2 August 2015

Not the Usual Suspects

This week's Mumbai Mirror column

Thoughts on cops and the everyman, on the cop as everywoman: from 'Singham' to 'Drishyam' via 'Mardaani'

Tabu as IG Meera Deshmukh, with her posse of policemen, in Drishyam

Drishyam is by no means a great film. It's not even a particularly good film. Several performances and locales leave much to be desired. But having not been previously exposed to any of the previous versions - neither the 2013 Malayalam film of the same name, starring Mohanlal, nor the Japanese or Korean films that were more faithful renditions of the original inspiration, a Japanese novel called The Devotion of Suspect X - I found it watchable. It has a plot (which is already more than one can say for most big-budget Hindi releases), it has some suspense, and even posits something like an ethical dilemma. 

But this is not a review. Readers trying to decide if they should watch Drishyam are unlikely to find this piece helpful. What I want to think about is Drishyam's depiction of the police. The first interesting fact here is that the film casts Ajay Devgn - the very man who has made a career out of playing an outlandish supersize cop in Rohit Shetty films like Singham and Singham Returns - as the supposed everyman, a guy who finds himself in a tight spot, ranged against the police. Had Devgn been a little bit more in touch with his acting self (and I'm convinced he used to have one), he could have had some fun with this rolereversal, especially since even the location is the same as those films: a Marathi-fied Goa. It's a pity he's now so used to sleepwalking his way through the larger-than-life muscleman parts that he can no longer seem to convey either vulnerability or middle-class-ness with any degree of conviction. 

Second attention-grabbing tactic: Drishyam makes its tough cop a woman. The figure who must match Devgn's moves, play the cat to his mouse, is played by Tabu. It's not that Tabu hasn't played a cop before - I can think offhand of Fanaa (2006), where she had a small but effective role as an anti-terrorist bureau agent. But as IG Meera Deshmukh, she must marshal a different combination of attributes. There is an obvious comparison to be made here, between Meera Deshmukh and the last policewoman heroine we've seen on the Hindi film screen, Shivani Shivaji Roy, in last August's Mardaani. On the surface, they aren't similar at all. Rani Mukherjee's Shivani, as I had noted in these pages at the time, always appears in masculine garb: either in uniform or in loose collared shirts and trousers, with her hair tied back and her fists ready to hand out a punch or two. Tabu's Meera, in contrast, makes her 'entry' in near slow-motion, clad in an uber-flattering uniform that clings to her curves, and for much of the film's latter half, appears in fashionable churidar-kurtas and perfectly draped saris, her lovely auburn hair flowing loose even while she supervises the 'interrogation' of Devgn and his family by a violent junior. Meera, unlike Shivani, doesn't like to get her hands dirty. 

But there's one way in which both these characters mirror each other: their 'feminine' instincts are written into the roles in the most obvious fashion. If the childless Shivani Shivaji Roy, for all her mardaangi, is accused by male colleagues of taking things "too personally", and proves it by being pushed over the emotional edge by the abduction of an orphaned girl with whom she has a nurturing, quasi-filial relationship, Meera Deshmukh is more straightforwardly cast in the maternal mould. Her actions, which might be unforgiveable as a police officer, are meant to be condoned as those of a mother. And eventually, it is a failed mother that her character is judged. 

Outside this though, Tabu remains the unexamined Bollywood supercop: "Hum policewalon ko aadmi ke baat karne se pata chal jaata hai ki woh sach bol raha hai ya jhooth," she declares in one of the film's more dangerous ideological moments. And beyond the major characters, Drishyam offers a glimpse of a darker vision of the police. The film's small town of Pondolem, despite having flattened Goa's mix of communities into a Hindu milieu (complete with a Swamiji and a satsang in Panjim), comes across as rather idyllic. From the start, the only unpleasantness in town is created by the police. The bullish, corrupt Gaitonde (wonderfully played by Kamlesh Sawant) doesn't ever pay his bills at the eatery he frequents, and has illegally locked up a young man for defaulting on a loan payment to a company owned by Gaitonde's cousin. Most of Devgn's early exchanges with Gaitonde and his more amenable senior point out how unfortunate it is that the public fears policemen instead of trusting them. 

Charmy Harikrishnan's helpful comparison of the Hindi film with the Malayalam version points out that [spoiler alert] "Mohanlal protects his family precisely because he knows the boy is a police offer's son and the entire police force will come after them." This "grave mistrust between the ordinary man and the police" which, as Harikrishnan correctly points out, is "blurred" in the Hindi film. Thinking about this reminded me of another recent Malayalam film in which a policeman's family is the focus, albeit from the very different perspective of a policeman's son becoming witness to a murder. That film, Rajeev Ravi's superb, haunting Njan Steve Lopez (2014), suggests that Malayali filmmakers recognize the chilling fact that the police in this country often function as just another gang of thugs -- and are willing to engage with it with some complexity. Hindi filmmakers, still so abjectly tied to heroes and villains, could really learn a lesson or two.
Published in Mumbai Mirror

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