How many of us associate the word “police” with women? Despite the first woman police officer having been appointed in the Travancore royal police in 1933, and the first woman Indian Police Service officer Kiran Bedi emerging in 1972, in popular culture, the policewoman is yet to get the respect she deserves. Just like the word “farmer” invokes an image of a man working in the fields in the sun, despite the fact that numerous studies have shown that nearly 70% of all farm-related activities in India are carried out by women.
In films and television, numerous male movie stars played cops, including Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer (1973), Sanjeev Kumar in Sholay (1975), Om Puri in Ardh Satya (1983), Salman Khan in Dabangg (2010) and Ajay Devgn in Singham (2011). Most of our cop films are revenge dramas, with the male protagonist out to avenge some sort of injustice. Women cops include Dimple Kapadia in the B-grade male castration fantasy Zakhmi Aurat (1988), Vijayashanthi, who made a mark in a series of Telugu blockbusters such as Karthavyam (1990) and Rani Mukerji in Mardaani (2014).
It’s remarkable how, all these decades later, few filmmakers have bothered to dig deep into the world of policing, much less one inhabited by women. There is little discussion on the problems faced by women in the police force – the terrible facilities at the workplace, insensitive male colleagues, and the work-life balance struggle. Which is why the independent film Soni and the web series Delhi Crime deserve accolades.
Ivan Ayr’s Soni (2018) is about two women, one a police superintendent (Saloni Batra) and the other, a constable (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan). The senior, Kalpana, is caught up in her own problems, and yet stands up for her junior despite pressure to throw her under the bus.
Soni is a hot-headed police constable who gets into scrapes all the time. One such scrape results in her being thrown out of the field and into the police control room. Soni is frustrated by the despicable behaviour of men whom she encounters every day in Delhi. Her love life is in doldrums and she lives alone. Her bonhomie with Kalpana, her boss, is mirrored by her bond with her kindly landlady, and is a refreshing change to the regressive manner in which women are shown to be plotting each other in films and television shows.
Kalpana’s story too feels very real and very personal. Her struggles are her own, and no one can help her sort out her life. She faces pressure at work and her home – her husband is also her senior in service, because, well, this is India.
Yet, Kalpana retains her dignity. She doesn’t need to behave like a man. She does her job quietly, acting tough with a male subordinate when required and standing up for her junior when the situation so demands. She smiles and plays the gracious hostess at her niece’s birthday party, politely ignoring queries about when she is going to pop out a child.
A more muscular depiction can be seen in Richie Mehta’s Delhi Crime (2019). The superb web series is based on the investigation into the 2012 Delhi gang-rape, which perhaps justifies the central character of the tough- as-nails cop. “Madam Sir” Vartika Chaturvedi (Shefali Shah) lets loose the expletives, but is occasionally overwhelmed by her emotions whenever she sees the victim of the brutal gang-rape. There are moments when something snaps inside her, and she takes out her frustration on the suspects. But she is calm at most times and graceful under pressure, insisting that every member of her team follows the rule book so that the case stands a good chance in court.
Delhi Crime spares us bombastic dialogue. Instead, we go deep inside the painstaking procedures that are part of police work, including the unglamorous and tedious stakeouts and duties like riot control. Like Kalpana, Vartika takes rookie officer Neeti Singh (Rasika Dugal) under her wing. Then there is Vimla Bhardwaj (Jaya Bhattacharya), a no-nonsense policewoman who always gets the job done.
Adil Hussain plays Vartika’s supportive boss, Commissioner Kumar Vijay, another relief for viewers used to seeing caricatures instead of real police officers on the screen. Vijay stands up for Vartika, bravely resisting polite and not-so-polite hints about letting her go. The writing is police-friendly, and the viewer starts seeing the merit in allowing the police to complete their investigation in peace instead of demanding quick fixes such as transfers and sackings.
The common threads between the shows are protagonists who are real women with real lives and real problems, a realistic depiction of hierarchy and internal politics, and the daily grind of police work, which goes beyond encounters and car chases to include securing the evidence, taking victims to hospital, getting statements recorded and filing tonnes of paperwork. Supportive spouses are another reassuring feature of both Soni and Delhi Crime, although Vartika’s husband (Denzil Smith) is shown as too uncomplaining, with not even the occasional frown of disapproval for his wife’s devotion to duty at the cost of her family life. In Soni, such tensions are palpable.
Both shows also ace the Bechdel Test for representation of women in literature and film. The women do not discuss their partners or their children, but their jobs. More power to them.
(Nirupama Kotru qualified for the Indian Police Service in 1992. For personal reasons, she opted out and joined the Indian Revenue Service. Views are her own.)