Discover more from From Prathyush
On Sooryavanshi's False Hope
Josy Joseph's book "The Silent Coup" destabilizes everything Sooryavanshi is trying to do and say
On the night of Diwali, I decided to come down for a smoke with a neighbour, looking up at building balconies decked with fairy lights, making a mental note from best to worst. We sat on a quiet part of the street, trying to avoid being burst open by fire crackers that were half-lit or rockets on the verge of a deafening launch. Autos and cycles were deftly maneuvering the crackers being pummeled in the middle of the road like shape shifting potholes. A drunk man was supine on the footpath, asleep. The cars were shifty and fewer. Once in a while, the rocket would explode the way it should, completely, till it reaches the sky, and then fumble into noodles of light, and then ash, and then nothing. I wasn’t wearing my glasses so my eyes, like a bokeh filter, blurred all lines into plump pixels of bright colour. The ones I liked looking at most were the flower pots, where light would sizzle out in projectile streams, making an unthreatening sound, like milk about to boil. Once in a while, I would gape in awe at the sky now ashen with a grey filter from all the smoke, and the light from the streetlamps turning into cones of sulphur, like on a foggy night. How beautiful are fireworks when their arms reach out fully into the sky, I thought. I was reminded that back in Dubai, while walking home, I had seen a father teaching his son to light the sparkler, watching it hiss in delight and muffled fear. I was reminded of a YouTube comment on Sigur Rós’s song Starálfur, that when the song dipped before it soared, it “sound[ed] like traveling back in time to the first moment you saw fireworks.”
But I was also disgusted and afraid. The after-smell of burnt paper and chemicals floating. The smoke that would clog lungs and pores and hearts over accumulating years till life slips away. The dogs that were mewling under cars or were barking mad, unable to understand why this crazy species likes to watch things being blown up and erupt in mock destruction. The night was thick with smoke. The morning was littered with the debris of crackers, and my own cigarette butts. How beautiful and how noxious. How beautiful yet how noxious.
Most people, critics especially, look at director Rohit Shetty the way dogs — and I am anthropomorphizing here, putting human thoughts in an animal head — look at us on Diwali. With bewildering, painful shock. All these cars being blown up, for what? Is it fun to watch or fun to orchestrate? Sometimes, I ask myself the same thing. Why do we, do I, long to see things blown up? What is this human fascination with destruction, for I lunged at the one theater opening of Shetty’s 2.5 hour film Sooryavanshi on Saturday night, braving the highway traffic in a rickety bus with a New Yorker tote. How could I miss this houseful event? How could I miss Katrina Kaif oomphing in a metallic Manish Malhotra sari, dancing in the rain to remixed old world charm, with the worst possible choreography, hands flailing like arms of a absurdist clock, having absolutely zero chemistry with her co-star? When he kisses her on the cheek, he doesn’t even allow his lips to gather fully on her skin, making it look like a reluctant sniff. When she arches her back in seductive invitation, his slowness makes her excitement look excessive.
(A side note on the age gap. Raveena Tandon was 20 years old when she danced to ‘Tip Tip Barsa Paani’ in 1994 opposite Akshay Kumar who was then 27. 27 years later, for the ‘Tip Tip Barsa Paani’ remix in this movie, Akshay Kumar is 54 years old, and his co-star Katrina Kaif is 38 years old. The age gap more than doubled, the actor remained the same.)
Rohit Shetty’s Diwali gift to the theaters — and it is that, with the cash registers ringing after a year of pitter patter, earning 26 crores on the first day — Sooryavanshi, the third prong of his Cop Universe that also includes Singham and Simmba, roars into life with the siren song blaring. The subtitle — Aa Raha Hai Police, The Police Are Coming — can be both an invitation and a warning.
That the film isn’t worried about it being a warning is clear. It does not even allude to police brutality, incompetence, and bias as a possibility, because that is not Shetty’s brand of filmmaking. They are soppy spectacles where vigilante justice is made to feel like a public decision, a popular choice, because the climax is often bulging with crowds baying for the villain’s blood. If I remember correctly, in Simmba there was an entire scene where women standing around the police officer pronounce that the rapist should be killed. Such scenes allow Shetty to shirk his shoulders — if the women in my film think it’s okay, then why do you have a problem?
Which is why, while watching such films, we must catch our impulses. It is so easy to be swayed by their conviction — it is why I love watching Shetty movies, and will throng to the theaters, coming out confused, conflicted, and entertained every single time. The music, the close-ups, the crowds looking like one fluttering tapestry inject the exact kind of cultish enthusiasm we must harbour to partake in the film’s joy. His shots are lazy, his cuts are quick not giving you time to process the end of a scene, his dialogues are kitsch, clear and obvious not needing any further investing from your end, his colour grading is dangerously close to feeling acidic and malarial, his scene building often too designed to be of any emotional potence, and yet the collective impact is one of intrigue.
I realized this dissonance while watching Doctor, a Tamil crime thriller starring Sivakarthikeyan as the life-affirming hero. In this film, everyone, including Sivakarthikeyan are framed as small beings with a lot of negative space around them. The music isn’t imposing as much as it is suggestive. The spaces and silence allows you to question the heroism of the lead actor, while allowing you space to enjoy his antics and his whipsmart nonchalance. Shetty, on the other hand, places his camera in disorienting, saturated top shots where the scale of what is at stake is made dizzyingly clear or in tight closeups of slow motion heroism and gold rimmed Ray Bans, where nothing else matters.
But it must be noted that a cop pursuing vigilante justice is a validation of the fact that the police, the way they are supposed to function within law and order, is an ineffective institution. That its effectiveness comes only from trespassing the courts, smarting the public, and bursting through the bullet budget — which itself is an issue. Investigative journalist Josy Joseph’s The Silent Coup: A History Of India’s Deep State notes that the Maharashtra state police need around 65 crores worth of ammunition annually so each policeperson can fire the required 40 rounds per year. However, in the years leading up to the 26/11 terror attacks in 2008, one that exposed how fragile, rag tag, and broken our intelligence and security apparatus is, only 3 crores were earmarked for bullets. Most police vehicles only have riot gear, unprepared for terrorists armed with AK-47s. Things changed after the massacre, but not too much. In this disillusioning state of affairs, the idea of a well resourced police force feels not just like propaganda for those of us routinely hit with headlines of police brutality, but also like a fantasy for the police themselves who are watching the film.
It is why I have often found the vigilante police officer a disservice to the idea of the police — the most egregious avatar of this being “Superstar” Rajinikanth in Darbar. He literally slaps a man and threatens a Human Rights woman who has come to investigate his encounter killings, to file a report that doesn’t implicate him. The police officers worship the earth he walks on, submitting their injuries and their life to his vision of justice, like Sooryavanshi’s underlings do to him. This is another distinguishing characteristic of the vigilante cop. It seems any internal pushback comes only from those perched higher up in the ivory tower. All the policepersons under the cop are willful subjects. And why not? In Darbar, for example, we are told that the police officers have gained a bad reputation for being unable to solve crimes. Rajinikanth’s entrance, then, has swept up the streets and burnished their image. To be a policeperson is now a matter of pride. So vigilante justice is not just about what is right, but also what is convenient.
In the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks, when India was wondering if we should retaliate with targeted attacks on Pakistan, Shivshankar Menon, the former foreign secretary and national security adviser, agreed that we should. Why? “For reasons of international credibility and to assuage public sentiment”. Not for justice, but for the appearance of justice. Not to bolster internal strength and systems so such an attack never takes place, but to provide the appearance of internal strength. Image is everything. Image is also an easy, convenient way to signal achievement. It is why people feel Modi has done so much for literacy, when more than 50% of the budget for the Beti Padhao Beti Bachao scheme to improve female literacy was spent on advertising. The surgical strikes that have achieved little to nothing except fuel for the news cycle.
Two days before the release of Sooryavanshi, calls for boycotting the film were trending on Twitter. They alleged that the Mumbai Police had botched up the investigation of the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Those asking for a boycott were convinced that he was drugged and murdered and what not. This film, injecting heroism, immediacy, a steel spine that can also lacerate feels in direct dialogue with these trolls. That here, see, the police being effective, saving the city, your city, our city. A bloodbath is mere collateral damage. And for all this, Sooryavanshi begins with an epigraph “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”. Providing a warning of blindness, while promoting another kind of blindness is a level of irony I just can’t wrap my head around.
The Rotting Indian Security Apparatus
“The state’s police forces, intelligence agencies, federal investigation agencies, tax departments and the like become the tools of the ruling elite… They raid, harass, eavesdrop, torture and kill. They malign, intellectually torture and create fake monsters out of ordinary good people.” — Josy Joseph
Joseph’s book gives us a cloudy front row seat to the fake encounters, forced disappearances, the lack of Muslims in the ranks of the security establishment, and the muffling of investigations into Hindu extremist groups. The portrait is of a crumbling, radioactive fort that is promising security and care.
The first part of his book chronicles the life of Wahid, an orthodox Muslim man, who was picked up from the slums of Ghatkopar at the age of 21 after 9/11. The allegation was that he was part of Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) which was declared a terrorist organization without any proof. At the time, less than 1% of Muslims made up the ranks of the Maharashtra state police. (Lower than the 4% Muslims in the Indian Police Service, the IPS, and lower than 3% Muslims in the Indian Administrative Service, the IAS)
Wahid, along with 7 others, had to spend a night in jail, sleeping on newspapers laid out on the cold floors, despite pleading innocence. The following day, after the local court granted police custody of them, the torture began.
The informants the police used to implicate Wahid and his group were often bogus, clouded by personal vendetta or mere survival. Shabir Mir’s haunting novel The Plague Upon Us, shortlisted for the 25 Lakh JCB Prize for Literature, delves into this cretinous network of informers who are both helping the military and the militant movement in Kashmir, dangling between the devil and the deep blue sea, not knowing which is worse, for neither is, certainly, better. The fact that the USA decided to invade an entire country, deposing the systems in place, causing the deaths of over 200,000 Iraqi citizens, based on incorrect information from a source who was an alcoholic, pathological liar, tells you to what extremes the intelligence machinery will go to rationalize a bloodbath that it wants to commit anyways. Evidence is mere validation.
In India, Joseph points out an additional problem — “Muslim informants are often nurtured so that they can sacrificed in the future as alleged terrorists.” There is a bias against Muslims in the system that isn’t helped by the paltry representation. In the two decades that Joseph has reported on the security apparatus, he hasn’t seen a single Muslim appointment to a senior position at R&AW, India’s intelligence agency. Under pressure to solve cases, they produce fake narratives and force innocent men to plead guilty. Afzal Guru is the most egregious example of this. Arrested and put on trial for the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, he was forced to implicate other people under pressure. His confession was forced. This was known. Yet, he was hanged in 2013 in a shroud of secrecy.
That same year, twelve years after his arrest, a court dismissed the entire case against Wahid noting that the police could not even prove that they were members of SIMI. But that did not matter for he was arrested and dumped in again for the 2006 Mumbai blasts. Again, he had no connection, and was finally, in 2015, set free. He has since founded Innocence Network to fight for those wrongly incarcerated.
It is this Islamophobia which Sooryavanshi wants to take its unsubtle sledgehammer to. Here, it makes clear the distinction between a good Muslim and a bad Muslim. So in a scene where Akshay Kumar is lecturing the bearded bad Muslim, the mustached good Muslim is standing in the background like a prop for Kumar to point out as the exemplar. Here, why can’t you be like this? The kind of film that mistakes patronizing for brotherhood. I always get queasy around notions of sincerity in cinema, a moral neatness that while cinematic is too untrue to be of any true value.
This is not to say that there are not good Muslims and bad Muslims, but there are also good Hindus and bad Hindus, and that Hindutva terrorism is also a looming threat, as much as jihad is, but the politicians have put an inordinate amount of pressure on the investigating agencies, Joseph notes, to not pursue such leads. Where are the movies of Hindutva terror? Of the good Hindu and the bad Hindu? It is not just convenient but comfortable to associate terrorism with Islam, and then wax eloquent from the podium about goodness and badness, as if it were a moral level playing field.
In fact, Hemant Karkare, the chief of Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS), of which Kumar is part of in Sooryavanshi, was investigating the very nodes of Hindutva terrorism when he was shot dead in the 26/11 carnage. He arrested Pragya Thakur — who would go on to win a Lok Sabha seat, regardless — which caused a furore. When Karkare was alive, he was constantly undermined by the Hindutva political behemoth which was snowballing in popularity. LK Advani, the chief minsterial candidate then had demanded the ATS be disbanded. Modi, who also accused Karkare of undermining the morale of the military with these arrests, however, showed up at Karkare’s house after his death — this, despite being told thrice by his family to not visit them. He sat in their drawing room for a while, then left. He offered 1 crore compensation. They politely turned him down.
Not Just Corrupt Or Violent, But Inefficient
Sooryavanshi makes use of real life photographs to give us, the audience, a sense of the devastation caused by the various blasts. And so, I thought, it makes sense to inject another side to their idea of reality. I want to bring two parts of the film into sharp focus. One is the ATS, and the other is the NSG.
The ATS of which Akshay Kumar is part of, had picked up Wahid in 2006 for routine questioning where he was beat up, interrogated, and then locked up in illegal custody for several weeks. (In 2019-20, 5 people on average died in custody every day.) Later, after he was let go, he was again summoned, then tortured when he was unable to give them information (because he had none to give), suffering kicks to the groin and batons with burning oil shoved into his rectum. The people in charge of him knew he was harmless. Wahid would ride pillion with one of the officers who wanted to take photos of the sea. They would drive around in the moist air, drink juice, and come back, returning to their respective positions of inmate and officer. Such was the farce of terrorism.
The ATS in Mumbai was first formed in 1990, under growing pressure to tame the sudden influx of Khalistani terrorists from Punjab. But it was disbanded in 1993 because of allegations of extreme torture and public shootouts. (some of which were, unsurprisingly, made into valiant films) It was re-formed in 2004 in the wake of blasts that led nowhere. This is the legacy of violence and pinpricks of hope which Sooryavanshi bequeaths unto its hero.
Then, there is the National Security Guard (NSG), a finger-snap summoning of the NSG to Mumbai in the climax of the film to foil the bomb plot. Akshay Kumar suggests they bring in the NSG. And the next, they are there. But this wasn’t always the case. Here is Joseph describing how the NSG showed up in Mumbai during the 26/11 attacks.
“On the evening of 26 November, it was fast becoming clear that what was unfurling in Mumbai was an organized, unprecedented terrorist attack. By 11:30 p.m., the Maharashtra government had reached out to the Union for NSG to take on the terrorists… The Union wanted Maharashtra to suggest how many were needed. The Mumbai police, overwhelmed… wanted as many as possible. The Union decided on 200 commandos… Men were commandeered from social functions, from their sleep and anywhere else they could be found. Then came the process of mobilizing arms and ammunition… every step added to the delay. In the middle of the night, the Ministry of Defence woke up the air force machinery and discovered that no IL-76 [needed to deploy the heavy equipment] was available in Delhi. The nearest such aircraft was in Chandigarh… [They found out later that one IL-76 was with R&AW, who then gave the orders to mobilize the aircraft] Then the MHA contacted Air India, which offered its Airbus 320s, but did not have its crew ready… By this time Hemant Karkare and his team had been mowed down … The 200 commandos, meanwhile, left NSG’s Manesar campus in buses for the hour-long journey to the Delhi airport. They loaded the equipment themselves and boarded the IL-76, which finally took off around 3 a.m. From the Mumbai airport, again, most of the commandos were taken by buses to the various locations. By the time the NSG began its operations, it was almost 9 a.m.”
After 26/11 debacle, the NSG opened a hub in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Kolkata to reduce this reaction time. And yet, towards the end of Sooryavanshi, the hero notes that the NSG won’t arrive on time, and so drives a bomb-laden car through Mumbai traffic into an empty mill — we have a lot of those lying around — as he jumps out of the car, which then bursts into metal debris. However you see it, it is always the hero and never the institution the hero is part of, that is heroic. And yet, these films are advertised as odes.
I have to clarify that my criticism here is not of the film, as much as it is of the genre and constraints within which Shetty is operating. How can I criticize Sooryavanshi for not being politically aware, when its express intent was to be politically naive? Instead I want to look at this desire to be politically naive, and what that means for films like Sooryavanshi. Whom does it serve, whom does it chide with its indifference? It is a subtle difference, because in one the film is the agent, and in the other, it is a product. Much like when I critiqued The Family Man, it wasn’t a critique of the show as much as it was about the show’s decision to be apolitical and what that decision willfully turned a blind eye to. It is something film criticism taught me over time. To figure out the logic of the artform you are writing about. Critique the logic, or critique the artform within that logic. Don’t ever critique the logic and think you are critiquing the artform. It serves no purpose except for snark or smug irony, which we all can agree, we can have less of.
I am back in Mumbai, and like muscle memory I have retraced my old life, but with a mask on. This newsletter came at a time when I was locked in. It wasn’t meant to be permanent but it became so after I realized how much it helped clarify, stratify, and frame my own thoughts. I’ll keep writing, hopefully, in the thick of life here. In the interim do write to me, like this post, share it, fatten my subscriber count.