The recent custodial deaths of father-son Jayaraj and Bennix in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu have triggered massive public outrage. The alleged impunity with which the police acted and the reported injuries on the bodies of the men have sparked discussions on police brutality and the violation of human rights in the legal system.
Many have also begun a conversation around cinema and the glorification of bad cops. Unlike crimes against women like stalking, which are hugely influenced by popular culture, police brutality is more a product of the flawed legal system which gives law enforcement too much power without enough checks. However, it cannot be denied that our social acceptance of these crimes is partly influenced by the glorification of the police taking the law into their own hands in popular culture.
For instance, when the accused in the Hyderabad vet gangrape case were shot dead in an encounter, the police received widespread appreciation for their act. Many celebrities had also expressed their support for the police. The public had decided, without offering the accused a fair trial, that they were guilty of the crime.
We cannot, on the one hand, celebrate a system that allows police excesses, and on the other, outrage about the same system. They're two sides of the same coin.
Here's a small sample of Tamil films from the recent past which have glorified police excesses. Typically, most of these films use crimes against women to justify police brutality.
Saamy: Vikram's thundering punchline from this 2003 film -- "Naan police illa, porukki" (I'm not a cop, I'm a thug) -- received thunderous applause from the audience. This Hari film had Vikram playing Aaursaamy, a cop with "unorthodox" methods. From filing false cases to committing covert encounters, and in the final sequence killing the villain himself instead of arresting him, Aarusamy was a big hit with the audience.
Kaakha Kaakha: Gautham Menon's 2003 film, which established Suriya's career, is about a police officer, Anbuchelvan IPS, who does not mind breaking the law along with his team if it will give results. To explain the team's ideology, the film has a scene where Anbuchelvan explains that instead of taking a rapist to court, it's best to shoot him dead since bullets are far cheaper. The film also mocks human rights activists explicitly.
Pokkiri: Vijay's 2007 film is about Tamizh, an undercover cop who disguises himself as a thug, and goes about killing criminals on the order of the Commissioner. This reveal is made only in the end. Interestingly, there's another police character in the film who is a bad cop and is vilified for his lusty and corrupt behaviour. But Tamizh is considered to be the hero because he has, after all, killed only "bad" people. Never mind that he flouted the law to do so.
Singam: The Hari franchise, the first film of which came out in 2010, has Suriya playing an honest cop. Here too, the police make use of encounters to eliminate criminals and the violence is justified because the men are bad. The massive success of the film led to remakes in Kannada, Hindi, Bengali and Punjabi.
Theri: The 2016 film was clearly inspired by the Nirbhaya gangrape case. Directed by Atlee, the film saw Vijay playing a police officer who brutally murders the rapist and announces the fact to the latter's powerful father. Later, he also kills several henchmen, posing as a "ghost". It's revealed in the end that his superior was aware of what was going on, and had in fact instructed the hero to perform these acts. It's a plot twist that we're meant to applaud.
Nibunan: In this 2017 film directed by Arun Vaidyanathan, Arjun Sarja, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar and Prasanna, play a team of police officers who are on the hunt of a serial killer who sends them clues about his murders. After the team cracks the case, the lead investigator kills the accused and then murders other criminals in the serial killer's style so that no questions will be asked.
Ayogya: Yet another bad cop outraging about a rape, this 2019 film directed by Venkat Mohan was a remake of the Telugu film Temper. Vishal played the lead in the film, which has a ludicrous plot twist. Not only does he break several laws, he also claims that he was one of the rapists and gives a false confession in court so that all the accused would be hanged. The sentence is carried out in an unbelievably short time, too! And the movie ends with the message: "All men will now fear an immediate death sentence, if they ever molest a girl."
Darbar: The most recent example of a bad cop film is AR Murugadoss's Darbar, with Rajinikanth in the lead. The hero, who is keen to bust drug and trafficking gangs, performs all sorts of gymnastics with the law, killing plenty of people in encounters and appointing himself as the sole provider of justice. Here too, there's an elaborate scene which mocks human rights activists.
Why are these films problematic and how do they add to social acceptance of these crimes? Watch Sowmya's Take on Darbar: