The custodial deaths of a father and son in Tamil Nadu, which had sparked outrage across India, is one among many glaring instances of police brutality. Each year, only a few of these examples make it to the public discourse, while the larger reality mostly remains hidden.
The institution of policing, explained aptly in “The Fist of Modernity” by the video essayist Lewis Waller, traces the history of the institution and how it was intended as a law-enforcement agency, rooted in the principles of justice, with the intention to discipline society.
The Figure of the Policeman in Hindi Cinema
Hindi cinema has time and again meddled with the portrayal of the lives of policemen. From major side characters to the protagonists, these heroes of our society have found a growing space on the silver screen. However, since the time of Zanjeer (1973), the first mainstream film glorifying a uniformed officer, certain characteristics have become recurrent. These khakee heroes are above law in their pursuit of enforcing law. They are mostly driven by a revenge force of some sort (example Zanjeer, Dabang), and are advocates of firm extrajudicial punishment. The protagonists of these films are most often characters of black and white, fighting good over evil, with no holds barred.
Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya, written by Vijay Tendulkar, delves into the grey shades of our system. This is shown through the inner conflicts of sub-inspector Anant Velankar (Om Puri). A young man, forced into the system by his abusive father, who struggles between fighting the corrupt system and his inner righteousness. The film stands apart in realistically depicting the complexity of the system that we keep talking about.
Nandini Ramnath makes an excellent observation when she says, “By posing questions about the cult of machismo that prop ups the figure of the police inspector, baton in hand and gun at the waist, Ardh Satya goes much further than most movies about law enforcement”. This becomes visible through the aforementioned dialogues taken from Singham, Rowdy Rathore and Ardh Satya respectively.
Humanising the Police
The agency of policing is a very complicated one, which has been adulterated regularly by the film industry. There is a visible dearth of films that explore this establishment as Ardh Satya does. The film is perhaps one of those rare exceptions that departs from the depiction of a police station as an instant justice serving court with the inspector sitting on the judge’s chair. The cop heroes like Bajirao Singham (Singham), Sangram Bhalerao (Simba) or Samar Pratap Singh (Shool), Vijay Khana (Zanjeer), are the capeless, khaki wearing superheroes.
All this is not to say that Anant Velankar sets an example as a policeman. He merely reflects the innate human conflicts of societal being, bound and torn between norms and personal ambitions. Velankar is perhaps a more realistic portrayal, considering the film belongs to the age of arthouse realism of Hindi cinema. Like the other cop heroes previously mentioned, he too has his charisma. He is your average gloves wearing, Enfield riding, law-abiding, upright and moral sub-inspector. He is someone who recognizes the influence of criminals and mobsters within the law enforcing agencies. He doesn’t hesitate in beating those who did wrong, in his custody.
However, Anant Velankar shows the humane aspects of self-questioning and the anger and frustration that one faces when their beliefs are challenged. Velankar undergoes this journey as he battles the corrupt system. And in doing this, he lets himself off the hook, from the values he sets for himself. The breaking point comes when he goes to arrest the local gangster Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) with all the evidence. Rama Shetty calls Velankar’s superior and sets himself free.
“Like Abhimanyu from the Mahabharata epic, Velankar feels that he is trapped in a zone of half-truth between right and wrong. To be involved means to be reminded of his impotence, but remaining uninvolved has the same result” writes Nandini Ramnath. The poem by Deepak Chittre, which inspired the title of the film, perfectly captures Velankar’s dilemma: to fight or to let go.
The fight eventually becomes with oneself, as we see Velankar descent into alcoholism. When he sees that this system rewards the immoral and punishes someone who does his duty, he feels lost as he slowly becomes part of what he swore to fight.
Ardh Satya shows the raw-reality. Radha Rajadhakshya notes that “In Ardh Satya, the system one serves affects one’s psyche — much as Anant Velankar believes that he is different from the regular violent cop, he ultimately falls prey to the brutality of his profession”
With this regards the sequence where Velankar is confessing to his love interest Jyotsna about his inner tormentations, he says:
“Jis institution ki naukri karke khata hoon, jis institution ke dushmano se maine joojhna chaha, wahi institution meri mardangi ko kuchalne pe tula hai, aur din ba din mera ye ehsaas badte chala jaa raha hai ki main aatma se hi napunsak hota chala jaa raha hoon” (The institution that feeds me, the institution whose enemies I struggled with, is bent on crushing my masculinity,, and each day I am realsing that I my soul is becoming impotent).
This comes after Velankar kills a man under his custody in his alcohol driven rage and is now relying on the same system to save his job. For this, he goes to the very representative of this system, Rama Shetty, whom he once vowed to arrest.
Institutional and Individual Accountability
It is becoming essential, more than ever now, how the individual officer is shaped by the hammering of this institution. They need to be made accountable and not converted simply into a rowdy cop that everyone loves. The reality still persists of police officers superseding the system and taking justice in their own hands.
“The Fists of Modernity” becomes relevant here. You will never see a film about the cruel and biased actions of Delhi Police during the Anti-CAA/NRC protests, or in the more recent times, about the punishments served out by police to those disobeying the lockdown. Police characters will never be shown as people shaped by the societal forces and the institution they serve, their conflicts.
It’s always a good cop or bad cop, hero cop or rebel cop imagery that persists. We need films that are critical of this system, that go beyond the binaries to show the middle ground of conflict, the half-truth.
About the author: Aakash Gurbani is a psychology major with a keen interest in media and politics from Christ University, Bangalore