Rohit Shetty’s box-office hit Simmba is the latest movie to celebrate the rowdy cop. This manliest of men breaks the law while claiming to uphold it and inevitably emerges triumphant, a heap of exhausted goons at his feet and the villain cowering in the corner.

Even though the rowdy cop preens in his role as a criminal in khaki, there is no mistaking him for anything but a capeless superhero. In Temper, the 2015 Telugu blockbuster that inspired Simmba, khaki love is taken to a hysterical high. Background chants of “Police! Police!” are aimed at drowning out any possible disquiet as Jr NTR’s official vigilante Daya kills a bunch of rapists in prison in front of his superiors. Though Simmba avoids such extreme measures, Ranveer Singh’s Sangram Bhalerao endorses the view that rapists deserve extra-judicial punishment.

What would Anant Velankar from Ardh Satya have done? Each new rowdy cop film that sells vigilantism and nihilism takes us further away from the Govind Nihalani classic – one of the few movies to have examined Indian police culture with a critical eye. Released in 1983, Ardh Satya was a sleeper hit in its time. Over the decades, though, its themes of financial and moral corruption and the true meaning of justice have been forgotten. Ardh Satya is in danger of being considered a relic of the Indian New Wave, a cerebral drama that is fondly remembered but not worthy of being replicated.

Play
Ardh Satya (1982).

Ardh Satya was Govind Nihalani’s third film after Aakrosh (1980), which examined a lawyer’s attempts to fight a deeply entrenched network of violence and discrimination against members of the lower castes and tribals. In Ardh Satya, Nihalani teamed up again with the writer of Aakrosh, the renowned playwright Vijay Tendulkar, working to adapt Da Panvalkar’s short story Surya for the screen.

In Ardh Satya, Tendulkar casts his typically unsentimental gaze on the existentialist crisis facing sub-inspector Anant Velankar. Velankar’s idealism crumbles fast when he realises how deeply the police force has been compromised. His inability to assert the authority vested in him prompts him to question his masculinity, as do his frequent runs-in with the influential mobster Rama Shetty. Velankar is the obverse of the ultra-macho and perennially swaggering rowdy cop, and he takes out his frustration on defenceless prisoners and, ultimately, himself.

Ardh Satya is packed with top-drawer performances, including Om Puri in stunning form as the tortured Velankar and a chilling Sadashiv Amrapurkar, in his debut role, as Rama Shetty. The movie opens on something resembling romance and hope – a montage of tight close-ups of two faces making a connection in a crowd. At a New Year’s Eve party, Velankar spots Jyotsna (Smita Patil), the other person in the room who wants to be somewhere else. Jyotsna will emerge as Velankar’s lodestar and his conscience, the person to whom he turns in moments of anguish and doubt. That bond is forged in that opening montage, beautifully edited by Renu Saluja.

Om Puri and Smita Patil in Ardh Satya. Courtesy Neo Films Associates.
Om Puri and Smita Patil in Ardh Satya. Courtesy Neo Films Associates.

Jyotsna is a lecturer in a college, a job that Velankar once wanted. But the poetry-loving Velankar has become a policeman at the insistence of his brutal father (Amrish Puri). His grandfather had been in the force too, and his father claims that putting on a uniform is the only way for anyone to gain respect.

Anant Velankar’s posting at a police station in Mumbai gives him a quick lesson on the limits of law enforcement in Maharashtra’s capital of finance and graft. Despite being advised by his pragmatic boss Haider (Shafi Inamdar) to mind his own business (“We are all in the same racket,” Haider observes), Velankar seems to be going the way of the honest and suspended inspector Lobo (Naseeruddin Shah). Lobo has been reduced to begging for liquor money, and Velankar follows, repulsing Jyotsna despite her empathy and sending his career into a spiral.

The movie is set in a turbulent decade for India and, in particular, Mumbai. The 1980s were marked by economic distress, urban and rural disquiet, and caste- and religion-based conflagrations. Mumbai saw labour unrest, including a mill strike that had far-reaching consequences for the city, the consolidation of criminal gangs and the increasing corruption of sections of government. Yet, this was also the decade in which human rights activism took shape, feminist organisations were marching on the streets for legislative change, and trade unions were battling for workers’ rights.

Ardh Satya folds into its screenplay the contradictions between compromised law enforcement and a licence to torture and kill (the Bhagalpur blindings are among the police atrocities that are referenced). Among the groups thanked in the opening credits is the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights – surely a first for a movie about the police force. The sensitive Jyotsna and her colleague (Ila Arun) attend a seminar around social justice, where the Mumbai critic, novelist and playwright Shanta Gokhale addresses the gathering (“Since their prime duty is to look after citizens, it is important that the police should be totally unbiased and above board,” Gokhale’s character says.)

Sadashiv Amrapurkar in Ardh Satya (1983). Courtesy Neo Films Associates.
Sadashiv Amrapurkar in Ardh Satya (1983). Courtesy Neo Films Associates.

Jyotsna’s ambivalence to her liberal ideology and the state-sponsored obduracy that Velankar represents bursts through in two scenes. In one, Velankar thrashes a man whom he suspects of feeling up Jyotsna in a bus, much to her dismay. In another, Jyotsna sees Velankar and other policemen beating up striking workers. When Velankar descends into alcoholism and lets out his inner demons, Jyotsna shrinks in horror. In a rare instance of a woman walking out on a man because she disagrees with him, Jyotsna calls off the relationship, telling Velankar that the worlds of the policeman and the human rights advocate are irreconcilable.

The title is inspired by a Dilip Chitre poem, and crystallises Velankar’s conflict: to act or not to act. 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.

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. The sequences of custodial torture, which have been portrayed approvingly in subsequent films, are shot by Nihalani in half-light, with the darkness that surrounds the terrified prisoner and the power-drunk Velankar growing as he gets more desperate.

Amrish Puri in Ardh Satya (1983). Courtesy Neo Films Associates.
Amrish Puri in Ardh Satya (1983). Courtesy Neo Films Associates.

In this world of physical and spiritual brutality, even the family is suspect. Velankar’s father beats up his wife and verbally harasses his son. The violence that passes on through families and from the police to society explodes in an act that is foretold and yet shocking. Forced to seek help from the odious Rama Shetty, Velankar strangles him to death. The monster has been slain, but the evil still thrives – a message that is absent from the contemporary police drama in which the difference between the law enforcer and the law breaker has been reduced to one big joke.