Trigger Warning: Mentions of rape, suicide and violence
After the much talked about custodial violence and deaths of the father-son duo P. Jayaraj and J. Fenix in Tamil Nadu, it triggered much outrage in the country; recently Umar Khalid in his hearing at the Supreme Court complained of ill-treatment in the lockup. Reports on the brutal use of force by the police and other state actors suggest that this is not a new phenomenon. However, this is the first time in recent history that an incident of police brutality has gained currency in India, hot on the heels of the #BlackLivesMatter protests on the killing of African-American George Floyd by law enforcement officials in Minnesota, US.
There have been countless cases in the past of individuals who have been victims of brutality at the hands of the officers of the state. Although over the years the crime bureau statistics of the country have depicted an increase in cases of custodial deaths, these deaths are mostly attributed to natural causes or suicides. There is unfortunately very little data on violence faced by prisoners in custody or by the officers of the state towards such arrestees or detainees.
However, the recurring cases of custodial deaths keep resurfacing time and again. For instance, the case of Agnelo’s Valdaris in Mumbai, held in custody for theft was allegedly subjected to violence of physical as well as sexual nature while in custody, by the officers. Later, Valdaris was found dead on the railway tracks and the officers accused were eventually convicted of murder. Recently, the family of a youth who allegedly died by suicide claimed that he had called them on the day of his death claiming that he was being tortured.
Cases of violence, physical and mental harassment are often heard of, from accounts of survivors and witnesses to such acts. From the nature of portrayal of these practices of the State officers in the popular media relating to Indian systems, it is evidently an accepted and common practice.
For instance, take the neo-noir Amazon web series ‘Paatal Lok’ filled with action, thrill, drama and some political twists and turns, set in Delhi’s choked underworld, characterized by a nexus of politicians, media personnel, the police, and canines. Among others, reviews have hailed it as a “fashioned as a crime thriller-cum-police procedural set”. The portrayal of the contemporary Indian political scenario in the backdrop of the series has added to the aura of semblance to reality.
The series, a work of fiction, engages the viewers with the help of quasi-relatable trance with these elements that it uses for its setting and characteristics.
There comes a point where it becomes difficult to identify the point where such artistic mediums reflect the society and where the society reflects the medium.
This is a pattern which is seen repeatedly in popular media in the Indian entertainment industry where these behavioural norms of law enforcement officials have not only been normalized but also glorified and celebrated as heroic acts to avenge the seemingly corrupt and vile of the society while surpassing the long and tedious bureaucratic justice system of the country. This is apparent in other recent web series such as Mirzapur, Sacred Games, and Jamatra – Sabka Number Aayega to name a few. Although often less gritty and more pulpy, mainstream Bollywood movies such as Dabangg, Simmbaa, Singham, Class of ‘83 and Mardaani also have similar patterns of the depiction of police officers.
Such a depiction of officers in a radically biased manner could prove to be just as radical in a society’s understanding of the duties and responsibilities of the officers of the state and their standing in the societal system.
Therefore, considering the magnanimity and impact of the Indian film industry on its audience, one must consider the responsibility of such forms of artistic expression and their role in shaping the society.
This may be seen in the case of the recent custodial shootings of the accused in the Hyderabad rape case and the societal response to these shootings without trial. High revenue-earning blockbusters (such as Dabangg and its subsequent sequels) have, in the past, celebrated the heroism of its protagonists portrayed in similar plotlines. It is not far-fetched to conceive popular media and artistic representations as a contributing factor to this.
Public responses to vigilantism, trials aided by the media, and vengeful heroism are perhaps glorified to a great degree by recent trends in Indian cinema.
The Constitutional Freedom of Speech and Expression has been safeguarded in the Constitution of India, as in many other countries for a healthy exchange of ideas and ideologies among the citizens. This is so the governance in the country may be determined by well-informed minds, as should be the case in a democracy. Such a right must be availed so long as it helps in the evolution of the system to make a better society. However, using the freedom of such expression to misrepresent the system in the grave manner in which it has; may be considered an irresponsible use of such a right.
While there are elements of the society which the media depicts, it often does so in an excessively amplified manner. However, there comes a point at which this depiction influences individuals to reinstate the same toxic practices as have been reflected in their favourite movies. This growing generation, looking up to their heroes on screen performing stunts on a bike before a moving train, do not only try to mimic these dangerous stunts; but also countless other toxic practices which such art tend to knowingly or unknowingly propagate.
This circularity of reflection must be broken for the society to progress. The media and entertainment industry, with its wide influence across classes, castes and religions in the society, plays an intrinsic role in this endeavour. It might be a bit premature to expect artistic depictions to imbue constitutional safeguards in their work, but it will certainly help push for progressive ideals in society.