalises instant punishment i.e., an abrasive act by a police officer. It is interesting to note that Ajay Devgan, playing the sincere and rule following character of Amit, in Gangajaal (2003, Hindi language) would not have done that.
In the movie Khakee, (2004, Hindi language) a scene tries to make it seem like it is okay for a police person to search the house without a warrant or a reasonable cause. This unlawful criminal trespass and illegal entry has now become common practice. In this movie, Akshay Kumar, while being in an extra-marital relationship with a woman, tries to conceal this fact –when the woman’s husband returns home. He does so by making it seem like he came to the house to search for cocaine stashed in the house!
Usually, in law, there are only two scenarios in which a police person is permitted to enter into a private residence. One is when he has obtained a warrant from the magistrate, under Section 93 of the Criminal Procedure Code [CrPC]. The second way is that the Police officer conducting investigation, is empowered under Section 165 of the CrPC to search any place, within the local limits of the Police Station of which they are in-charge or to which they are attached, where they reasonably believe to find anything necessary for the purpose of investigation being conducted by them, without obtaining a search warrant.
The officer conducting the investigation is required to conduct the search in person; however, if that is not possible, they can authorise in writing any subordinate officer to conduct the search by specifying the thing for which search has to be conducted and the place where such search is to be conducted. However, despite it appearing like the police has been given discretionary powers, there are limits on this power by mandating the record of reasons for not obtaining a warrant instead and such reasons should be forwarded to the magistrate. The person whose house is being searched should receive a copy of reasons as to why the search is being conducted.
In the case of State of Punjab vs. Baldev Singh, the police did not follow Section 50 of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act while conducting a personal search of the accused. Section 50 stated that the personal search of the person ought to be carried out in the presence of a gazetted officer or in front of a magistrate and non-compliance with such established procedure, the court said, would deny to the accused the right to fair trial.
This is not to say that these incidents do not happen in real life. Police excess is a daily phenomenon that manifests itself in various extremities. Films such as some of those looked at here simply glorify and normalise these excessive and unlawful acts.
In the protests against the Sterlite Copper Plant in Thoothukudi, 12 people were killed in police firing and the inquiry committee formed to interrogate the incident has pinned the blame directly on police officials. In Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, 6 farmers were killed in police firing. During the Covid-19 lockdown, the torture of P. Jayraj and J.Bennix-a father-son duo, by the police, leading to the duo’s death shook the nation. These real-life instances of police excess in the are deplorable and are, periodically condemned. Commerce-driven, mass Indian culture –as illustrated by these blockbluster films in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and other languages — however, appear to be on some sort of mission to normalise and glorify the police excess including brute torture, criminal trespass and violence.
Popular media has always celebrated aggressive masculinity that listens little to reasoned and nuanced arguments and even less, provokes any thought or questioning. Some of the most problematic tendencies/elements that have emerged among a section of Indian youth in the post liberalisation era – like stalking, cyber abuse/crimes etc – have been pointedly glorified by commercial cinema. The reliance on a police officer as protagonist and showcasing police’s abrasive behaviour as some sort of heroic act goes back further, is a time-tested, age old formula. Such portrayals in a commercial mass medium like cinema has successfully normalised police excesses that are visible and growing, every day. Although some movies such as Article 15- directed by Anubhav Sinha, did, try to chalk out an alternative theme with respect to the Police, the proportion and rate of this alternative portrayal remains at a less than desirable level.
Image : Representation Image
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 Singham Again is one more forthcoming film in the long list of the Cop Universe Series, created by Rohit Shetty
 Mardaani, the first film was made in 2014
 Khakhee-The Bihar Chapter is also an action thriller Netflix series currently streaming the action packed career of a righteous cop