One of the funniest jokes made about the police in cinema around the '80s and '90s was that they’d always come only after all the action in the film has ended. A shot is fired above the head to announce their arrival and in five minutes, it will be time for the end credits to start rolling. This stereotype is so common in Tamil cinema that we can vouch that this was how a fifth of the films released ended at one point.
But we’ve also seen glorified police officers - from Sivaji in Thanga Pathakkam to Vikram in Saamy Square - where the film revolves around their righteousness and their invincibility. Then there are funny constables who provide comic relief throughout the film - Vivek in Singam, Vadivelu in Marudhamalai, etc. We’ve also seen corrupt, vile cops who laugh at their own insensitive jokes and fail to take complaints seriously. Swerving from one end of the spectrum to the other, Tamil cinema has shown us different kinds of police officers - from being the honest and sincere officer to being the butt of all jokes or the reason for all hate.
But what do real life police officers think about their portrayal on screen?
Vilifying the constable
Madurai’s Commissioner of Police, S Davidson Devasirvatham begins with this exact point. “The problem with Tamil films is that either they are shown as superheroes or they are very bad cops. Very rarely do they picturise the true conduct of a police officer,” he says.
Joint Commissioner (Traffic) North, Najmul Hoda, agrees. "The feature film is an entertainment medium and therefore they would add spice to make it more entertaining. In the process, they have to blow up and magnify things. They seldom show what is real. Even romance is blown up in cinema,” he laughs, adding, “Either we are magnified beyond proportion as ‘singams' or vilified as corrupt officers licking the boot of politicians. 'Lionised or villainised' - there, that can be your tag line.”
Commissioner Davidson also feels that there’s a tendency in Tamil cinema to villanise the low-ranking officer as a vile and corrupt person.
Madurai’s Commissioner of Police, S Davidson Devasirvatham
“It is a very gross misrepresentation. I know many officers at lower levels of office - constables, sub-Inspectors, inspectors, etc - who do great work. When it comes to actual groundwork, as a field officer, I’m impressed with the kind of responsibility that constables take up. But this is seldom shown in cinema. Good and bad is at every level. It is the same with everyone in society,” he shares.
While he agrees that there might be a few bad apples in the department, he explains that what is shown in cinema is far from reality. “If there was so much bad in the police department, how can we keep it safe for people. Because of the sacrifices that we do, we are able to maintain peace, law and order,” he says.
Misrepresenting police ranks
Talking about ranks, Joint Commissioner Najmul says if there’s one thing that irritates him about cop movies, it is the misrepresentation of police ranks. “Inspector could be shown wearing a DGP rank, etc. They need more literacy in this matter to which they are quite oblivious. Also they miss out on the line of communication. No inspector can talk to the Chief Minister or Home Minister, DGP or Commissioner directly,” he says.
Joint Commissioner (Traffic) North, Najmul Hoda
While attention to detail can irk a few, Commissioner Davidson shares that directors tend to present what sells. He shares, “I’ve also interacted with film directors and some of them come with a stereotype mindset, which is their own mental construct, not even layman’s. But they probably visualise what will sell among audience. Anything against authority is enjoyed by people. But there are millions of people who appreciate the positive work done by police also.”
So does he keep up with recent films? “I see a lot of Hollywood films. But the difference in portrayal cannot be any starker. Here they want to focus on commercial interests and in the process they bury reality. Recently I saw Suriya’s Anjaan, I could not sit through for more than ten minutes,” he tells us.
Films that got it right
Speaking about film inspired from real life incidents, Joint Commissioner (Traffic) South, R Sudhakar says, "The recent Karthi film Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru was based on real incidents and was very well made."
Joint Commissioner (Traffic) South, R Sudhakar
Commissioner Davidson's pick, surprisingly, is Vetrimaaran's Visaranai, which showcased police brutality.
“I really liked Visaranai. It was very well done and was based on a real situation. It looked original. I also liked Vazhakku Enn 18/9. Although it shows a corrupt officer, it was a very good film," he says.
Commissioner Davidson tells us that there are some directors who try to understand the psyche of a police officer better, spend time at the station and then write the film, but there are also those who work with fixed mental constructs.
“Police officers are supposed to be macho and very tough. They do encounters and are gun-toting cops. They sometimes glorify encounters in films - You are a good cop only if you do encounters. But that is not how it happens in reality,” he says.
“In films like Kaakha Kaakha, Vettaiyadu Vilayudu, the songs are nice and it's nice to watch in a good screen, nothing more. Such films are overdone,” he comments.
Jt Commissioner Najmul says, “The Singam franchise is so generic, it is nothing new. The commercial cinema is not capable of giving nuanced understanding. It is unidimensional - black or white.”
But for Jt Commissioner Sudhakar, films like Kaakha Kaakha have been enjoyable. “The film released exactly when I was about to join for training, so I watched it with friends. I was very inspired by the physical fitness shown in the film. It will always remain a favourite,” he tells us.
He also shares that the “funny cop” scenes with Vivek and Vadivelu are popular among cops. “As humans, we tend to forget things that we don’t like. I like films like Singam, Kaakha Kaakha, Thani Oruvan (in which I was thanked in the credits), Ratsasan,” he tells us.
Old cop films Vs New
If one were to compare old police films with those of the present, it becomes evident that a lot has changed. Commissioner Davidson agrees. “Back then, the first thing that would come to people’s minds if someone were to say, “a good, honest police officer” would be actor Sivaji Ganesan’s Thanga Pathakkam. Films like Gnana Oli, Thanga Pathakkam had more of dialogues and drama but now there’s more bloodshed and action. The films back then were interesting to watch, too. They had more investigative aspects to them and it was more interesting,” he tells us.
Shivaji Ganesan in Thanga Pathakkam (1974) | Youtube Screengrab Pyramid Movies
Jt Commissioner Sudhakar says, “I’ve heard that Sivaji met IG Arul, spent time with him to learn his mannerisms for the film Thanga Pathakkam, but not sure how much of it is true.”
While there have been seeing a few films based on real events like the award-winning Visaranai or the recent Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru there’s one film all three of them have recommended during our conversations - the 2003 Hindi film Gangaajal directed by Prakash Jha, starring Ajay Devgn.
“It is a fantastic movie. It is about what a district SP goes through in the badlands in Bihar. It also had elements of commercial moviemaking but it had a lot of originality to it. If you get the time you should watch,” says Commissioner Davidson.