Law and disorder: the police and policing in Tamil Nadu

by Selvaraj Velayutham and Maya Ranganathan

Despite the salient and recurring depictions of the police and police stations that recur in Indian cinema, they largely remain under-examined by film scholars. In contemporary South Indian Tamil cinema (Velayutham and Devadas 2021a, Velayutham 2008), police often are central to film narratives. A plethora of cop films portray the police force as protector of ordinary citizens, enforcer of law and order, and executioner of justice and have achieved cult status. Such action films typically revolve around an honest, hypermasculine police officer who aims to eliminate criminals and fight crime.[1] [open notes in new window] He opposes corruption and nepotism within the system and takes out violent criminals by violence if necessary. This morally upright hero reveres the police khaki uniform and is steadfast in his duties. A public servant, when necessary, he take matters into his own hands, including extrajudicial killings.

In contrast to these sensationalised, celebratory depictions, a series of Tamil films have represented the police as dysfunctional, corrupt, violent, and despotic. This kind of representation has emerged as a recurring trope in recent Tamil films based on adaptations of real-life incidents, particularly those that deal with the lower classes, that is, subaltern and marginalised subjects.[2] Police-citizen interactions with oppressed communities in such films reveal torture, abuse and lawlessness, establishing what Agamben calls “a state of exception” (Agamben 2005). The state of exception allows the state to transcend the rule of law for public good or when its sovereignty is threatened. The state of exception is a special condition marked by the suspension of the juridical order. In this paper, we detail the cinematic portrayal of police brutalities and critically analyse various ways narratives trace police-citizen interactions as they take place inside the police station, which we analyse as a spatio-carceral state of exception (Devasundaram 2018). That is, the police represent state authority/sovereign power, and the site of the police station becomes a space where marginalised/subaltern subjects are stripped of their basic rights. We also investigate the affective and emotional dimensions of police-citizen interactions and the ways in which disadvantaged citizens negotiate these unequal power relations and circumstances into which they are thrown.

Any account of the depiction of the police in Tamil cinema, whether fictional or otherwise, should be read alongside the history of policing in Tamil Nadu. The arrival of the British East India Company saw the British use private local policing to protect their commercial interests and revenue collection at Fort St. George in the city of Madras.[3] This policy gradually extended across the Madras Presidency further south. With the establishment of the British Raj around the mid-1800s, such an approach was reorganised into centralised state policing and became a separate arm of the state.

In her important study, Police Matters: the everyday state and caste politics in South Asia 1900-1975, Kumar (2021) makes a number of important points with regards to policing in rural Tamil Nadu. First, given the small number of policemen deployed in rural areas, colonial policemen “optimised their resources by drawing on and reproducing knowledge that categorised, enumerated and objectified Indian subjects based on their caste” (2021: 3). Second, police recruitment relied on a knowledge of caste so that the “composition of the force itself reflected objectified notions of caste identities and hierarchies” (2021:4). Third, these practices continued after India’s independence in 1947, despite the Indian police force’s becoming more professionalised. Crucially, to quote Kumar at length:

“whereas some aspects of decolonisation took time, others simply entailed no changes, since the postcolony inherited untouched several institutions and practices—including those pertaining to policing—that its colonial predecessor had established. Except for an accelerated Indianization of the officer cadre, the institutional structure of the Madras police survived decolonization intact. Likewise, the legal codes that informed colonial policing were retained verbatim by the new republic” (Kumar 2021: 6).

A notable feature of policing both before and after Independence has been the use of state-sanctioned violence, with the police having discretionary authority as to how they maintain law and order. Though this occurs in policing internationally, the Indian experience suggests a specific continuation of a casteist approach from the colonial period to the present. Ironically, reformation and resistance to these discriminatory practices only came about through an identity-based (from caste communities) resistance politics. As Kumar (2021: 8) points out,

“subaltern communities could more easily highlight their experience of police violence by speaking in the idiom of caste in public politics than they could as individuals in courts. Public politics that deployed caste identity acknowledged the realities of social and political inequality, whereas judicial redress was limited by its assumption of liberal subjects who were equal before the law”.

Notwithstanding these transformations and media reporting of police violence, India’s culture of policing remains unchanged. Recent ethnographic research (Kumar 2021, Gorringe 2017, Pandian 2009, Mines 2005) have shed light on the continued and persistent police mistreatment of marginalised communities in South India. Gorringe and Damodaran (2020) observe that the Tamil Nadu Police has

“gained notoriety for its brutality and highhandedness, normally unleashed against the hapless poor and marginalised sections of the society. Tamil Nadu is also notorious for its lockup deaths and police encounters”.

As it was the case in British colonial India, policing in contemporary Tamil Nadu has targeted particular sections of the population—the powerless and already oppressed. We turn our attention next to how the film medium represents this policing in Tamil Nadu.

Police in Tamil cinema

In his 1983 book on Cinema as a Medium of Communication in Tamil Nadu, C.R.W. David identifies three mutations of what he terms as “Indian socials” in the history of Tamil cinema: in the first phase, films depicted “the dilemma of the individual at home at a time of socio-cultural interchange,” and in the second phase films depicted an individual’s struggle against the inequalities in society. In the third phase filmmakers developed “authentic socials” that draw from “serious and sensational developments” such as wars, the struggle for Independence, partition and commercial strife and unemployment (1983: 23). David’s formulation lends itself well to evaluate the representation of police in Tamil cinema. However, rather than regarding this as a timeline, we treat these categories as points of departure, since such themes and their treatment are not confined to specific time periods but continue in film to this day.

Domestic problems dominated early Tamil films. Storylines revolved around family relationships, with the protagonists struggling to rise above daily emotional strife. In such films, the policeman was usually only one among several characters propelling the story forward. Even when the main protagonist was a policeman, he was shown as preoccupied with family matters, and job relationships just provided a backdrop to the family melodrama. While such films were more common in the early days of Tamil cinema, there were some notable exceptions. As early as in 1954, Andha Naal (That Day), a thriller directed by S.Balachander featured two intelligent and insightful policemen who successfully traced a murderer. The box office success Thangapathakkam (Gold Medal), the 1974 film directed by P.Madhavan in which Sivaji Ganesan reprised his iconic role of upright Police Superintendent Chaudhry, revolved around Chaudhry ‘s troubled relationship with his wayward son Jagan, whom he kills accidentally while on the job. The film ended with his receiving a gold medal for valour.  Films focusing on this kind of melodramatic emotional turmoil continue to this day in Tamil cinema.

The individual’s struggle against the injustices in society gave rise to the angry young man of the 1970s and 80s. Popularised by Amitabh Bachchan in Hindi cinema, the angry young man had a point of view, took a stand, and fought against social injustices and inequality. Film plots used revenge as a “primal value” and discourse was limited to issues of power and survival, with violence presented as a means of survival (Sardar cited in Maderya, 2010). The genre was popularised by actor Rajnikant both in original Tamil films and in remakes of Hindi films in which he reprised Bachchan’s role of the angry young man. At the same time, several other actors gained popularity playing the vengeful protagonist who uses violence to address the injustices meted out to him by both state and society. The angry young man has popularity because he symbolises the proletariat’s rage against state oppression; he manifests this just rage in his battles with corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, and officials, including policemen.

Equally noteworthy in Indian films is the straightforward policeman who is frustrated by the shackles placed on him by the state and who does not hesitate to (mis)use his position and power to ensure justice for the oppressed. Several actors built their careers playing the righteous policeman. Vijayakanth has played the dutiful policeman in nearly 20 films in his 25-year career as an actor.[4] Ironically, his early police films were released during the years when M G Ramachandran was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, a period criticised for unchecked police rule (Maderya, 2010). The roles Vijayakanth reprised over the years in various police officer positions not merely cemented his career as a film star but also helped build his image when he ventured into politics in 2006. In many of the films, he played a wronged police officer, shackled by evil forces and unable to perform his duty, eventually rising above them to establish the rule of law. The representation of the police as innately good and well-meaning but rendered powerless by the societal elements contributed significantly to justifying police violence and brutality.

Several actors have played policemen with élan.[5] Spanning across four decades, their films depicted the protagonist as an upright policeman who takes on the task of cleansing society of evil masterminds who repeatedly manage to escape the law. While the represented police stations and police-public interactions evoke familiarity, even in films that supposedly draw inspiration from real life policemen, the cinematic act of policing involves displays of superhuman qualities with the characters enjoying privileges denied to policemen in real life. Such romanticised, fantastical depictions are as fictional as the storytelling itself.

Showing dysfunctional, corrupt, violent and despotic policeman in Tamil films belongs to the last phase that David (1983) describes as leading to “authentic socials”. Films based on real events and incidents are rendered on celluloid with some fictional elements but mostly the filmmakers try not to alter the essence of the important issues. This category of films, which deal with some of the most significant events in regional history even when they work within the established conventions of Tamil cinema, are marked by a narrative realism that presents policemen and politicians as vile and corrupt (Maderya, 2010). Just as the angry young man film was a consequence of societal maladies of unemployment and inequality, the authentic socials have been a response to an increasingly impudent state that makes mockery of democratic politics.

Established categories of comedic cop, good cop and bad cop get replaced by another—the policemen with shades of grey. These face inner turmoil and systemic issues, eventually becoming complicit in the violence and despotism that have come to characterise the police force today. Such films are particularly significant for the ways in which they present interactions between the state and the marginalised. Peppered with authentic visuals such as news reports or documentary footage, they move beyond the realm of the fictional and fantastic.

In recent times, young directors have found in the many events of state-citizen conflict, socially conscious topics that could be adapted for cinematic content. The rise of political films, changes in the businesses of film production and distribution, the expansion of multi-screen theatres, and emerging Over-the-Top (OTT) services– media services that are offered directly to the viewers via the Internet, as a major source of entertainment have led to more varied film plots, which we attribute to the more nuanced representations of police in recent films (Devadas and Velayutham 2021). While caste or marginality was visible on screen earlier, the film narrative rarely named it although it served as a reference point for filmmakers and audiences. The ascendancy of caste conflicts/clashes and the politicisation of caste in Tamil Nadu over the last two decades have produced an opportune moment for marginalised and oppressed voices to be seen and heard both in public and on film. Led by young independent filmmakers, notably the Dalit filmmaker Pa. Ranjith, a key development in Tamil film industry has been the emergence of Dalit-themed films. For instance, Pa. Ranjith’s work explore issues of caste discrimination, identity, historical and social injustices and Dalit self-determinism. Additionally, some recent films have been based on real-life events and incidents such as Visaranai (Interrogation, 2015) directed by Vetrimaaran, based on the novel Lock Up by M. Chandrakumar, which is an autobiographical account of the author’s experience with the police.[6]

Karnan and Jai Bhim

In the following sections we focus on several salient themes that emerge in the “authentic social” films.[7] In particular, we look closely at Karnan and Jai Bhim and their rendering of the police. We chose these films primarily for two reasons: first, they rely heavily on real life incidents fictionalized for the cinematic medium and second, they depict caste oppression in graphic detail. The films draw from Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar’s political philosophy that places caste at the center of political violence. That makes them unlike other films that portray violence, for instance, Visaranai, in which caste does not play a central part. The oppressors in Jai Bhim and Karnan, including the men in uniform, possess “the will to kill”, a trait that Ambedkar argues characterizes the upper caste in India’s system of graded inequality that sustains caste inequality. The very title of the film Jai Bhim is a salutation used by Ambedkar’s followers. Director Pa. Ranjith, a follower of Ambedkar's writings, registered the film under this title and allowed the film crew to use the phrase. Although the movie uses the term to refer to anyone who fights for human rights, there are portraits of Buddha, Ambedkar and Periyar—the 'Father of the Dravidian movement' who rebelled against Brahminical dominance and gender and caste inequality in Tamil Nadu. A character in the film, Justice Chandru, has a personal involvement with Ambedkar’s writing and speeches. Karnan, which is the second outing of director Mari Selvaraj, after Pariyerum Perumal, BA BL., also takes up the theme of caste violence perpetrated by dominant and intermediate caste groups against oppressed communities (Kumar, 2021).

Police at work

Karnan (2021) directed by Mari Selvaraj is loosely based on thecaste violence unleashed by the police in Kodiyankulam in Tamil Nadu in 1995. About 600 policemen stormed a predominantly Dalit village and destroyed property and looted valuables and money. They did this on instructions from their superior officers, purportedly to stem the material and economic prosperity of the Dalits. In the fictionalised account, an all-Dalit village Podiyankulam and an adjacent village, Melur, are in constant conflict, with the upper caste-dominated Melur preventing a bus stop from being built in Podiyankulam. Things come to a head when Karnan, a feisty youth from Podiyankulam played by popular actor Dhanush, vandalises a bus for not stopping at his village for a pregnant woman. On a complaint from the bus owner, DSP Kannabiran arrives on the scene. Though the bus owner and Podiyankulam's residents settle the issue amicably, casteist Kannabiran decides to show the villagers their place. He orders that the village elders come to the police station where they are beaten mercilessly. Karnan storms the police station and rescues them. Tensions rise and the villagers prepare to fight the police. Karnan leaves the village for a job when police arrive to destroy and vandalise the village. Karnan returns, traps Kannabiran in a house, and overpowers him. A defiant Kannabiran continues to speak with caste pride, which enrages Karnan to the point of killing the policeman. Karnan is arrested and jailed but returns after ten years to a rousing welcome in a much-changed Podiyankulam.

Although Mari Selvaraj denied that the film was based on the Kodiyankulam incident, there are several markers in the film that allude to the incident. Clearly the name of the village rhymes with Kodiyankulam. Also, an incident involving a bus that sparks the violence that destroys the village occurs in both film and real life. An altercation between a bus driver and a student in Kodiyankulam had led to the death of 18 persons in all, following which a 600-strong police force looted and destroyed the village in an operation that lasted for six hours. The 1990s were marked by many protests and demands for civil rights in southern Tamil Nadu and these are referred to in the film. Interestingly, caste is not mentioned even once in the dialogues, but it is conveyed through symbolism. In real life politics, access to public transport was a demand not just in Kodiyankulam but also in several other villages in the state. Whether the film is based on the Kodiyankulam incident or has been inspired by several others as well, it is clear that it draws from real incidents, thus rendering its representation of the police even more significant.

Jai Bhim (Victory to Bhim) (2021) directed by T.J. Gnanavel is a legal drama. It also deals with police bias and state violence against a marginalised community. “Jai Bhim” is a slogan used by the followers of B.R. Ambedkar, the first Law and Justice Minister of India. He headed the Constituent Assembly and was a socio-political reformer who worked for the eradication of untouchability and upliftment of Dalits. The film is based on a true incident which relates to a case fought by K. Chandru in 1993, an advocate who retired in 2014 as a judge of the Madras High Court. He was a well-respected judge whose over 96,000 judgments affected the lives of many impoverished and downtrodden people. He was known for fighting against caste discrimination and upholding the rights of poor communities in Tamil Nadu.

The film revolves around the lives of Sengani and Rajakannu, a couple from the Irula tribe. Irulas are spread across the three southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, and primarily work as snake and rat catchers and honey gatherers. The tribe has faced discrimination and police harassment, such as having four fake cases of theft foisted on a 14-year-old Irula boy in the Vriddhachalam police station as recently as in 2022 (Sivaranjith: 2022). In the film, Rajakannu is arrested by the police in connection with a case of theft, and later he goes missing from the police station. Sengani seeks the help of advocate Chandru to seek justice for her husband. Chandru files a habeas corpus petition in court. The Solicitor General argues on behalf of the police that Rajakannu had absconded from police custody with his brothers on the night of their arrest. Then Rajakannu’s body is discovered near the state border.  Finding gaps in the accounts of the police, Chandru asks the court to investigate Sub-Inspector (SI) Gurumurthy, Head Constable Veerasamy, and Constable Kirubakaran. Further investigation reveals that Rajakannu had been killed in police custody and the police had attempted to pass it off as the death of an unknown man in a road accident. In the end, the court orders policemen who killed Rajakannu to be arrested, and grants Sengani rupees three lakh (which could approximately buy 740 grams of 22 karat gold in 1993 in India) and a plot of land as compensation.

In the original case fought by advocate Chandru in 1993, Rajakannu’s wife Parvathi lived in Mudanai, a hamlet in Vriddhachalam district, Tamil Nadu, with her four children when the police came looking for him. They were Koravars, not Irulas.[8] The film identifies the location of the action as Konamalai hamlet in Cuddalore district. The course of events in Parvathi’s life were very similar to Sengani’s experiences in the film. The main accused in real life was a Christian police officer, Antony Samy, who was depicted as the character Gurumurthy, a Hindu, in the film. In one scene SI Gurumurthy was standing with a caste marker in the background which set off a local furor, with community representatives alleging that the film was attempting to besmirch the its reputation. This staging was changed immediately by the film-makers. Although not clear in the film, the real-life court case was fought for 13 years by which time several policemen died and the rest retired. Rajakannu’s brother and son died of injuries from the police torture and Parvathi now lives in Chennai. Despite the changes in facts and sequence of events, the film symbolises the police-subaltern dynamics of that case.

Police arriving at the Irula village in search of Rajakannu (Jai Bhim 2021). Advocate K. Chandru files a habeas corpus petition in court (Jai Bhim 2021).