Netflix's Delhi Crime, Soni present a compassionate portait of India's police force, one that's rare but real
It took streaming platforms to flesh characters out of policemen and women but it should be seen as a welcome change
In a scene from Ivan Ayr’s Netflix film Soni, Soni played by Geetika Vidya Ohlan is dropped near her residence after dark, by her commanding IPS officer Kalpana. Before she goes in she asks a roadside vendor to prepare and pack an omelette, likely to be her dinner for the day. At home, the LPG cylinder has run out. In a scene from Richie Mehta’s Netflix series Delhi Crime, Policewoman Vimla Bharadwaj is seen heating her rotis on the bars of a room heater. In another scene, the station Chief Vinod Tiwari tells his wife he doesn’t have the time to sit and eat with her the food she has carried with herself to his office. At the centre of each of these scenes is the routine activity of consuming food, but behind the banality of something as periodic there is the struggle for time, space and at times even quality. This is a compassionate portrait of India’s police that we have rarely seen.
It is easy to understand why Bollywood loves to essay stories around the police. Firstly, the idea of actors as heroes helps propel the mythic labels of morality that the film industry has assigned to various real life roles – bahu, beta, maa etc etc. To the conservative backdrop of India, this mythologising has often served as a user manual. Secondly, the police force offers as much a fascinating insight into institutional decay as it offers the shortest moral route out of a sticky sociological problem. That is, we’d rather have the law be held than hold ourselves accountable to the law. If you look around and have lived long enough, the chances are good that you have at some point gloated about breaking a rule, or bypassing the law for one thing or the other. For a sociological system that prides itself on its brokenness and capacity to snake through the cracks, anything that seemingly puts it together must feel otherworldly, and eventually obligatory.
Third, and perhaps, the most subversive yet domineering reason to follow the story of the police is the crystalline emotions they evoke - passion or contempt. There is little scope to empathise, considering our cinema’s police officers rarely shed their uniform, or the baggage it comes with. Other than be squeezed by corrupt politicians or struggle with their lust of one kind or the other, these characters, if we can call them that, have rarely showcased a side that we can relate to. From food to the menace of traffic and travel, the things that make us human, or draw emotion have always seemed missing from a space that the police force indisputably share with those they police. Theirs has been a portrayal devoid of any compassion that has rarely ventured further than the moralising exercise that Indian cinema often is.
We have come to expect things of the police, things we don’t even expect of ourselves. This moral lopsidedness has been as crafted as it has seeped into the bones of our culture. Amitabh Bachan’s Zanjeer (1973) and Deewar (1975) were pivotal in setting the scale for good and bad cops that Bollywood has until now pretty much played within. Good here means the kind of cop who is a crusader (Sarfarosh, Shool, Seher, Gangaajal etc) while bad is the kind who is corrupt but open to change (Khakee, Simmba etc). When they are not protagonists, the police is usually a device for either type. It is therefore hard to say that, with the exception of a few, any of these roles were actual characters – people with wants, wishes, lusts, desires, fears or habits that make them human, a little more than the side of coin they agree to call.
It took streaming platforms to flesh characters out of policemen and women but it should be seen as a welcome change. Even Sartaj from Sacred Games, though a moral plank, faces challenges we rarely associate with the force. In a scene his colleague apprehensively comments to a superior ‘he has gained weight’. In Delhi Crime, the cops struggle with petty issues like paying the dues of a police station, arranging marriages of their daughters. These aren’t so much as careers as they are choices people find themselves stuck with. Underpaid, but overworked, this is a side of the police force rarely essayed. Morality, the famed crusade for justice can after a point become an afterthought. It is a job that maybe no one else will do, and that is a blatant fact that both Soni and Delhi Crime embody with quiet dignity. This is the system, but look how paralysed it is, both Netflix creations are trying to say.
It is also rather ironic that while the Indian police has, for once, found an empathetic lens, an entire film universe that caricaturises and uploads a brazenly inhuman image of the force – Rohit Shetty’s Singham, Simmba etc – is doing so well. It tells us that the parodied image of the police continues to fascinate as much as it misinforms and obfuscates. No other arm of the law has perhaps been as narratively corrupted and disenfranchised of a trustable voice as any other. This insincerity, its convenient aspirations of good and bad, though not entirely baseless, have done more harm than good over the years.
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