Master is a milestone in Tamizh cinema's portrayals of the carceral system and the dire need for its reformation

Master looks into prisons, specifically the juvenile system, and gives us a glimpse of the nature of restorative justice.

Rachelle Bharathi Chandran January 21, 2021 09:37:03 IST
Master is a milestone in Tamizh cinema's portrayals of the carceral system and the dire need for its reformation

Promotional still for Master

Cops have attained enviable popularity whether through Brooklyn Nine-Nine or more homegrown versions of Indian police heroes. Films glorifying police officers have been a trend in Tamizh movies for at least a decade or more. The more brutal and rowdy they are, the greater has been the appreciation.

It would be fallacious to assume that these movies attained popularity due to the big stars associated with them (for example, Suriya in Singham or Kamal Haasan in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu). Such movies were made due to the enormous success of earlier films like Saamy (2013), which was responsible for cementing Vikram’s mass hero status even though he was a critically acclaimed actor with Sethu (1999). In the same year, Kaakha Kaakha, a film with Suriya as a police officer, was also released. The latter was rather a conventional portrayal of police familiar to the Tamizh audiences. A stoic and silent police officer with strong moral values was a familiar archetype. But in Vikram’s Saamy, he wakes up drunk, asks for a beer to wash his mouth and face — an archetype closer to dangerous villains. The movie later reveals he is a police officer and his dialogues are laced with expletives and unforgiving callousness towards the villains.

While some details may have changed, this formula is largely mimicked in most Tamizh police films whose success has led other industries to make similar films.

The original template for this bad cop possibly comes from Rajinikanth’s iconic portrayal of Alex Pandian who popularised the stylish and brutal police officer in Moondru Mugam (1982). It’s pertinent to point out that the role of the police officer had only a small run-time. Before Vikram popularised the “Naa police ille poruki (I am not a police, I am rowdy; sic)”, Rajinikanth embodied its essence when he said, “Unaku matum than rowdyism theriyuma, engalukum theriyum da (Do you think only you know rowdyism, we also know rowdyism; sic)”.

The police is expected to operate from a higher moral code than ordinary citizens and this expectation has been repeatedly shown in movies. For example, in Moondru Mugam, Alex rejects the bribe offered to him as he sees himself as a police officer with high ethical values; this eventually leads to his demise. Most previous films thus portrayed police officers as lacking strategy and (therefore) bested by villains. But in Saamy, this trope is inverted as Vikram takes bribes from the villain, although merely as a way to frame the latter.

This important change in police officers indulging in criminal activities justified as fighting for the higher good is a marked shift in the cultural zeitgeist. Our obsession with such police films showcasing punitive justice reveals the deep flaws in the carceral system. Nora Krinitsky, associated with the University of Michigan Carceral State Project, notes that ‘carceral state’ is a term that “often calls to mind institutions of confinement like jails, detention centres, prisons, but… it also comprises a wide range of policies, practices, and institutions that scrutinise individuals and communities both before and after their contact with the criminal justice system”.

The people who justify the use of such methods ignore the power differential between the police and the people. In films, police officers — even those endowed with enormous power — are almost always fighting a bigger and more influential politician, businessman or person indulging in questionable activities. But in everyday scenarios, most cops are not fighting the huge politician or businessman, they are in fact, fighting and keeping in check ordinary people from committing crimes. The origins of the police force have deeply casteist, racist and colonial roots. It came into being to keep ordinary people in check and protect those in power. It’s important to remember that the carceral system did not come into existence to protect people. When we allow limitless power — especially to a group already bestowed with power by the state — we also allow police brutality and excess in the name of justice. Jeyraj and Fennix’s custodial deaths are one such example of the police system abusing its power.

Master is a milestone in Tamizh cinemas portrayals of the carceral system and the dire need for its reformation

(Clockwise from above left) Stills from Singham; Moondru Mugam; Saamy; Kaakha Kaakha; Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu

Historically, Tamizh cinema has not centred police officers or their lives as a plot point. In many older films, the police officer’s character was played by small-time actors who would arrive during the climax, leading them to be the butt of jokes. Neither have the films foregrounded the life of someone committing crimes or understanding their motives, without romantic overtones (Johnny, 1980). In Major Chandrakanth (1966), Muthuraman, who portrayed a police officer, had a small role. In fact, the loving brother aspect of his character overshadowed the police officer aspect. However, it’s one of the few portrayals in Tamizh cinema where the person who committed the crime (Nagesh) has a significant story arc — from that of an affectionate brother, to one who commits a crime of passion, to an apathetic individual. In the movie, Nagesh says to lead actor ‘Major’ Sundarrajan, “Neenga mattum than enne purinjitinga (You’re the only person who has understood me)”. The narrative delves into the mind of someone who committed a crime grappling with the fear of police and the desperate need to be understood. There are other films worth examining here, notably Virumaandi (2006); however, the film begins with Kamal Haasan being acerbic and downright insulting to a woman. To prove that criminals are not hardened persons with no emotions, it uses the same stereotype as a plot point to further the film.

Thus, we have moved from having small police officer roles in films to a culture that is oversaturated with cop genre movies. We see multiple movies where the police’s killing of people is justified. This speaks volumes about our society’s idea of justice and crime.

As Foucault says, due to the prison’s proximity to society, the power of its carceral nature shapes everyone’s life. This is most apparent in the juvenile system of incarceration. The NCRB 2020 prison statistics (pg. 87) shows that 48.89 percent — the largest component of the prison system — comprises undertrials between the ages of 18 and 30. The same age group forms 30.87 percent of convicts, coming second only to the 49.97 percent of convicts in the age group of 30-50. The 18 to 30-year-olds also form the largest group among detainees, with 45.90 percent.

The young people who enter the system face insurmountable problems within the system and outside. Most young people are in the centres due to problems caused by society, worsened by state negligence. One of the earliest portrayals in Tamizh cinema of the connection between the state and society is in the film Parashakti (1952), where Shivaji Ganeshan’s seminal dialogue ends with criticising the state machinery for being responsible for poverty and the abuse of religious power that lead to his sister’s suicide.

In the Tamizh cinematic universe, Master (2021) is a film which addresses many of these flaws. It goes beyond the critique that took place in courtrooms (largely inaccessible to many people in this country). It does not centre police officers or their view of prisons or prisoners. It looks into the prisons, specifically the juvenile system and gives us a glimpse of the nature of restorative justice.

Lokesh Kanagaraj, the director of Master, has dealt with the subject of prisons in his previous film Kaithi (2019) as well. Master focuses on the difficult life children face in juvenile centres; mostly the lens is on those aging from five to 20. According to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Amendment Act, 2006, anyone above the age of 18 is not a juvenile. However, the reason to include young adults above the age of 18 also serves to illustrate an important point. It shows that the young children who grow up in the system may inflict pain and become enablers of such behaviour, having faced such trauma themselves.

Master doesn’t justify the act of someone committing a crime but shows the irreparable damage it can do to a person, most notably seen in the film as physical trauma wounds in the antagonist. In a scene where most would expect an authority figure to respond with anger, it subverts it by pointing the lens at the system which has made the young children to become what society would call ‘criminals’. For that alone, Master is an important milestone in Indian Tamizh cinema portrayals of the carceral system and the dire need for reformation in it.

Rachelle Bharathi Chandran is a writer and researcher whose interests lie in the area of aesthetics, pop culture deconstruction and intergenerational trauma in Dalit communities.

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