Bollywood’s ‘role’ in police misconduct, human rights violations


Column: This Bothers Me

By Krishnan Chittur

NEW YORK, August 7, 2021 – Bollywood’s recent unprecedented lawsuit against two popular TV networks generated much discussion about Bollywood’s responsibilities in a democratic society.  But even as complaints escalate about alleged police misconduct and human rights violations in India, Bollywood’s ‘role’ in fostering that law-breaking culture remains unexamined.  That’s an issue that merits serious discussion.

Bollywood’s Unprecedented, Industry-Wide Lawsuit

In October 2020, 38 Bollywood titans (including filmmakers, top-billing actors, and industry unions), sued two popular TV networks and reporters.  The underlying spark was those network’s comments (in choice language), while covering an actor’s death, that Bollywood was a drug-ridden industry.

While the lawsuit itself ended in a whimper a few weeks ago, it consumed enormous newsprint (and bytes) for the eight months it was alive, generating much commentary about Bollywood’s role, and news media’s responsibilities, in Indian democracy.

Bollywood complained about the two TV networks conducting media trials of Bollywood personalities and heaping baseless abuse upon Bollywood.  Since those networks were perceived as pro-Modi, typical were comments that Indian institutions – the judiciary, the legislature, the police and the media – had publicly bowed to . . . unwavering force of authoritarian majority.

While many media commentators agreed, they also castigated Bollywood for failure to speak up for journalists allegedly harassed by the police for seeking accountability from the government.  Left unaddressed were deeper underlying issues:  What is Bollywood’s responsibility with respect to police misconduct?

The All-Pervading Influence of Films

Any assessment of Bollywood’s role in encouraging or discouraging behavior must begin with an acknowledgment of the enormous influence of movies on the common man.  As one Bollywood insider correctly summarized, “We as entertainers hold great powers in our hands with respect to the voice and imagination of the common man.”

There’s profound truth in this observation.  Bollywood characters become an integral part of our day-to-day conversation, whether it is Anand in Anand, Gabbar in Sholay, or Mogambo in Mr. India.

So are Bollywood character’s dialogues: Anand’s ‘zindagi aur mouth upar wale ke haath mein hain…’,  Deewar, ‘Aaj mere paas bangla hai, gaadi hai. Bank balance hai…, and Sholay, ‘Ab tera kya hoga Kaalia?’

Indeed, Bollywood dialogues are so potent that they are routinely used in advancing public health messages.

Indisputably, Bollywood influences everything from the inane to the profound:  what we wear, how we speak, and even how we think.  Bollywood’s influence is omnipresent, all around us.  And, as the age-old saying goes, to whom much is given, much is expected – and required.  Much influence has been given to Bollywood.  The question is, how responsible has Bollywood been in exercising this influence?

Police Misconduct Edified in Bollywood Films

Unfortunately, police misconduct and law breaking are not just routine, they’re idolized in Bollywood.  Police brutality, unspeakable torture, and other misconduct such as concocting evidence and ruining lives with false charges with abandon, are common sideshow, portrayed ever so casually in many movies. 

No serious question can exist that Bollywood actively promotes this narrative.  Highly successful, blockbuster films such as Simba, Singham, and Darbar, are based almost entirely on the police-hero’s dreadful violence, lawbreaking, and torture with abandon.  The viewer is left with the impression that in terms of violence and law-breaking at will, police and gangsters are alike – two sides of the same coin.

Indeed, this is not even left for imagination:  the police-hero in many successful movies expressly details this attitude.  And again, much of these dialogues become part of the common man’s – and policeman’s – lingo, for example (paraphrased from Hindi):

  1. If you keep working legally, how will you catch the criminals? (Mardaani)
  2. We have to break the law to enforce it (Batla House);
  3. We have to break the law to preserve order (Class of 83);
  4. There will be no charge sheet for you, only D‑final … meaning death final (Garv);
  5. What is the use of this uniform … that makes a police officer helpless, and not strong (Singham Returns);
  6. A real policeman either dies … or he gets suspended, (Tiranga);
  7. Those who get arrested by me … don’t ask for bail (Zanjeer);
  8. Thrashing by the police is very strange … it makes even a mute person sing songs (Qayamat);
  9. If you dial 100 then a cop will come … and if you give him 100 bucks then he’ll go away (Why Cheat India);
  10. How much a police officer looks correct from outside … from within he is that much corrupt (Singham Returns).

Such sustained barrage in movie after movie normalizes even outrageous misconduct.  And can anyone dispute that this barrage has exerted, and continues to exert, enormous influence on police behavior?  And the common man’s perception?

The News-Media’s Blind Eye

While movie critics have excoriated Bollywood films for bad performance by actors, bad direction, bad editing, and many other reasons, I have yet to see anyone – Bollywood insiders, script-writers, movie-critics , anyone – condemning such consistent glorification of police misconduct.  Police brutality and law-breaking has unquestioned acceptance in Bollywood-world and outside it.

Is it any surprise that police in the real world emulate this?  A police culture of nonchalance to legal constraints will inevitably draw everyone in its net.  Why should it be surprising when journalists occasionally fall victim to police misconduct?  After all, that’s what’s being fostered and fertilized everywhere Bollywood films are seen, heard, or heard about.

Bollywood’s Fundamental Problem: Failure to Recognize That Entertainment Is Also Education

The underlying problem is Bollywood’s utter failure to understand that movies, in the process of entertaining, also educate and influence behavior.  Bollywood titans certainly know of its enormous power and influence over people.  But they have persistently ignored the obvious: with power comes responsibility.

Most Bollywood film-makers’ core-belief – judging from the films they made – has consistently been that they’re nothing more than ‘dream merchants’; they sell dreams to the common man.  And so it has been portrayed to the public. 

CBS’s highly popular ‘60 Minutes’ ran a segment, and even a book has been published, under that title.  Bollywood movies adhere to that core belief, and feed dream-land.  So Bollywood endows its film heroes with super-human strength and acumen in many aspects.  And when the film’s hero is a policeman/woman, that translates into stunning violence and clever lawbreaking.

Must It Be So?

Such glorification of police violence is not necessary for commercial success.  This is more than clear from the successes of recent TV serials such as ‘Delhi Crime’ – a reality based narrative of the notorious Nirbhaya case.

Indeed, that case would appear to have been tailor-made for a Bollywood box-office hit: A heinous crime.  A woman DCP.  Impossible odds:  The victims were thrown out of a bus in the middle of the night in a dark highway.  No surveillance cameras, no witnesses, no documents.    Remarkable police work.  And every one of the five culprits arrested in an unbelievable five days.  Convicted and sentenced in due course, with no irregularities whatsoever.

Even Bollywood script-writers could not have conjured up such an incredible story for a film. A Canadian-Indian film-maker made the highly successful TV series, but Bollywood didn’t bother.  Why?  I suggest that’s because the case involved no gut-churning brutality, torture, or clever concoction of evidence.  It was incredible police work, by the book.  DCP Sharma’s punctilious adherence to the strict constraints of the law, such as securing evidence sealed, with a proper chain of custody, was refreshing.  It was also educative about constraints imposed by the law to forestall police concocting evidence.

Clearly, thus, Bollywood has the capacity to produce high-quality box office hits without idolizing police misconduct.  Movies can entertain and educate, while discouraging law-breaking behavior by the police.  Bollywood needs to recognize and acknowledge its responsibilities to society.  Only then can we hope for a change in police perception of their own task, which is undoubtedly daunting.

Constitutional imperatives of Due Process and human rights don’t exist in a vacuum.  When journalists complain about police misconduct in filing spurious charges, manhandling them, or other human rights violations, attention must be paid to the context: Does the underlying culture encourage or discourage such behavior?  While police law-breaking can never be eliminated completely, Bollywood can at least help delegitimize it socially and culturally.

(Krishnan Chittur is a New York-based attorney and community activist, working for international peace and justice)