copyright 2024, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 62, winter 2023-24

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.

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Police-citizen interaction

Filmic representations of police-citizens relationships convey hierarchies of power, authority, and the legitimization of the use of coercive force. The police, who are also made up of ordinary citizens, are cast as representatives of the state responsible for law enforcement. Ordinary citizens only interact with the police when the police come knocking on their doors, or they are held in custody at a police station, or when an individual turns up at a police station to report a crime. Besides this, the police are depicted in film as liaising and/or colluding with politicians, powerful officials, and criminals. Whether one is entangled or implicated in law enforcement cases, marginalised and oppressed communities in Tamil Nadu face regular intrusion and harassment from the police as evidenced in the films Karnan and Jai Bhim.  

In Karnan, the police enact the society’s prejudice and cultural biases against a marginalised community. The upper-caste villagers of Melur who refuse the Podiyankulam villagers’ basic needs exert power through the police, taking advantage of caste pride and prejudice among the policemen. The police appear mid-way through the film when they are called to investigate the vandalism in the bus. Even before meeting the villagers, they speak about the villagers with barely-concealed contempt as evidenced in the inspector’s (who remains unnamed in the film) repeated references to the caste of the people in his explanation of the reasons for the villagers’ actions. That he regards them as lesser is established in the dialogue by the way he mocks their “self-given” names from Hindu mythology during their initial interrogation; they are paupers masquerading as royalty, he says. However, it is DSP Kannabiran who reflects the extreme prejudice and hatred against the community. When he enters Podiyankulam to investigate the matter, he remains silent as if to indicate that it is below his dignity to speak to the villagers, letting the accompanying police official to lead the interrogation. Interestingly, his caste prejudice is revealed as much by whom he refuses to speak to as by to whom he speaks and how. He makes interjections to the inspector during the interrogation as a way of establishing his authority and superiority; and he complains that he has no place to sit and demands that the village elder remove his turban. Kannabiran is also incensed when the village elder Duryodhan touches his arm while pleading for consideration. While he knows he cannot legally deny the bus owner’s request to drop the case, he is loath to let the matter drop so he schemes to get the villagers to the police station to forcefully show them their place.

By their second interaction, the physical distance between the police and villagers has increased. The villagers stand behind a fence of thorns and stones equipped with swords and sticks to fight a pitched battle with the police, who arrive with batons and shields. When the police and villagers move closer, the villagers pelt stones at the police. The policemen then go on a rampage, berating the arrogance of the villagers even as a woman writhes in labour pain, women and girls plead for mercy, children cower in fear, and an elder immolates himself and the villagers attempt to douse the raging flames. It is the baton that speaks with no words which is exchanged between the marauding policemen and the villagers. When Karnan arrives to save his kin from the police and overpowers Kannabiran in a locked hut, the latter continues to mock him. The constable instructs Karnan to open the door and fall at his feet seeking pardon in front of the police officers in order to save the village and his people. “That is the only way to survive,” Kannabiran says. It is this blinding caste prejudice that pushes Karnan to the final act of beheading Kannabiran. In this film, violence met with violence leads to a new beginning, flagged by the cleansing ritual of the new-born baby and a foal across the grass.

Even before the title appears, casteist policemen make an appearance in Jai Bhim. A jailor is seen calling the roll, an act which is focused on finding out the caste of the prisoners who walk out of the prison. It soon transpires that he is identifying scapegoats based on caste, as some castes are considered inherently powerless and not able to stand up to the misuse of power by the state machinery. As a guard remarks that the men are indeed like “orphans,” two men presumably from the police haggle over the number of persons that they “need”. They state that they are under pressure to investigate cases, and that their superior officer’s promotion rests on completing an investigation, implying that they need men to implicate in pending cases.[9] We see an exchange of money between the jailor and the policemen. In the course of the film, xenophobia and sadism are not restricted to the police but characterize higher state officials as we see the Advocate General (AG) stating in the High Court that tribals are habitual offenders. The film shows how the disempowered thus become objects caught in the wheels of a gargantuan state machinery, crushed to death without impunity, as it rolls on supposedly performing its task of governing its people.

As the plot develops, the policemen again show their caste prejudice when pressure is mounted on them by politicians and representatives of the state to “close the case”.  Kathirvel, who has complained of theft of jewellery and valuables from his house, demands, “If a thief feels emboldened to steal from a ruling party politician’s house, what is the police for?” When he visits the police station the following day asking about progress in the investigation, he threatens to complain to the SP. Gurumurthy is constantly berated by his superiors for lack of progress in the investigation. The disempowered, in this case the Irulas, become easy targets, on whom Gurumurthy takes out his frustration. His class privilege is underscored when the very exertion of thrashing Rajakannu and his brothers sends his blood pressure soaring so that he pauses to take a pill and then continues to unleash his fury on them.

In the eyes of the state and upper caste people, the Irula tribe is much maligned and has no political support. The institutional brutality they experience is an extreme manifestation of the larger chain of subordination, seen in the village headman’s lack of sympathy for the plight of Sengani and Rajakannu. Rajakannu is apprehended and held captive by the village president, who silently watches the police thrash him mercilessly. The utter disdain in which the police and the villagers hold the community is evident in interactions that not only lack civility but are marked by violence, verbal and physical. Gurumurthy callously dismisses information that Sengani is pregnant. Yet, that such treatment is reserved solely for community members becomes clear when Gurumurthy answers Iruttapan’s employer politely, explaining that he needs to take Iruttappan for investigation. The policemen are also exceedingly polite in their interactions with the public prosecutor and the counsel advocate Chandru in the High Court, and they face the Advocate General’s admonitions in silence.

When the SP calls up Gurumurthy and berates him for not apprehending the culprits, Gurumurthy vents his ire on the men and on Sengani and Pachaiammal, Rajakannu’s sister. Sengani falls at Gurumurthy’s feet pleading for the release of her husband who was dragged by the hair bleeding and screaming into the police station; she is kicked aside. When she wails at the plight of Rajakannu who is unable to eat even a morsel of food because of the thrashings he has received, Gurumurthy charges outside, grabs a gun from the constable on guard, and slugs Rajakannu with the butt. The film underlines the ingrained casteism among the police that manifests in dehumanisation of the communities.

Dehumanisation of the victims becomes an essential element in the process of interrogation. When Mosakkuty holds the official’s leg, pleading with him to spare Rajakannu in the cell, an incensed Gurumurthy asks, “how dare you touch me?” Gurumurthy’s ruthlessness is matched by Head Constable Veerasamy, who applies raw chilli paste on Rajakannu and Mosakutty’s bleeding cuts and wounds. As Rajakannu and his brothers continue protesting their innocence, the constables wonder how best to extract a confession as they chat with each other over drinks. Their interaction with the citizenry is directed by control and domination, and it is largely shaped by caste and class inequalities (Carswell and De Neve, 2020: 498). Constable Kirubhakaran disrobes Pachaiyammal in front of her brothers and makes lewd suggestions, all to get Rajakannu to confess to a crime that he did not commit. When Sengani refuses to come to the police station, her daughter Alli is forcibly taken to the police station.  Gurumurthy pleads with Sengani to withdraw the case when she arrives at the police station. She refuses stating that she has to seek her advocate’s counsel which enrages Gurumurthy who berates her for being “a damn woman” who dares to speak up to a policeman. As Kumar (2021: 20) points out

“it is not only custodial violence that marks certain citizens as lesser—in India or elsewhere. Tragically, the very process of investigation into violence reinforces social and political inequalities to remake privilege along the lines of race and gender”.

Political connections come in handy both to perpetrate atrocities and to bring other oppressors to heel. Bureaucratic procedures perpetuate the inequalities of caste, class and gender. Almost every government official in Jai Bhim, except Inspector General (IG) Perumalsamy, is working to a personal agenda. Gurumurthy needs a promotion and wants to close the case; the AG wants a seat in Parliament; and the DGP wants to save face. The lone policeman who is considerate is unable to prevail upon his superiors. It is the fear of politicisation of the issue that prompts the SP to order investigation of the apprehended.

From our reading of police-citizen interactions in the films Karnan and Jai Bhim, we can observe the degree to which the policing of oppressed communities is premeditated. The attitudes and dispositions of the police toward these communities are a continuation of the characterisation of caste and class behaviour established in the colonial period. The police act with impunity when they arrest, detain, interrogate and brutalise the accused in custody. Moreover, in her archival research on custodial violence and deaths in pre-independent India, Kumar (2021: 23) excavates evidence of routine exoneration of police personnel in cases of police torture. Such excusing of social violence

“reveal(s) the extent to which state violence was entwined with socially acceptable forms of power and the ways in which the very process of trial strengthened this bond”.

In sum, Karnan and Jai Bhim showcase acts of violence that may be a revelation for many but are familiar to oppressed communities. Recurring violence only reinforces the structural inequality and justices that the lower castes endure.        

Materiality and affect in the police station

The police station as an edifice and architectural space holds highly ambiguous meanings for marginalised communities. It is the material manifestation and embodiment of state power and authority, where deviants and alleged offenders are held in custody, victims of crime and ordinary citizens are rendered powerless, and the police wield absolute power. Though the interior of police stations is adorned with portraits of national and state leaders, these are unwelcoming places.[10] Alleged offenders, their families and community members thus appear in the films as confused, frightened and helpless. 

In Karnan, the police station is at motorable distance from the village. It is guarded by two gun-bearing constables, has a place for a writer who is surrounded by files on the table and on racks beside him. There is an inner chamber for the inspector and higher officials. The villagers have been summoned to the police station to sign a document. Political relations and visitors’ actions are constituted through the production of paperwork as the villagers unquestioningly arrive at the police station (Carswell and De Neve, 2020: 497). Visually, they are seen huddled in a corner of the frame and remain standing as the policemen go about their tasks including having tea regularly, oblivious to the former’s presence. When the villagers ask for permission to step out to have tea, they are stopped as the inspector is “expected any time.” No statement gets recorded.

In Jai Bhim, when Sengani seeks to complain about the missing men, Head Constable Veerasamy shoos her away. The village president refuses to intervene or help.  By rendering ordinary tasks onerous, the State exerts a far-reaching control over people’s time, eventually paving way for complete domination (Carswell and De Neve, 2020: 497).  It is when she meets the SP accompanied by the Communist Party activist Krishnan that the First Information Report (FIR)—a document prepared by the police upon receiving a complaint—of the missing persons finally gets filed.  In the film Karnan, as Karnan charges into the police station on hearing of the treatment meted out to the villagers, some writing on the church compound that adjoins the police station is seen in the background: ubathravathile porumaiyai irungal (Be patient in times of strife)—a motto that most people, particularly the subaltern, are advised to go by. Unlike in the case of Podiyakulam, the film’s protagonist, Karnan opts for retaliatory violence and leads the village to resist the policeman, presenting an alternative reality.

In Karnan, Kannabiran who arrives in the police station with the inspector takes a lead in the conversation; he asks, “Why not treat the villagers as criminals? After all they vandalised a bus and hid the perpetrators from the police.” Even as the villagers seek to defuse the situation by offering to sign a statement, he escalates the situation by hitting one of them for laying a hand on a policeman, even if to ward off the blows.  Brutal and inhuman treatment is meted out to ordinary people in a locked police station to show the villagers the police’s might.  Kannabiran unleashes his fury on the villagers for asking for a bench to sit on, and for giving themselves grand names from mythology—in general, for acting above their station. It is the villagers' very existence that’s the crime he is punishing them for. He articulates that very idea at the end of the scene by asserting that he cannot be expected to put up with these men speaking to him on equal terms. The police station ironically becomes the “safe space” for carrying out state repression. The red emergency light atop the police car parked outside that keeps flashing throughout the scene when Kannabiran thrashes the villagers, the policeman who locks himself in the toilet unable to witness the violence, and the inspector who pleads ineffectively with Kannabiran to stop— together indicate the powerlessness of the state machinery which by its impotence ends up abetting oppression.

In Jai Bhim, the police station is a good distance away from the hamlet. Little is seen of the police station initially with the action centred in the police cell. The cell is bare, the walls blood-stained, dirty and dull, testifying to a long history of brutal treatment to the likes of Rajakannu and his kin. There is a muddy pot of water in a corner of the room. At different times, there is a wooden chair and bench in the middle of the cell. The light from the lone fan high up in the room lends it an eerie atmosphere. The police station itself is old and dirty. There is a large wooden desk seen outside. The station inspector sits inside on a wooden chair, in front of an old wooden desk. He’s talking on the phone lamenting that despite having greased palms, he has been unable to get promoted while his juniors have risen to ranks above him. Ironically, above the door to the police station is this line painted in Tamil: police ungal nanban (The police are your friend).[11]

It is here that Sengani feeds a battered Rajakannu, Iruttappan and Mosakutty; it is here that Iruttappan says that it might be better to “confess” as he is unable to bear the pain while Rajakannu states that the wounds will heal but not the stamp of a thief; and it is here that they cower as Rajakannu is dragged by his hair across the door into the police cell for interrogation. Much like in Karnan, the harsh irony is clear.  Both films showcase the pull of the “primordial attachments” and the “civil attachments” that characterise the modern state in the post-colonial world (Geertz cited in Spencer, 1997: 6).

The police are the friend of the privileged but remain the bête noire of the historically disadvantaged. In his well-appointed office, IG Perumalsamy defends police excesses by stating that the police cannot always be expected to abide by law if they have to uphold order and ensure justice. The AG is resolved to help the policemen cover up the crime.  If as stated by advocate Chandru in the film, the struggle is against three policemen who represent the State, the police station is the site of the State’s organised oppression of the marginalised. In both the films, the police station is the spatio-carceral site of a state of exception that defies international law and the democratic laws of India; here that state of exception is “reified and enforced” (Devasundaram, 2018: 258). The huts in which the Irulars live in Jai Bhim also comprise a "spatio-carceral state of exception" where normal civilities that direct life elsewhere do not operate. The Irulars are treated as subhuman by all the others they encounter, especially the police. The panchayat leader’s house and the cell in the police station where Rajakannu is subjected to inhuman treatment by the police under the watch of others become extensions of this space.  Karnan begins with the titular hero and his friends and family and expands to include the village. Much like in Jai Bhim the police station in this film functions as the "spatio-carceral state of exception". But the village itself also symbolizes a state of exception when it becomes the site of the overwhelming violence unleashed by the police and sanctioned by the State.

In Jai Bhim, the police station however takes on a different colour when IG Perumalsamy inspects it. It appears much tidier and the cell is not as dark or dirty. As he goes around the state checking files in the police stations, the spaces and the personnel appear less intimidating. Old creaking ceiling fans, wooden rafters typical of early 19th century architecture and wooden cupboards and tables long past their usefulness fill the space. Their presence acts as a reminder of the archaic rules and procedures that direct legal dispensation—one constable in a police station attributes the missing pages in files to rat menace, two policemen argue over whose jurisdiction the accident victim’s body falls under, and an inspector frets over what awaits him if the dead body found on the roadside is unclaimed.

Interestingly, it is in the space outside the police station that the marginalised can seek justice. IG Perumalsamy begins to understand the trauma that the people undergo at the hands of the police, not while he is in the police station or his office, but in a place outside, mediated by civil society where the disempowered feel safe to articulate the humiliations and torture that they have been subjected to by the police for generations.


Police brutality, particularly towards the disempowered communities, has moved from the news columns and civil society discourse into popular media. The two films that we have selected for analysis in this paper are commercially successful films that forcefully convey the dehumanising and confronting ways in which the police deal with marginalised peoples. The fact that the films were adaptations or inspired by real events drives home the message that caste is deep-seated in the minds of the police and continues to be the basis for targeted practices of discrimination. On June 19, 2021, the Joint Action Against Custodial Torture (JAACT) released the Sathankulam declaration with exactly the same point.[12] The preamble of the declaration reads:

“It is found that groups such as women, scheduled castes, adivasis, sexual minorities including transgenders, are particularly vulnerable. Safeguarding the right to life, liberty, bodily integrity and dignity of every person, including those vulnerable communities stated above, is of paramount importance. It is imperative that the police shed the vestiges of colonial practices and treat people with dignity as holders of constitutional and human rights. Towards this end, this Declaration setting out guidelines to be operationalised to avoid police torture and senseless loss of lives is adopted.”

In depicting the police and policing, the “authentic socials” of Tamil cinema powerfully narrate the horzrific mistreatment of oppressed people at the hands of the police. From an analytical perspective, colonial and historical entanglements of caste have been instrumental in framing relations between the police and ordinary citizens. In critiquing the role of the state, institutions, and police culture and practices, we want to also emphasise that from a filmic point of view Karnan and Jai Bhim humanise the victims. Those in dominant caste positions are shown as inhumane and unremorseful. This we argue is the power of cinema. It brings to light how structural forces function and influence individual actions and vice versa. Films like Karnan and Jai Bhim as mainstream commercial releases mark a significant shift in the way the police are represented in Tamil cinema. Far from the hyperbole and sensationalization of the tough police, these cinematic portrayals reveal historical and systemic injustices, human costs, and a state institution in crisis.


1. A few films have portrayed women lead actors in the role of police officers but ironically as Singaravel (2022) observes “the idea seemed to be that a woman in uniform must be quickly scrubbed of any gendered notions of femininity, but not with the intention of breaking stereotypes. Instead, the characters internalise toxic masculine traits, mimicking the same violent excesses portrayed by male actors’. [return to text]

2. For a discussion on the depictions of oppressed caste communities and caste revivalism in Tamil Cinema, see Damodaran and Gorringe (2017), Leonard (2015) and Damodaran and Gorringe (2021).

3. Fort St George in Madras, now Chennai, was the seat of the colonial power and now houses the Tamil Nadu State Assembly.

4. To name a few, Vijayakanth played Inspector Vijayakumar of Needhiyin Maruppakam (The Other Side of Justice)  (1985) directed by S.A.Chandrasekar, District Superintendent of Police Deendayalan of Oomai Vizhigal (Mute eyes) (1986) directed by R.Aravind Raj,  District Commissioner of Police (DCP) Honest Raj of Pulanvisaranai (Investigation) (1990) directed by R.K.Selvamani, Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Panneerselvam of Chatriyan (1991) directed by K.Subash, ACP Subash of Managarakaval (City Police) (1991) directed by M.Thiyagarajan, DCP Sethupathi in Sethupathi IPS (1994) directed by P.Vasu and Kasi Viswanath of Perarasu (Empire) (2006).

5. While no exhaustive list is attempted here, a few are – Rajnikant in Moondru Mugam (Three Faces) (1982) directed by A.Jagannathan, Kamal Hassan in Kakki Sattai (Khaki Uniform) (1985) directed by Rajasekar and in Vettaiyadu Villaiyadu (Hunt and Revel)  (2006) directed by Gautam Vasudev Menon, Satyaraj in Walter Vetrivel (1993) directed by P.Vasu, Arjun in  Jai Hind (1994) which he also directed and in Kuruthipunal (River of Blood) (1995) directed by P.C Sriram, actor Vikram in Saamy (2003) directed by Hari,  actor Surya as ACP Anbuchelvan in the huge grosser Kaaka Kaaka (To Protect)  (2003) directed by Gautam Vasudev Menon and as the tough cop Durai Singam in the Singham (Lion) trilogy (2010, 2013 and 2017) directed by Hari, Jayam Ravi in Thani Oruvan (Lone Man) (2015) directed by Mohan Raja, Ajit in Yennai Arindhal (If I know Myself) (2015) directed by Gautham Vasuden Menon, Vijay in Theri (Slaughter) (2016) directed by Atlee, Madhavan in Vikram Vedha (2017) directed by Pushkar-Gayathri, and Karthi in Dheeran Adhigaram Ondru (Dheeran Chapter One) (2017) directed by H.Vinoth.

6. See Devasundaram (2018) for an extraordinary analysis of police custodial brutality and oppressive structures that Tamil Dalits face as narrated in the film Visaranai.

7. The term “authentic social" is preferred over “social realism" as despite the similarities with real-life events and incidents, the films make allowances for the grammar of commercial cinema as it has evolved in India. The characters are fictional and appear true-to-life, yet they incorporate the heroism that is typical of the commercial films. The authenticity lies in the convincing portrayal of the fictional characters that draw inspiration from real-life characters and make little concession to the hyper-masculinity of the commercial Tamil cinema protagonist.

8. Notwithstanding, the Koravars and Irulas (Denotified Tribes) along with Kallars and Paraiyars (Most Backward Class) were subjected to unprecedented and regular harassment and police interrogation under the British colonial legislation, the Criminal Tribes Act (1924) because they were deemed as “habitual offenders or criminals.’ The criminalization of these marginalized communities continues today.

9. This is a fallout of a colonial act – the Criminal Tribes Act – which was later repealed, under which any male over 16 years of age belonging to a community listed as “criminal tribes’ would be investigated for any crime in the area and punished without trial. See Chakrapani, 2021.

10. In response to an application filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act on rules regarding displaying the portraits of leaders at government offices, the Tamil Nadu Government replied that the pictures of the President, Prime Minister and chief minister and all former chief ministers, including Annadurai, K Kamaraj, architect of the Constitution B R Ambedkar, poet Saint Thiruvalluvar, social reformer Thanthai Periyar,  Freedom fighters C Rajagopalachari, U Muthuramalinga Thevar, V O Chidambaram and Quaid-e-Millath, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi may be displayed (RTI Foundation of India, 2014).

11. As Inspector Veerasamy takes the witness stand to be cross-examined by advocate Chandru in the High Court, in the background is Helder Camara’s quote, “Without justice and love, peace will always be an illusion.”

12. The Sathankulam declaration was issued following the investigation of custodial deaths (June 2020) of father and son, P. Jayaraj and Bennix in the town of Sathankulam, Thoothukudi district, Tamil Nadu. Both victims were sexually assaulted and tortured whilst in lockup by Police officers belonging to a dominant intermediate caste.


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