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Cop movies are now all about ‘rogue’ cops who take on the system

Bright spot: Kay Kay Menon in ‘Special Ops 1.5’.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Yet another Kay Kay Menon project where he thoroughly overshadows the middling material he has to work with — what else is new? Menon’s latest, director Neeraj Pandey’s Special Ops 1.5: The Himmat Story, is a prequel to last year’s Special Ops, an otherwise unremarkable espionage series where Menon, as spymaster Himmat Singh, is one of the few bright spots. The Himmat Story takes us to the early 2000s, when Himmat was a field agent at R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing).

Menon, predictably, excels amid a sea of spy movie clichés, but the reason I find Himmat’s character interesting is because he’s written as a symbol of outlier competence. He is unrealistically good at a job where it’s almost impossible to get it consistently right over a long period of time. And he has to do this while dealing with less-than-driven colleagues, oafish seniors and arm-twisting politicians. Because of this, Himmat is forever caught in a ‘juxtaposition loop’, wherein his worth has to be constantly defined in terms of the worthlessness of the ‘system’. All of this added up over time has a distinct whiff of Man and Superman about it, and I suspect it’s not entirely unintentional.

In fact, it’s even spelt out in Special Ops 1.5, when during the last episode, a senior officer tasked with auditing Himmat’s career in the present day quips, in English, “The less competent should not judge the more competent.” The way the character has been written tells us something about the changing perceptions around defence and law enforcement structures in India. Heroism now belongs solely to the outlier; organisational, collective action is seen as either inadequate or a pipe dream. It’s what Twitter calls ‘main character syndrome’.

Plummeting faith

It wasn’t always this way: if you look at Pandey’s own past work, his films Baby (2015) and A Wednesday (2008), for instance, lionised counter-terrorism agents. Shivam Nair, who shares directing duties with Pandey on the Special Ops series, worked on the DD Metro show Sea Hawks in the late 90s, which was a fairly affectionate, stylised portrayal of the Indian Coast Guard. Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, plenty of military and police movies focused on the collective, on showing institutions in a largely positive light — J.P. Dutta’s Border, Madhur Bhandarkar’s Aan, and so on.

That has changed in the last decade or so in Bollywood. Cop movies are now all about ‘rogue’ cops who take on the system, whether it’s Singham or Simmba. In the John Abraham-starrer Satyamev Jayate (2018), Manoj Bajpayee’s cop character even says, “Yahaan biryani mein kankar nahi hai, kankar mein biryani hai” (The biryani does not have grit, the grit has some biryani.) This tonal shift, however, did not come about in a vacuum. A tacit approval of authoritarianism and the overall centralisation of power is one reason for this.

Another is the simple fact that people’s faith in the law and order machinery has plummeted. From institutional deficiencies that leave citizens high and dry in their time of need to the branding of dissenting voices as anti-national or worse, to the labelling of protesting farmers as Khalistanis, there’s a lot wanting in the country’s social, political and economic fabric. And that’s the kind of atmosphere in which stories of outlier heroism are easier to sell.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 11:35:17 PM |

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