This was fascinating! Started out a typical police film, and then somewhere it turned into an interesting discussion of crime, regionalism, caste, and all kinds of neat things like that. A lot of it being the same things that Aamir’s big ridiculous Thugs of Hindostan is about to cover, but in modern day instead of colonial times.
Most films have a hero and a villain and the villain is wrong and the hero is right and that is all there is to it. Some films have a hero and a villain and as time goes on the lines between the two get blurred and we aren’t sure which is which. But it is a rare film that rejects that simple kind of definition, that accepts that both sides of course think they are the “hero”, that in their own minds they are justified in what they are doing. that deals with all the many different forces their are in the world that might drive both sides, “good” and “bad”, to violence.
This film starts where Thugs of Hindostan will leave off. What happened after the British instituted their massive attack on the “thugee” criminals, and how the same forces that drove the thugees to crime in Victorian times are still present today. And what needs to be done to truly end this source of violence.
The police are the solution. Not the hero police, not the lone warrior, but a coordinated organized trained force working across the entire country. Our hero sees himself as merely part of a larger machine, doing his duty as best he can.
Remarkable that Karthi took this role. He gets to make noble statements and have some impressive action scenes, yes, but it still isn’t the big heroic masala action hero kind of role that wins stars devoted followers. His character is ultimately subservient to the plot, just as the police officer he plays is subservient to a larger police machinery.
Finally, this movie is excellent for how it addresses and contradicts the Orientalist tendency towards essentialism. Karthi is not heroic because he is Tamilian or anything simplistic like that, it is because of the unique training, background, and so on that he has received. Much more importantly, the bad people aren’t bad people because of the caste they were born into. Not exactly. It is because of how that caste has been restricted and abused and so on through time which has eventually driven them to being bad.
Oh, but the heroine is still sexy and in love just because she is the heroine, so some things never change.
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We open with the massive machinery of the police, an announcement that all paper files will be sorted and digitized. And a lowly functionary on this job is handed the file of Karthi’s case, from years earlier, and reads it, mesmerized. And then calls Karthi up to ask him if it is true, Karthi says yes, and the rest of the film is told from his perspective while speaking to this other officer.
This is a cool set up for a flashback, but it has a deeper meaning than that. The vast machinery of the police force is in the midst of a job that only such a vast machinery can accomplish, which will be a recurring theme of the film. In addition, although it is never explicitly mentioned, this exact digitization of the files is what would have helped prevent the crimes that Karthi is fighting. An easy ability to share and analyze information across the state could have prevented his need for constant travel police station to police station in order to gain information.
Our flashback starts with the vast machinery again. We see the strenuous training course which turned out Karthi as a SuperCop. Fight training, educational challenges, logic problems, etc. etc. Only after he is established as one small piece of a larger whole do we see him as an individual, his return home once he is freed from training.
And this is when our heroine is introduced, Rakul Preet Singh. She has slightly more to do in this film than in Spyder, but that isn’t saying much. The romance is primarily there to show another side of our hero, that he is a regular man along with being a Super Policeman. I suppose they could have had the same effect by showing him shopping with his mother, or arranging his sisters marriage. But a romance is traditional, and it also lets him be a little silly and petty in a fun way that contrasts with how strong and sure and wise he is at work.
For a brief period, it appears that our hero is a usual “hero” part of the larger police force but better than it. He and Rakul are married, and then for 2 years they travel frequently going from posting to posting, he becomes an encounter hero and a supercop. Until finally they get their newest posting, in a rural area, meeting their newest neighbors, his constable and their family.
All along we have been seeing glimpses of the “bad guys”, but our hero is unaware of them. Which, again, picks up on the theme. This evil is consistently happening, but you can be a super cop and unaware of it all around you because of how it is structured to escape your notice, and how the police are structured to overlook it.
Karthi is shocked when he first learns about a brutal home invasion happening near his new command. And further shocked when he checks the files and discovers it is one of many. Shocked but not surprised. Shocked by the violence, but not surprised that it is so hard to track a pattern and try to investigate it. And not that surprised that no one has bothered to try to track it until him. However, he does not waste time in wondering how this came about, but instead sits down and tries to do the best he can to investigate now. Even later, when he is finally given the resources he needs only because a politician has been killed, he wastes little time bemoaning the unfairness of this and instead focuses on the work.
This focus, awareness of the big picture, and understanding of how this whole massive machinery of police, politics, and all of Indian society works, that is what the villains do not have. They are forces of chaos, outside of any logic or rules. Which is both their strength and their downfall. And is a very different way of looking at “bad guys”.
The love for the idea of the individual hero in most Indian films is more than just a narrative choice, it is making a statement about civilization. The rise of the strong individual hero coincided with the rise of Indira Gandhi, MGR, other political leaders who declared that one strong voice was all that was needed. Now, this film is saying that the hero must disappear within the system, it is the villains who work outside of it.
(Rakul is still there to remind us that our hero is a human, but he is a human who is a part of something bigger than himself)
The villains, finally lets get to them! They are impossible to catch or track because they follow no rules, no logic. They travel the country in trucks, killing where they find a house that looks wealthy. There is no personal animosity to the residents, and also no mercy. They kill a powerful politician as easily as a humble constable’s family. Their only goal is jewels and wealth. Their is a revealing moment in the film when they have attacked a household and the daughter-in-law of the family is sent out over the back wall with her young daughter. The gang assumes that she must be running away with the family jewels. Because they cannot conceive that the rest of the family would be helping her escape, and that she would be running, for any reason besides hiding valuables. They do not understand the possibility of a love for a child in their victims.
This is what felt familiar to me from my reading of Memoirs of a Thug. The idea of roving bands who are devoted to each other and their families, like anyone would be, but see everyone else as victims to be hunted for their gold. And the society that allows for this, by creating enclaves where the gangs can live happily without ever interacting with outsiders, and by dividing their authorities in such a way that the gang can slip between the cracks when they leave this enclave.
The most interesting part of this was the fine line the film treads in giving the background of this kind of group. It explains the seemingly contradictory facts that the Thugee groups were both real and not real. They were real in that there was a real scourge of murders and bandits killing travelers through out India, there were real mass graves and real villains arrested and interrogated by the British. But what was not real was the terror that followed, the argument that Thugees were part of particular castes and those castes must be controlled as “criminal” castes. And the bigger argument that India was unable to police itself and therefore the British must come in and “save” it.
The Criminal Tribes of the British could more accurately be called “groups who do not live within settled communities”. Hunters and gatherers, scavengers, itinerant laborers. These groups were a potential threat to British rule, likely to join up in rebellions or to commit petty acts of rule-breaking which revealed the teniousness of British authority. These groups were set down in laws and tracked by the police, labeled as guaranteed criminals. After Independence, little changed. Slowly they went from “criminal tribes” to “habitual offenders” to “denotified tribes”. There is still prejudice against them, they are still tracked by the police, and still distrusted by much of society in a way that cuts them off from any life besides criminality.
This is not an uncommon situation. When you are told that you are a criminal, when people expect you to be a criminal, then often the only path open to you is to prove their expectations true and become a criminal. Heck, this is what Awara was about all those years ago! Prithviraj believed in the criminal tribes concept, therefore he sentenced a bandit who was innocent of this particular charge to jail, upon release he truly did become a bandit and decided to influence the judges’ son, proving that anyone has the possibility of being a criminal if the situation is such that they have no other choice. And the same situation has been true through out history all over the world, Jewish people becoming moneylenders because they are not allowed to be landowners, and then blamed for being moneylenders, African-Americans driven to create alternate economies in America because they are not allowed jobs in the “white” world, and so on and so on.
And this film takes the time to explain that. To accept both that the gang Karthi is chasing are truly evil, dangerous, forces of death and destruction, but also to point to the reasons they became that way over time. And most importantly, to keep their vengeance only for those who can be proved to have committed sins.
Not vengeance, justice. Poor Rakul has to die, just so we can see that it is NOT vengeance. Even when his own wife is attacked by the gang (while saving that little girl whose mother fled with her), Karthi is clear that he wishes to chase them not because of vengeance, but because he is a police officer and it is his duty.
And so they go from Tamil Nadu to Rajasthan, seeking out the criminal’s home village, learning that it is well known in the area as a center of dangerous people who are removed from the rest of society. But they go into the village not to attack it indiscriminately, but to bring out those few people they have identified as guilty of particular crimes. When they are offered a “compromise”, taking a random person from the town, they reject it. They want only the real criminals, not the lower members of the community.
(Also to give us a Hindi item song)
It is also important exactly how they get from Tamil Nadu to Rajasthan. This is not an illegal raid without department permission, this is a handpicked group of officers with full authority and support who are entering the state. Like the villains, they have left their home state and traveled far to attack. But unlike the villains, they are not doing this randomly or out of chaos, but as part of a large bureaucratic machine.
And that is how the film ends. With a reminder that this is not done for pride, or individual accomplishment, but part of a larger duty, a larger system. In the present, our clerk who started this by reading the file travels all the way to the small town where Karthi is still posted, solving minor disputes in anonymity, his heroism forgotten. And our clerk salutes him, not for his heroism in the past, but for the way he has neatly slipped back into his role in the present, letting his individual pain and pride fade away in service of a greater good.