“Naa ongi adutcha ondra ton weightra!” (My blows carry the weight of a tonne and a half) is likely one of the most popular punchlines from Tamil cop films. It was delivered by an enraged Suriya in Singam (2010), which yielded a three-part franchise and inspired the Hindi remake Singham in 2011.
The hero-centric narrative in Tamil cinema tends to give the male lead near-unassailable moral rightness. The cult status of actors often mean that they are above reproach no matter what they do on the screen. Throw a khaki uniform into the mix and the results are extreme brutality unanswerable to neither regulation nor law. Violent acts done by the hero are mere vendetta dressed as justice.
These cop dramas follow certain formats. A personal tragedy spurs the hero to seek redressal through his uniform. His bid for vengeance, unchecked violence and brutal excesses are excused by past trauma (Darbar, 2020). Or, the villains are so despicable that the hero’s heavy-handedness and extra-judicial measures are presented as fair and even necessary. Too frequently, the victims are well-to-do and middle class while the criminals are dark-skinned wage workers (Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru, 2017).
Tamil Nadu is on the boil now as details of the custodial torture and murders of mobile accessory store owners Jayaraj and Bennix in Thoothukudi have come to light. Several Tamil film stars have added their voices to public pressure. While their celebrity helps to a degree, the industry’s lack of self-awareness is saddening. None of them, apart from Singam director Hari, has expressed regret for their own part in glorifying police brutality. Neither have they publicly admitted to introspecting the messaging in their films.
Actor-brothers Suriya and Karthi both made statements about the Thoothukudi case. Suriya put out a lengthy plea that Karthi shared and endorsed.
However, take Theeran Athigaram Ondru (2017), starring Karthi and based on the real-life events surrounding “Operation Bawaria”. The film refers to the troubling history of the colonial-era Criminal Tribes Act. Despite the denotification of these communities after independence, their “criminalization by birth” via the Habitual Offenders Act still haunts them. A 2018 report by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights shows evidence of systemic prejudice by the police in the form of illegal arrests, detentions, false cases, torture and deaths. As Kavitha Muralidharan reported in The Wire, custodial violence is an everyday matter for the Kuravars, another denotified community in Tamil Nadu, now categorised as Scheduled Caste.
Theeran Athigaram Ondru takes great pains to set up the Bawaria community (and others who were listed under the CTA) as barely human. Their tradition of hunting for food makes them “brutes”. They are rapists and dacoits who terrorise middle-class families. The villains don’t “integrate and live peaceably”, as if the onus for peace rests on the oppressed rather than the system.
In the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, Suriya’s statement has an all-too familiar ring to it. Like other celebrities, he seems compelled to praise in the same breath police working on enforcing the ongoing lockdown: the “few bad apples” argument rears its head here too. After the first lockdown was announced, many videos emerged from across India of police thrashing with lathis those who were allegedly breaking the lockdown, upsetting vegetable carts and intimidating migrant workers walking home. The question arises whether any of these celebrities understand that privilege decides whom the police “serve” and whom they harass with impunity.
Suriya has acted in the Singam trilogy directed by Hari. It would have made a striking difference if he, like Hari, had conceded to those roles as being problematic.
Ratasan (2018), celebrated as a chilling thriller, falls back on the repeated cliches of “respectable” middle-class girls and lecherous wage-earners as would-be rapists. Custodial violence is just another investigative method. While mainstream Tamil cinema unfailingly depicts such scenes in cop films, they rarely do so with critique and end up normalising the violation as procedure, sometimes even reducing it to comedy.
Kamal Haasan has been vocal in demanding justice in the Thoothukudi case. He’s asked specifically that the case not to be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Fair point – could Haasan, perhaps, have taken the opportunity to recall Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadui (2006), an over-the-top crime thriller doubly disturbing as the hero, an Indian police officer, is sent to work with the New York Police Department? Has Haasan (or director Gautam Menon) ever apologised for the queer-phobic plot? That the only gay characters were rapists and serial killers? That this film was released at a time when homosexuality was still criminalised in India and Section 377 was a means for the police to extort, harass and assault gay men?
Rajinikanth too came out with a statement condemning those responsible for the deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix. He said that the “animalistic violence done to them cannot go unpunished”. That the perpetrators “must not be spared”. What comes to mind is Darbar (2020), Rajinikanth’s latest cop film and an ode to extra-judicial killings. Attached to the relentless slaughter of anyone Rajinikanth judges deserving of death are trite lines like “we live to serve. We die to protect.”
Darbar came out at a painful juncture: police violence on college campuses, the detentions and brutalising of anti-CAA-NRC protestors and extra-judicial killings. Rajinikanth’s response (if people keep protesting for everything, Tamil Nadu will become a graveyard) after the Thoothukudi massacre in 2018 – in which 13 people protesting against the proposed expansion of a Sterilite plant died in police firing –is also difficult to forget.
Darbar is Rajinikanth’s sixth cop movie. In Mundru Mugam, Kodi Parakakudhu, Nattukku Oru Nallavan, Pandiyan and Anbukku Naan Adimai, vigilante-style justice is coated in terms such as “honour” and “duty”.
These tired tropes need retiring. The films mentioned are just some examples of too many. Almost every popular male actor has at least one cop film to his name. Even those that do take custodial torture seriously, such as Vetri Maaran’s Visaranai (2015), spend more time on creating macabre spectacles and less on highlighting the fault lines that lead to such violations.
If celebrities truly care about carceral justice, they ought to be listening to communities in pain. They must acknowledge the harassment that passes for policing in low-income neighbourhoods. They cannot shy away from the numbers of Dalit and Adivasi prisoners in comparison to the per capita population languishing in jails and the prevalence of custodial deaths (1,731 deaths in 2019, 1,606 in judicial remand, 125 in police custody).
The brutality that these films ratify as “heroism” cannot possibly be without consequence in the public mind. The celebrity statements reinforce the wrongful notion that the horrific deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix are only an anomaly in law enforcement practice.