The Kollywood production Singam 3 which opened on February 9, 2017, has enjoyed opening day receipts of Rs 200,000,000, indicating it will be another box office success in the Singam franchise, which now consists of the original 2010 movie, Singam II (2013), as well as regional remakes including the Bollywood production Singham (2011) and Singham Returns (2014), both of which were also box office successes.1
The movies of the Singam franchise trace the development of its titular policeman character as he battles criminality in society, including organized crime and official corruption. Like the lion he is named after (singa in the Sanskrit language), this policeman voices the righteous rage of the common people against the criminal elements who oppress them, and deploys spectacular displays of violence to punish these criminals. The teaser trailer for Singam 3 shows Durai Singam, who has since been promoted from the Sub-Inspector that he started out as in the original movie to a Deputy Commissioner of Police, taking down gangs of criminals with flying kicks and other feats of martial arts.
This action scene from the Hindi remake Singham (2011) encapsulates the hero’s narrative journey in the franchise. Taunted by a gang of criminals, Inspector Bajirao Singham is reminded of all the times he was prevented from pursuing the course of justice by corrupt officials who shielded organized crime, and his thymos (spirit) is set ablaze by the appeal of an innocent child to fight the wrongdoers. Filled with righteous anger, Singham gains an almost supernatural strength: he rips a lamp post out of the ground with his bare hands and uses it to chase down and stop the criminals who had tried to flee in a truck. He then slaps each criminal into submission, and drags them into the middle of the plaza, where he proceeds to flog them with his belt, in full view of the crowd of onlookers — cinematic representatives of the movie’s audience — who are awed by the inspector’s violent dispensation of justice.
The popularity of the Singam movies hence suggest a thirst in the audience for their justice system to perform a thorough and righteous cleansing of the corrupt and criminal elements which they have to live with in their everyday lives. The comic book heroics and superhuman stunts performed by the titular policeman however signify this cleansed justice system to exist in the realm of cinematic fantasy rather than grim reality. This grim reality is the subject of the 2015 Tamil docudrama Visaranai (“Interrogation”), which was India’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film category in the 2017 Academy Awards (it however failed to make the shortlist).
Visaranai tells the story of a group of itinerant laborers who are brutally tortured by policemen into confessing to a crime they did not commit. As the narrative progresses, it is revealed that the policemen are serving as the instruments of violence for corrupt local politicians. Hence, where the Singam movies present an idealized image of what their audience wants the police to be, Visaranai presents its audience’s fears of what the police actually are.
Indeed, Visaranai was based on M. Chandrakumar’s novel Lock Up, an autobiographical account of his harrowing experience as a victim of police brutality in 1983. As he recounts: “I was in custody for the next 15 days. They tortured us continuously, demanding we confess. None of us had done it, so we didn’t. But finally, they took us to separate lock-up rooms and tortured us. We were told the others had confessed, and we finally had to confess. Two people who confessed were served parotta and tea; the director changed it to biriyani in the film.”
As the ACHR points out in its 2011 report, in India, “torture remains endemic, institutionalized and central to the administration of justice and counter-terrorism measures.”
In 2006, Lock Up was awarded the Best Document of Human Rights from a local human rights collective, and a decade later in 2015, Visaranai premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Amnesty International Italia Award for its vivid depiction of the gross violations of human rights committed by the Indian police.
The police brutality depicted in Lock Up and Visaranai are not uncommon experiences in India, which explains their affective power for their Indian audiences. A 2011 report on torture from the Asian Center for Human Rights (ACHR) notes that statistics from India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) list 1,504 people as having died in police custody and 12,727 as having died in judicial custody between 2001-10, with a “large majority of these deaths” being the “direct consequence of torture in custody.” However, the actual number may be higher, as “not all custodial deaths are reported to the NHRC,” including those of military detainees. In addition, “the NHRC does not record statistics of torture not resulting into death.”
As the ACHR further points out in its 2011 report, in India, “torture remains endemic, institutionalized and central to the administration of justice and counter-terrorism measures.” In particular, the Indian police use torture not just to extract confessions, as depicted in Lock Up and Visaranai, but also for other purposes, including the extraction of bribes and the settling of scores. India’s counterterrorism fight has also increased the incidence of torture “given the immense pressure on the police to solve the crimes.” In addition, the police are known to have covered up deaths arising from torture by obfuscating them as “suicides, sudden medical complications, self-inflicted injuries and natural deaths.”
The situation has not improved since the ACHR’s 2011 report. A 2016 report from Human Rights Watch on police torture notes that statistics from India’s National Crime Records Bureau lists 591 people having died in police custody between 2010-15. While the police have accounted for these as having been caused by “suicide, illness, or natural causes,” Human Rights Watch observes that “in many such cases, family members allege that the deaths were the result of torture.”
Both the ACHR and Human Rights Watch note that India’s organs of law enforcement, including the police enjoy impunity for the violations of human rights. However, incremental progress is being made. Last year four police officers were convicted in Mumbai and sentenced to seven years of imprisonment for their roles in the 2013 death in custody of a robbery suspect. While the prosecution had sought to have them convicted of murder, the court convicted them of the lesser charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and voluntarily causing hurt to extort confession. While these convictions are indeed dwarfed by the massive scale of the problems of police brutality and impunity, they still represent a step in the right direction. The public reaction to the cinematic representations of the police in Visaranai and the Singam movies shows the desire in the Indian people for the thorough clean-up of their police and the institutions of law enforcement.
1. Bollywood is the popular designation for the Hindi-language film industry centered in Mumbai, while Kollywood is the popular designation for the Tamil-language film industry centered in Chennai. Other regional markets in Indian cinema include Sandalwood (Kannada-language film industry), Tollywood (Telugu-language film industry), and Panjwood (Punjabi-language film industry).