Such a surprisingly good movie! Okay, that sounds insulting to police films. Such a surprisingly different movie! It looks like the standard police film, everyone has a mustache and the title is even “Mumbai Police“. But then, right away, it’s clear that it really really isn’t.
We open with a car accident (like Talaash! Another surprisingly different police film!). And the next thing we see is two men in a car, Rahman and Prithviraj, Rahman telling the other that Prithviran that he has amnesia, but he is a police officer, and so is Rahman, and they are best friends. And I’m all in! Already! This is such a great set-up!
And it builds on that idea in such an interesting way, exploring identity and machismo and ethics. At first, I thought that it would be that everyone is lying to our hero, and this is all an elaborate scam of some kind, taking advantage of the poor amnesia patient. But then we see pretty quickly that random folks like his neighbors and his colleagues all address him the same way and treat him as the same person, so if it is a scam, it’s some crazy Jewel Thief/Bluffmaster level scam where absolutely everyone who interacts with him is in on it.
Then my second thought was that it would be like Ghajani, we see him struggle to understand what happened to him and mourn his past life. We get a little of that, when he meets with the doctor and struggles to relate to his sister, and remember something as basic as his brand of cigarettes.
(The doctor is played by Shweta Menon in a cameo, which gives me an excuse to once again show this song clip!)
But then it goes in a really interesting direction. Slowly we watch Prithviraj learn more about himself and his past life, and come to dislike the person he used to be. Okay, it doesn’t sound that interesting when I write it out, but it is interesting in how they do it.
At first, our present day hero aspires to be that person from the past. His past self had friends and respect, confidence, an awareness of his place in the world. And we, the audience, wish he was that past person as well. When we start to get flashbacks to his life before the accident, he is confident and passionate and smart. Much more interesting than this watered down sad person we are stuck with now.
But as the flashbacks continue, we start to see cracks in his past-self. He goes over the line when interrogating a suspect, grabbing his wife and molesting her to force a confession, to the point that Prithviraj’s own (female) team member is uncomfortable with what he is doing. He is violent and angry with another suspect. And his team members seem slightly awkward with him, like they are used to unpredictable outbursts and rages.
What is interesting is how the concept of the police character and police films weave in and out of this. His past-self is the prototypical Police hero. Confident, violent, goes over the line but gets things done. The film is questioning audience perceptions and expectations of such a character, showing how present day hero is himself buying into that kind of hero-worship, craving that kind of confidence. In the same way that we, the audience, enjoy living vicariously through these violent powerful characters, so is the character onscreen wishing he had that past life back.
(There were literally dozens of songs I could have chosen to represent the macho police hero. But I like this one because of the weird little belt thing)
When the cracks start to appear, at first it seems like the usual “oh, they just don’t understand his greatness and the toll it takes” kind of thing. His neighbors complain about his noise and drinking, in the same breath that they complain about his fight the night before against unknown assassins. It feels all of a piece, like the constant danger of his job must drive him to drink, and they just don’t understand. Even his misbehavior with suspects, perhaps, is part of his greatness, that he is willing to do whatever it takes to get a confession.
But then we get the introduction of Jayasurya’s character in flashbacks. We saw him briefly earlier, in a recording of a speech, he is the victim of the murder that Prithviraj is investigating, and he was getting an award when he was shot. He only got a few sentences into the speech before dying, but it was an odd opening. He said that he was a terrible police officer, he didn’t belong on the force, and he never knew what he was doing. What’s up with that?
I thought it was false modesty, that we would discover our victim was the best cop of them all. But right away the flashbacks start to question that. Yes, his wealthy family ignores him, he ended up in the police force by accident, and he is in love with a sweet young teacher. All of that matches up with your standard “and then he finds the hero within himself!” kind of coming of age cop story. But as it unfolds, it doesn’t quite go that way.
Jayasurya really doesn’t belong on the police force. He gets into a fight with the Navy on his first night, and Prithviraj has to rescue him. He never seems terribly excited or interested in his duties. And he isn’t that brave either. He never stands up to his family, and when he gets into a fight at a party, it is up to Prithviraj to rescue him from it.
The relationship between Prithviraj and Jayasurya, and the third friend and Prithviraj’s brother-in-law, Rahman, becomes the heart of the film. And what the title of the film refers to. All 3 of them served time in Bombay before being assigned to Cochi. The title implies the whole machismo ridden super-hero attitude of the Bombay cops, and how the 3 of them work together, above the rules and beyond the law.
Or are they really “Mumbai Police” types? Or is it just Prithviraj, with the other two following along and cleaning up his mess? There is a telling scene late in the film when Prithviraj and Jayasurya are at Rahman and Prithviraj’s sister’s apartment. Prithviraj is stretched out on the sofa, arms outspread, big grin, fully using both his size and his mustache to remind us, even in civilian clothes, that he is a police officer. Jayasurya looks soft and small next to him, and Rahman looks nervous, moving around the room. Prithviraj is the only one of them really comfortable with this persona, the other two can feel that it doesn’t fit them, but are unable to resist Prithviraj’s charisma.
And now there is present day Prithviraj, trying to put all this together, to make sense of his past actions and how they lead to Jayasurya being murdered, and Rahman trusting him to solve the case. And at the same time, present day Prithviraj coming to cling more and more to that “Mumbai Police” identity and his friendship with Jayasurya and Rahman, as he begins to realize that it was the cleanest and best thing in his past life.
All of this is a fascinating movie on its own. Deconstructing the “Police Hero” film archetype, using amnesia to draw a line and show the same actor playing a false “Hero”, one who uses intimidation and power to do whatever he wants, versus a real “Hero” who follows the leads and patiently works the case, while respecting his co-workers and witnesses, that is all wonderful! Almost a Ram Aur Shyam type thing, only with amnesia instead of doppelgangers.
(Like, if Prem Ratan Dhan Payo had been about Prince-Salman getting amnesia and a new personality)
And then they expand the idea, creating 3 separate standard police film archetypes, the hothead with the heart of gold (Prithviraj), the poor little rich boy trying to find himself (Jayasurya), and the wise old man who guides them both (Rahman). Only, again, these aren’t heroes. We start to see that Rahman is seriously concerned about the two others, it isn’t just a matter of him feeling the need to reprimand them but not meaning it, he really does think they are going to far. And Prithviraj’s protection of Jayasurya, and Jayasurya’s worship of Prithviraj in return starts to feel unhealthy for them both. Jayasurya is following blindly where he leads, and Prithviraj is getting too confident in his own powers. This whole relationship is bringing out not just the best in them (Jayasurya’s loyalty, Prithviraj’s protectiveness, Rahman’s wisdom), but also the worst, in a way that the usual “might-makes-right” police films don’t show us.
Which is why the murder case they are trying to solve is so complicated. It is all tied up with Prithviraj’s anger and vengeance, and Jayasurya’s own efforts at hiding things out of his loyalty to Prithviraj. Like, that speech he was going to give, when we finally hear the whole thing, was about his guilt for letting Prithviraj convince him to take the credit for Prithviraj’s heroic actions, and he was shot before he could tell a truth that could only serve to hurt himself. Who would care so much about Jayasurya’s honor, and so little about the man himself? And what effect does Rahman looking the other way while they perpetrated this fraud have? Or Prithviraj’s incomprehensible generosity?
Again, all of that is a fascinating movie on its own, how this toxic masculinity that we worship in police films can lead to misery and murder. But then the last 20 minutes come along and it all becomes so much deeper!
DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS MOVIE!!!!! MASSIVE FILM RUINING SPOILER!!! SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
After going into the case in depth, trying to understand his motivations for the way he directed the investigation before the accident, trying to atone for and understand the irrational way he acted with suspects and his own underlings, and coming to care for and understand the murder victim after seeing him through the eyes of witnesses and his own case notes, Prithviraj has still hit a brick wall. He only has two more days to solve the case before he is taken off it, thanks to the request of his own team members who find his irratic behavior disturbing. We, the audience, are primed for the big Revelation!! moment these films always have. Just when it looks darkest, he is going to see something that reminds him of something else, solve the case, deliver the murderer, and go on to live his life a chastened and better man, having seen his past behavior in a new light.
(Like Talaash. Which is a very different police film in almost every way, but still had our hero solve it all at the last minute)
And then the big solution revelation comes, but it comes very strangely. I’m trying to think how to recreate the effect in words, how the filmmakers set it up. I guess it goes back to Prithviraj’s first night in his apartment. He plays the phone messages left for him while he was in the hospital. There is his sister, worried about him. An unknown voice cursing him and saying it serves him right. And a friend calling, worried and saying he is praying for him. It’s a nice establishing of the character, that his sister loves him, he is a good friend, and he has his enemies.
Over the course of the film, we get a little more background on each of these messages. His sister is older than him (I think?) and helped raise him, while their father was distant and is now dead. They are extremely close, and he worried about her until his brother-in-law entered their lives, and is there to help and support them both now. The unknown voice is that witness who’s wife he molested, who has not forgotten or forgiven the insult. But, who is that good friend? Who never appears in the flashbacks or in the present day, only a voice on the answering machine? Perhaps he is the man who saw Prithviraj in the street early in the film, the day after he left the hospital, and mentioned that he was glad to see him out and about, and that they would catch up once he returned from his business trip. But if so, why do none of Prithviraj’s other friends or co-workers seem to know about this man who was close enough to pray for his recovery?
But the movie goes on, and we, the audience, forget about it. We feel like we have a full picture of past-Prithviraj’s life now, and we are ready to solve the murder case and move on. Prithviraj feels the same way, having learned what he thinks is the pivotal secret, that past-Prithviraj let Jayasurya take credit for the heroic shooting and that Jayasurya was going to reveal the truth at his medal ceremony. Present-Prithviraj now knows that he wasn’t all bad in the past, he had some loyalty and sacrifice in him. Everything is beginning to make sense again.
And then that friend from the answering machine and the street lets himself into Prithviraj’s apartment, kisses him, and goes into the closet to change into the clothes he keeps there. !!!!!!
I wanted to give all the background before I got into this part, because it is important that this reveal is all of a piece, and yet not quite of a piece, with everything that went before. There were hints, yes, that missed phone call, the odd friend that no one knows about. Mentions that Prithviraj never flirts with women. But mostly, this feels completely out of the blue and as shocking for the audience as it is for Prithviraj himself.
At the same time, though, it doesn’t feel like an unearned shock. Like the filmmakers just came up with it out of the blue on this day of shooting and weren’t planning it all along. There weren’t any clues in the traditional sense, but there were little character choices along the way. Small things, like the extra level of hatred he seemed to have for his father. The extra concern his brother-in-law had for him. The way his character kept getting transferred between stations, despite seemingly being a good cop. The mention that he couldn’t relax and “be himself” until his brother-in-law showed up to take care of his sister. Down to the way he defended Jayasurya at the party, or rather the way it was shot, more like rescuing a damsel in distress than protecting a friend/adopted little brother.
And our audience reaction to this reveal is allowed to really be investigated, not just thrown out for the “GASP!” reaction and forgotten. We get to react 2 times, in 2 different ways. First, Prithviraj himself. When his boyfriend returns and starts touching him, clearly his lover, Prithviraj is in shock. The film slows down, the music cranks up, the camera goes at a cocked angle, it’s like a horror movie. And then he reacts in violence, throwing his boyfriend out of the apartment, forbidding him entrance. And finally he breaks down in sobs and rending of garments.
(Even his violence feels like it could just as easily be played as sublimated desire, rather than straight anger. Which reminds me of the excellent fanvideo above!)
It could be played as a “noble man rejecting the filth of homosexuality”. But it doesn’t, because of all the work that went into this character before, both the past-Prithviraj and the current. The current one has been confronted with the “sins” of his past over and over again. He stopped drinking, he stopped smoking, he stopped abusing his power, he is ready to move on and make a fresh start. But this is one “sin” he can’t get past. Not because it is so uncountably awful (we will see in a moment that mere guilt is not enough to cause this kind of reaction), but because he knows it is something he can’t just move on from and do better.
The film doesn’t spell it out, and I am torn as to whether I even wish it would have or if it is better left implied, but you can assume that even “New” Prithviraj was still having these desires, and as soon as he was confronted with his past lover, it all clicked into place, and he had to acknowledge the truth he’d known in his heart all along. So, yes, he is “rejecting homosexuality”, in that he is throwing the evidence of it out of his apartment, but he can’t reject it from his heart as easily as he could everything else he wanted to change, and that is why he sinks into despair as his world shatters.
And then we get to see two more reactions to it, by our two other “Mumbai Police” uber-macho characters. First, Jayasurya, who we see in a flashback walk in on Prithviraj and his boyfriend together. He reacts with shock, anger, fear, disapproval, all the emotions you would expect. Plus the suspicion that Prithviraj had been “grooming” him all along. But past-Prithviraj, the one who knew this about himself and accepted it to the point of having a longtime lover, reacted with fear of the consequences of Jayasurya’s discovery, but no guilt. He did not believe what he was doing was a wrong or bad thing. And, ultimately, we learn that Jayasurya made his peace with it as well, was planning to give a speech extolling Prithviraj’s friendship and bravery, not revealing his secret.
I know this isn’t something my desi readers need a reminder of, but just in case a non-Indian stumbles across this review, remember that homosexuality is still illegal in India. Jayasurya’s covering up of Prithviraj’s lover isn’t just a matter of helping him hide from society, it is actually becoming complicit in an illegal act which could get both of them thrown off the force. His initial reaction of shock and disgust is more than balanced by his later decision to look the other way. And his shock and disgust is both the usual threatened masculinity fear, and a struggle with their shared identity as police officers. Can Prithviraj be a good officer if he is constantly breaking the law? Is it Jayasurya’s responsibility as an officer to report law-breaking by his fellow officer? How could Prithviraj have put him in this position of needing to choose between his responsibility to his job and his responsibility as a friend?
Again, side-note for non-Indian readers, I also find it fascinating that they are using the super macho police force to tell this story. Not just because of the general idea that even the least stereotypically “queer” person can be gay, but because of the frequent anecdotal evidence that the Indian police force uses the threat of Section 377 to force gay men to provide them with sexual favors. I don’t know if that’s what the filmmakers were going for, but it is definitely where my mind went, that I already knew the Indian police force must have some at least slightly queer people on it, because someone is molesting all those gay men who have told their stories to reporters and researchers!
I did find it interesting, going back through the film with this new information in mind, that his relationship with Jayasurya still scans as a friendship, just one with slightly romantic overtones. Not that Prithviraj wanted or planned to seduce him. The first night they go out together Prithviraj learns very quickly that Jayasurya is not only attracted to women, he is in love and faithful to one woman in particular. There is no possibility of anything more here, and the film never shows anything that could look like a romantic approach. But at the same time, the way Prithviraj protected him, and leaped at a closeness, felt more like falling in unrequited love than just an instant friendship.
And, in a meta-textual way, it felt like a comment on how these macho friendships always happen so fast in films and we just accept it. Think about every single Saif-Akshay movie, how we have no problem with Akshay the action hero so quickly taking Saif the wimp under his wing, how they have a friendship that seems closer than friends, and yet we just go along with it as audience members, because that’s what happens in these movies. The filmmakers here took our blindspot for these films, just like our blindspot for Prithviraj’s violence and Jayasurya’s poor-little-rich-boy act, and exploited it, making it believable that it was a simple sudden friendship, and nothing more.
(I love this song)
It also adds a new layer to the way Rahman was always just there, observing Prithviraj. The film never comes right out and says it, but the way I interpreted the looks between the two, I think Rahman always knew or suspected that Prithviraj was gay. But it could never be said out loud, both because they would both risk being thrown off the force, and it would hurt Prithviraj’s sister/Rahman’s wife. But Rahman could observe his loneliness, could watch his relationship with Jayasurya develop until it was clear it would not become romantic, could perhaps arrange for the transfer to a new state when he was coming close to being discovered after 4 years at his current posting.
After this reveal, the further discovery that Prithviraj was the murderer is almost beside the point. Almost, but not quite. Remember how I said that Prithviraj was just wrecked by his awareness of his homosexuality? In a way that being a drinker and a smoker and everything else didn’t seem to hurt him? That carries through even when he realizes he is a murderer. The murder is something he can atone for, something with clear steps forward. Being a gay man is something he can never get over, something that will never change. And, in Indian society right now, it is something that is going to make him miserable.
Oh, one more thing, again this is for people who aren’t Indian and/or spend a lot of time consuming non-Indian products. The way this story plays out, with the murderous gay man who is punished at the end, is a strong trope in American pop culture right now. Lots of talk about how the queer character always dies or turns into a killer or is otherwise horrible. If this was an American movie, it would get called out pretty fast for falling into this trope. But, it’s not an American movie, it’s an Indian one. And India doesn’t have a long history of murderous representations of queer characters, or really any representations of queer characters. So to have Prithviraj, ultra-masculine movie star, in a cop movie with all the cop movie trappings, playing a gay man, is revolutionary! Even if he ends up being a murderer at the end.
(also, I feel obligated to include a link to my slashfic videos post here, as it seems appropriate to the topic at hand)