Daredevil action sequences, justifying fake encounters, use of torture and intimidation… do Tamil films reinforce the mythical ‘super cop’ instead of presenting the real picture? What explains the massive success of such films? Udhav Naig finds out

In mainstream cinema, the ‘cop’ film has played an important role in, apart from filling the coffers, feeding the audience’s fantasy of a ‘crime free’ society. Almost all successful stars of today have played ‘super cop’ at least once in their career. Come July 5, Suriya’s Singam II will hit a large number of screens in Chennai.

It is no secret that the story elements in cop films are exaggerated to produce the desired effect. What explains the massive success of these films? “They are mostly lapped up by the uncritical, average Joe with a liking for retributive justice, for instance, Suriya’s Singam. These films affirm the simple idea of justice that exists among the masses. They are made highly entertaining with the help of big-budget stunts and daredevil action sequences,” explains Venkatesh Chakravarthy, Dean, Ramanaidu Film School.

What is interesting is while fans appear to relish these films, civil society seems to take offence at them for fostering, propagating and celebrating anti-democratic ways of law enforcement. Human rights activists and social organisations question the ideas promoted by these films such as celebrating retributive justice as opposed to reformative justice, justifying fake encounters and depicting the police force as a fundamentally benign apparatus plagued only by a few corrupt officers. In short, they accuse the film industry of acting as the ideological arm of the establishment by shaping public opinion in favour of the extra-legal methods employed by the cops.

“The problem is movie goers get used to the idea that torture and intimidation are necessary in law enforcement. This gets legitimised when the popular hero who plays the ‘honest cop’ is seen doing it,” says Umar Kayan, a criminal lawyer.

The most scathing criticism made by the activists is against the justification of fake encounter killings by police, a trend which started with the success of the stylishly made Khaaka Khaaka, starring Suriya in the lead. What exactly is their grouse against a film in which anti-social elements are weeded out? “First, I refuse to accept the word ‘encounter’. Films such as Khaaka Khaaka reinforce, instead of challenging, the existing dominant view that it is okay to finish off people who the State perceives as anti-social,” says Geeta Charusivam, a volunteer with Makkal Mandram, a human rights organisation that works closely with the Irular community in Kancheepuram.

The sense one gets after speaking to those involved in grassroots movements is that the depiction of cops in our movies is inherently distorted. Jessy, an activist with Makkal Mandram, says, “It is difficult to find the sort of good cops we see in movies.”

Isn’t this unfair, considering popular cinema has criticised police in a number of films? “But even in those films, only lower rung officers are shown as corrupt. Or some higher official is seen fighting his ‘corrupt’ colleagues or superiors. What I am talking about is the lack of spotlight on the corruption that exists within the institution…like how it was shown in Vazhakku En 18/9,” says Jessy.

All of these must logically lead us to think about what is deleted from these movies. When asked the same question, more than one activist throw up Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which documents the life of a U.S. marine undergoing training inside an army base. Ezhilan Naganathan, founder of ‘Youth Org’, which conducts caste annihilation camps on a regular basis, says, “The young lower level recruits are given only physical training. I don’t think they are taught about the need to protect the rights of the citizens. That’s why Full Metal Jacket is such a thought-provoking film as it shows why these protectors of law are so violent and inhuman sometimes.”

He also says that the ‘caste and class’ bias of the police force largely goes unmentioned. “Even to grant permission for an anti-caste propaganda campaign, the police are never supportive. We have had to lobby hard to obtain permission. The same is the case when someone from the lower strata of society gets picked up by the police; the way they interrogate them is different from how they would handle a well-educated, upper class person. A majority of movies have reduced corruption to 'bribe taking' and have rarely gone beyond it.”

Apart from these, health (psychological included) and family issues of those in the force are comfortably forgotten in favour of this mythical ‘super cop’, the activists allege. These cops, as much as we complain, are also terribly overworked. Many of them have a tough time accommodating their family in their professional lives,” says, Mahesh, activist, Makkal Mandram.