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Why Does The Indian Entertainment Industry Celebrate And Glorify Police Brutality?

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.

Protesters march at a rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Houston, Texas, U.S. June 2, 2020. REUTERS/Callaghan O’Hare

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.

paatal lok nepali comment
A still from Paatal Lok. The portrayal of the contemporary Indian political scenario in the backdrop of Paatal Lok has added to the aura of semblance to reality.

The Trope Of Custodial Violence In Cinema And OTT Platforms

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.

A still from the movie Singham. Representational image. Photo: IMDB

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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