Posted by Zeba Vagh
The year 2020 has been an eye-opening one, especially from the point of view of global revolutions and uprising against fascist forces, in addition to the new reality that we are living thanks to COVID-19. On one hand, we are witnessing a global call for a revolution against racial discrimination and defunding the police following George Floyd’s murder, on the other, closer home in India, the custodial deaths of Jeyaraj and Bennix in Tamil Nadu due to police brutality has driven home the point that we need to re-evaluate and even, revamp our justice systems. Bollywood or the mainstream Hindi film industry – with its influence and the power to be a catalyst of change – could be the right place to begin this re-evaluation process. Considering how Bollywood has, year after year, managed to churn out films that validate and equate justice with police brutality, it is time we held the mirror against Bollywood and hold the industry accountable.
We saw the protesters, especially in the United States, take the world by storm calling out police brutality, standing up to the white supremacists, and racial bigotry. In India too, several people, including those in positions of authority, raised their voices in solidarity, condemning what the police did in the US. Yet, at times when similar narratives of police brutality transpired within our country, several of those voices (looking at you, Bollywood!) stayed shush. From the police brutality that was meted out against the students of Jamia Millia Islamia in December last year for protesting against the CAA and NRC, the police’s conspicuous absence when the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University were attacked by goons, to now as the father-son duo in Tamil Nadu died in TN police’s custody, Bollywood clearly seems to have been missing a spine when it comes to taking a stand. Come to think of it, Bollywood’s normalisation of police violence as justice is one reason why it will be in fact quite hypocritical of the industry members to even take a stand.
In India, the larger belief continues to be that the police could do no wrong, and I feel that at least some part of that blame is on how police brutality is normalised by Bollywood on-screen. The Bollywood hero as the policeman is shown as larger than life, and “macho”, extremely fit, with an ability to throw unrealistic punches with ease and has a good moral conscience. He is depicted as so dedicated to his work that he can take the law into his own hands and brutally beat up the so-called criminal – the sheer dedication! Bollywood movies such as Salman Khan’s Dabangg, Akshay Kumar’s Rowdy Rathore, Ajay Devgan’s Singham, Ranveer Singh’s Simba, all cement and normalise police brutality to such an extent that when police brutality actually transpires in the country in real life, we do not realise the impunity with which they take law into their hands and punish unfairly.
Often, at the end of these Bollywood films, the precipitate is a collective sense of patriotism as the audience in the theatres celebrate and salute the officers who “carried out justice” through violence that looks grand on screen and grim in real. They are validated for what we are told is: “upholding” the law and “doing the uniform proud”. For an average Bollywood movie-goer, the typical hero has not done enough by just adhering to law until he take revenge and retribution into his own hands. In Akshay Kumar’s Rowdy Rathore, the ending scene where he hangs the villain by the leg and lets the entire village hit the villain violently, in Dabangg where Salman Khan kills the “villain” by forcing him to take in the smoke coming out from the tractors – shows just how normalised police brutality is depicted as by Bollywood on screen.
Bollywood has very few roles for women as protagonists in cop films except for Rani Mukherjee in Mardaani 1 and 2, and even within these, police brutality gets glorified. In the ending scene of Mardaani 2, Rani’s character whips the rapist till he bleeds.
One common justification in support of Bollywood’s complicity could be: “It’s just entertainment and it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.” But what do we do when entertainment becomes irresponsible? In a country where masses look up to film actors and actresses as gods and goddesses, isn’t ethical entertainment a responsibility – now more than ever?
Zeba Vagh is pursuing her degree in screen writing from Whistling Woods Mumbai International. An aspiring writer, her work has been published with the Live Wire. She can be found on Instagram.