Newer shades of khaki in Tamil cinema: the shifting dynamics of the silver screen cop

Watched ‘Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu’ again on the big screen? Here’s how cops in Tamil cinema are finding more dignity in writing while also becoming a mirror to examine the fundamentally broken system they are part of

June 30, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 12:37 pm IST

Stills from ‘Viduthalai: Part 1’, Taanakkaran’, ‘Kaithi’, and ‘Por Thozhil’

Stills from ‘Viduthalai: Part 1’, Taanakkaran’, ‘Kaithi’, and ‘Por Thozhil’

An uber-cool police officer slams a man’s face on a boiling hot pan. A hero in khaki does not mind using a few bullets on some goons to get to the climax. If it’s the hero that a team of policemen are chasing, they neither have plot armour nor human rights.

These may seem like routine scenes in Indian masala cinema, but if such norms of the genre no longer please you, if you are beginning to notice how normalised police brutality is and how insipidly cops are written when they are not the leads, there are chances it has a lot to do with a change in how filmmakers are seeing and digging into the khaki.

As noticeable in Tamil cinema especially, the cop finds more dignity on one hand while also becoming a mirror to examine the fundamentally broken system they are a part of.

An easy launchpad for younger actors, the Tamil cinema police has predominantly been a do-gooder hero battling terrorists/local mafia, taking revenge after a personal tragedy, or occasionally becoming a detective and breaking a sweat with a serial killer on the loose/ unorganised crime.

In 2000s, we saw creators subvert the routine. For instance, a star like Ajith Kumar doing an unabashedly negative shade in Mankathaor director Hari’s insistence on setting his cop films in the rural background, or Gautham Menon giving his zeal to the sub-genre through a trilogy (Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu is back on the big screen) where he traces the life of the same police officer but in different stages of his life.

These were all pivotal in leading to how the cop evolved in the 2010s and the 2020s.

Holding a mirror to a broken system

What filmmaker Vetri Maaran said in an interview about writing police characters best elucidates the current zeitgeist. He says he can never write a heroic, unidimensional good cop because the world they thrive in is fundamentally flawed and the system they operate is discriminatory. Without a doubt, Vetri Maaran going no-holds-barred in Visaranai to depict the gruelling horror of this world was a major turning point in Tamil cinema. And he continues to do it with Viduthalai, where Soori’s Kumaresan becomes the insider and a portal to the roots of the weeds that grow deep into this flawed system that still follows laws based on a colonial Police Act. Kumaresan becomes the conscience that others in his department have misplaced.

Interestingly, even during the gut-wrenching climax, we see his desperation turn into aggression quite naturally. But being aware of his position and because doing anything out of line can make things worse; he has no option but to follow the due process to find a solution.

Imagine what it speaks of a lower-rank officer, helplessly serving the hierarchy, tired of having to do the dirty work alone, exhausted at being the sole voice for the right? So does Franklin Jacob’s Writer which wonderfully essays the nastiness of the system from the perspective of one such helpless cog in the wheel.

In Taanakkaran, director Tamizh cracks open a fresh on-screen examination to show how the toxicity is so rooted in the hierarchy that it belts you right from your training days. Miga Miga Avasaram might be a terribly amateurish film with some questionable gaze but it deserves credit for what it strives to tell through its story about a woman constable on bandobast duty who was denied to attend nature’s call by her abusive male superior.

On the other hand, cops in cinema are still fun when they move away from social dramas.

Mainstream genre cops

Titles like Raatsasan, Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru, 8 Thottakkal, and more re-established the cop as a crucial storyteller in the late 2010s. The recent hit Por Thozhil invests in a simple buddy-cop idea of brains-meeting-brawns, that adds a lot to the crime-thriller genre. There’s something else going on in the character writing of this film; Ashok Selvan’s Prakash can be seen as an extension of Vettai’s Thiru Murthy (Madhavan) in being a timid/scaredy-cat cop — the antithesis to the hyper-masculine mainstream cop — who overcomes his fears through the film’s journey. Constable Napoleon putting on a David vs Goliath in Kaithi can be likened to the same.

In the masala genre, a cop remains a great fit in cat-and-mouse stories. Titles like Vikram Vedha, Thani Oruvan, and Theeran prove that it works when the cop has equally opposing energy to feed off. Or, as Maanaaduand Ayyappanum Koshiyum(Bheemla Nayak), show ego clashes from the days of Agni Natchathiram continue to make investing drama.

The lack of a good antagonist or following the same formulaic routine is going to backfire, and titles like Darbar, Singam 3, Pon Manickavel, Sinam, and Saamy 2 are evidence of that.

Some regular tropes continue, like how a cop is added and rendered unnecessary just to create a world that’s beyond law or is lawless, like in Muthaiya’s films or in Saani Kaayidham. In films like Vikram, the story is set at an all-new level that justifies the pointlessness of cops.

The grey, the bad and the ugly

On-screen violence can be too much fun in masala films based on the film’s intent. Even putting a pistol in a child’s hand (Sethupathi) can work in cinema but it’s important to see what films do to the socio-political environment whether you believe in cinema having real-life effects or not. The custodial torture involving IPS officer Balveer Singh happening just weeks after Viduthalai’s release is more than enough to establish cinema as a mirror to society.

There’s no point being shocked at Ajith’s Vinayak Mahadevan going all John Wick at his enemies — it’s a popcorn film where he does worse things! But surprisingly, creators expect us to give the do-gooder heroes the same clean chit even when due process is present.

A film like Arun Vijay’s Sinam, which belittles the judiciary and glorifies unlawful police encounters will, however, rub the audiences in the wrong way. Why does a wonderfully-written serial killer series like Vilangu, in the guise of showing life in a small-town station rocked by an extraordinary case, opt for a conspicuous display of custodial violence?

If creators have understood why Tamil cinema has stopped portraying their antagonists as individuals from vulnerable sects facing unjust scrutiny, the same principle applies here as well.

Purely evil characters that don’t offer any exploration into their psyche are quite often boring anyway.

If this has been the evolution in Tamil cinema, Malayalam creators as always continue to study the system in their social dramas but use them for more in other stories. You get films like the psychological thriller Iratta, Jana Gana Mana (for its take on fake encounters), an unusual thriller in Ela Veezha Poonchira, a black satire on red tapism in Purusha Pretham, and a cyber-crime thriller like Operation Javaamongst many more.

Of course, few attempts that glorify encounter killings like Christopher also come and go.

Bollywood has been exceptional in writing female cops in Delhi Crime Season 2 and Dalit feminist cops in Dahaad and Kathal. Dahaad’s Anjali Bhaati/Anjali Meghwal’s fight against caste discrimination and patriarchy — thankfully with no upper-caste saviour — becomes a striking, crucial social commentary. Masala films, like Sooryavanshi, continue to have skewed takes on police brutality with glorified superhero cops.

Stills from ‘Dahaad’ and ‘Kathal’

Stills from ‘Dahaad’ and ‘Kathal’ | Photo Credit: Prime Video and Netflix

The hope for the masala cinema’s cop can now be to provide a telescopic view into the many cracks of the system that can make for thoroughly entertaining cinema while also paying heed to the current sensibilities in portraying custodial violence.

What one can demand from filmmakers like Vetri Maaran is a deeper exploration into the fabric of our law enforcement, what makes them who they are socio-psychologically, and if possible, without relying on too much shock value.

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