India is the world’s largest democracy, but it is also a very unequal country, where some citizens are more equal than others. Convicted criminals, who are rich and powerful, seem to get out of jail well before their sentences have been completed. This is in sharp contrast to the lives of thousands of under trails languishing in jails not having access to a lawyer or even getting a chance for a fair trial. However, in the darkened “Halls of Cinema”, Good always wins over Evil and the Long Arm of the Law would eventually catch up with the criminals.
How does the film industry view crime and punishment? How do they represent it in their work? How do they deal with the law when one of their own is the accused?
The first major criminal story to rock the Indian film industry was the Lakshmikanthan murder case in 1944. A film journalist, Lakshmikanthan wrote salacious articles about film actors in a magazine called Hindu Nesan. The journalist was murdered by a group of assailants, who claimed it was under the orders of a few famous people, namely MK Thyagaraja Bagavathar, one of the most famous singing stars of Cinema and Comedian N S Krishnan. Back then, ‘Quotation’ was not the preferred word for a hired goon. The murder and subsequent trail happened during the last days of the British Raj and the Tamil film industry was actively involved in the freedom struggle. Both, MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and NK Krishnan, were convicted and went to prison for thirty months.
There was a huge uproar. Some sections of the media reported that the case had several loopholes. The famous lawyer D N Pritt argued for them in the Privy Council in London and they were acquitted.
The arrest adversely affected MK Thyagaraja Bagavathar’s career. The singing star of the mythological films was at sea when he was asked to mouth loud melodramatic dialogues in family dramas.
There was also an unseen force working against MK Thyagaraja Bagavathar. He chose not to align himself with a new breed of screenwriters, who were atheists, and would later lead the Dravidian political parties. Bagavathar chose God and Bhakti. He had no supporters in the changed film industry and his attempts at making a comeback were a disaster. Having lost his fame and fortune, he had to make ends meet singing devotional concerts in small temple towns until the very end of his life.
N S Krishnan fared a little better because of his political choice of backing the Dravidian movement but he, too, could never gain the kind of fame he once possessed.
Does the real life image of the actor affect his onscreen persona? Has the concept of crime and punishment changed in India?
How do the film industry, the judiciary, the media and public opinion react when famous actors are involved in a crime? Well, a lot has changed in seventy years.
The son of Nargis and Sunil Dutt, Sanjay Dutt, had a dream debut in Hindi cinema with Rocky in 1982. He was all set to be part of the privileged set of Bollywood star sons, born to rule the roost. Sanjay Dutt had his fair share of trouble with drugs and erratic behavior but eventually turned to body building and fitness. In 1993, just before the release of his big hit Khalnayak, he was arrested for his alleged involvement with terrorism in the Mumbai bombings. Even his father Sunil Dutt, a veteran congress politician, was unable to rescue him. Sanjay was not to act for the next four years due to his subsequent arrest and bails.
His resurrection had started while doing the Munnabhai MBBS films and by playing Lage Raho Munna Bhai, the audiences seem to have exonerated him.
Did the Gandhian pacifist message in Lage Raho Munna Bhai, give him a khadi makeover from AK47s and drugs? Not really. He had to go back to prison and now his Biopic featuring the young Ranbir Kapoor, playing the lead, is hot property in Bollywood. Meanwhile Sanjay Dutt waits for a role to change his fortunes again. Recently there have been calls for Sanjay Dutt to be sent back to prison to serve his remaining Jail term. Will a nationalist wash save him this time?
In 1993, the original bad boy of Bollywood, Salman Khan, who was an understudy to Sunjay Dutt in bodybuilding and steroid pumped machismo was arrested for shooting black bucks and a Chinkara.
In 2002, he was arrested for drunk driving his SUV, killing one person and injuring four others sleeping on the pavement in Bandra, Mumbai.
In the interim period Salman Khan’s stock rose, he played the famous Police officer Chulbul Pandey in Dabbang. His father Salim Khan urged his Muslim brethren to support a Hindu national party in the then upcoming elections. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Salman played an innocent hanuman bhakt, Pavan, who returned a cute deaf mute girl Munni to Pakistan. The message was clear – the great nation of India will only do good to its terror sponsoring neighbours.
Seventeen years later, Salman was acquitted of all charges, the court found that stray dogs killed the black bucks and he was not behind the wheel of his SUV. Salman was pure and innocent as his characters; he was given a saffron wash.
Deewar, a crime drama written by Salim (father of Salman) & Javed, directed by Yash Chopra in 1975, dealt with the ethical and moral conflict of brothers – an honest police officer and a criminal. The victor was eventually the police officer. When the rich successful criminal brother boasts that he has everything in the world – money, cars, buildings, the proud upright officer rebuts but I have our mother. The message was simple – even the mother’s affection could not wash off the sins of crime.
In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola made Godfather, a modern Hollywood classic. This film made the word mafia acceptable on dinner tables. Every kid had learnt of the code of honour and loyalty that ran within the Cosa Nostra.
India, too, was influenced by this wave. In the eighties, Nayakan, a Tamil film based on the life an underworld don, Varadaraj Mudaliar, directed by Mani Ratnam, catapulted him and the lead actor to critical acclaim worldwide. However, in the end of the film, the protagonist, Velu Nayakan, was shot and killed by a mentally retarded child of the police officer whom he had killed earlier. Justice was served not by the police force but by the hands of an innocent child.
In the nineties too, crime didn’t give you happiness, even if it was getting sexier. Satya directed by Ram Gopal Verma, created new genre called the Mumbai noir. Here too, the anti-hero Satya was shot dead on the doorstep of his lover Vidya’s house.
As more and more actors get acquitted from serious crime, the idea of jurisprudence is getting questioned. The filmmakers’ voice and the audiences’ taste also seem to be changing.
The era of cinema being a moral compass of society is over. It has slowly been replaced by cinema that is now a reflection of the world we live in.
In the recent hit Tamil film, Vikram and Vedha written and directed by Pushkar and Gayatri, the encounter cop, Vikram, is entrusted with the task of killing a criminal, Veda. Vikram, played by Madhavan, ends up getting sucked into the strange world of storytelling of Veda played by Vijay Sethupathi, and questions our notions of right and wrong. Vikram finally ends up shooting the corrupt policemen and the film ends with Vikram and Veda surviving the shootout and becoming the cop and the buddy.
The lines between right and wrong, good and evil are getting blurred.
In Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, a Malayalam film, directed by Dileesh Pothan, a newly married couple travel in a bus in North Kerala. The heroine’s chain is snatched by a thief, the protagonist of the film, played by Fahad Fazil. The thief is caught, but the chain is missing. The bus-load of passengers arrive at the police station to handover the suspect to the police. This is where most films ended in the past. The criminal is caught and law would take its course and the audience could go home satisfied that justice has prevailed.
However, this film is made in 2017. It takes us into the bizarre world of a small rural Police station, bumbling, fumbling ageing policemen, the duplicity and ethical dilemma of the law enforcer, the struggle of an ordinary citizen hoping for justice and the casual indifference of the criminal. The judiciary is totally absent in this crime saga. The role of judges handing over death sentences seems passé, in the era of encounter killings.
Out of the darkened theatre, into the glaring Kerala sun another saga is playing out on TV. Audiences are riveted to the real life sleaze and crime drama in which TRPs are zooming for the news channels.
Dileep, a leading actor of Malayalam cinema, has been arrested for allegedly organising the abduction and assault of an actress. The actress had apparently squealed on Dileep having an affair with another actress to his then wife. The infuriated actor is alleged to have hatched a conspiracy and a Quotation was allegedly paid for a crime to be committed four years later.
This was a crime not against some yellow journalist or some poor black buck. It was a crime against a woman on the busy street of Kochi, in India’s most literate state.
The Chief Minister of Kerala and the film industry who had asked for a media closure of the case, have done a U-turn and called for his conviction. The television anchors have passed judgement, Dileep has been sentenced on prime time, booed in public and his restaurants attacked but will the evidence hold in court?
Will Dileep be acquitted? Will he resurface and become the superstar again or will he suffer the fate of M K Thyagaraja Bagavathar? Only time will tell. Whatever his legal team does, he better get hold of some political party and give himself a white wash to change his image. For even in our morally agnostic times, the hero of the silver screen is always the ones who saves the woman and the oppressed from the evil and powerful forces.
– Rajiv Menon