'We have done injustice by glorifying custodial violence on screen': Vetrimaaran

On a panel, Vetrimaaran and Hansal Mehta discussed the far reaching effects of representations that glorify police violence.
'We have done injustice by glorifying custodial violence on screen': Vetrimaaran
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In a session hosted by National Law University, Delhi’s Project 39A on July 9, directors Vetrimaaran and Hansal Mehta spoke on the representation of custodial violence in Indian cinema. The subject is being hotly discussed following the custodial deaths of father-son duo Jayaraj and Bennix in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu.

The directors, having made award-winning films like Visaaranai and Shahid, spoke in great detail about the implications of portraying power and vigilante justice on screen. Indian cinema for years has glorified and placed the police on a pedestal. Films like Suriya’s Singam franchise and Kaakha Kaakha, Ranveer Singh’s Simmba, Rani Mukerji’s Mardani and several others have more or less suggested that the only way to justice is the cop’s justice. Films have played a major role in moving us as an audience into believing that the best justice is in the vanquishing of the villain with a bullet.

These prominent directors, who have dealt with this very subject in their films, discussed the responsibility of a filmmaker while making such films and the far reaching effects of such representations that glorify vigilante justice.

Calling every filmmaker an unintentional historian, director Vetrimaaran referred to how people celebrated the encounters of the accused in the Hyderabad rape and murder case. Drawing parallels to why cinema’s glorification of cop vigilante justice has a role to play in this behaviour, he said, “The common man is made to believe that cops are justified in doing that. When the Hyderabad encounters happened last year, we celebrated the killings of the accused, and vigilante films are a big reason for why we did so. Films are not the only reason but they have influenced. I believe filmmakers are unintentional historians and we create a narrative on the history.”

Hansal, who concurred with Vetrimaaran, added that vigilante films showed lazy writing. “While making Shahid, we approached a leading actor whose idea of Shahid was more like Sunny Deol in Damini, a portrayal that would reinforce his stardom. We had to subvert this idea and that takes a lot of work in writing,” he explained.

Having made Visaaranai, which is based on a real life inspired Tamil novel titled Lock Up, Vetrimaaran said that the film, which was only about 20% of what the author had written, left a lasting impact on the audience.

“The writer himself had only written 60% of what had happened to him in custody, keeping in mind the effect it would have on his children, so I’d say that the film is only about 5% of his lived experience. That being said, the book was written in the '80s, telling us how it was back then. When I made the film about 30 years later, it was the same. Today, with the death of Jayaraj and Bennix, I’d say it is still the same,” the director pointed out.

“We have done injustice by glorifying custodial violence on screen. The least that we can do is to question it. That is the most important thing,” he added.

Director Hansal Mehta, whose films have had protagonists coming from marginalised communities, spoke about how this choice of background for the main character in Shahid came from the thought of wanting to tell a positive story.

“I wanted to tell a story about a boy who himself was victimised. Who spent seven years in prison, wrongly accused just because he was Muslim, impoverished and defenceless. That person comes out with one lesson that - If you have to fight the system, you must be a part of it. The film shows how we used the law and the process of the law to deliver justice. He became a defender of the defenceless. That is possible. The story inspired so many young men. Many of them came and told me,” he shared.

Later on, he added, “The popularity of vigilantism has made us elect a government like this. I am saying this knowing that I am going to be reprimanded for saying so. But I have to say this.”

The directors also discussed the budget in making such films. “Budgets fail, films don’t. We need to rethink how we define commercial success,” Hansal pointed out. Questions asked by the viewers also included the representation of the marginalised in such films. “Now some amount of representation has started coming in. For instance, directors like Nagaraj Manjule and Pa Ranjith have started a strong representation of Dalits in cinema. Article 15 is a good film but not a Dalit film because it does not have a Dalit as a protagonist. But it deals with a Dalit issue. So is Asuran,” Vetrimaaran opined. He also spoke about the representation of women not just in cinema but in different fields.

Director Hansal added, “I think our role models need to be more responsible. For instance, one lead star told me that if I had named my film Sanjay or Samraat instead of Shahid, it would have become a major hit. I told him that it kills the central argument of the film. That mindset has to change. Subtle changes have started coming in. Gully Boy is a good example which within the mainstream, presented a Muslim social. It had major stars fronting it, which just 10 years back would not have happened. Again, this was a film directed by a Muslim woman.”

The session was then opened to the audience who had questions on vigilante films catering to masculinity and the collective anger on custodial deaths, of the innocent in particular.

The full session is available here for streaming.

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