It’s a cakewalk for the criminal

Maverick: It’s a cakewalk for the criminal
By Farzana Versey
Covert, August 1-15

Charles Sobhraj’s new girlfriend gets interviewed on TV. The media tells us about what T-shirt another criminal wears when he goes for court hearings. The diet and exercise routine constitute prime space. And, yes, the patois of the underworld makes front page news. Even kids in a general knowledge game show talk in the bhai lingo. All this is cool. Your dinner companion is often a murderer, a rapist or a scamster.

Crime is so happening.

Historically, cinema was on the ball internationally – in the Germany of the 20s during the Weimar Republic, the early 30s America where people were seeking order after the Depression, France in the 50s due to colonial unrest. With the advent of the Mafia in Italy and its percolation into most of Europe and the United States, the movies began to follow crime reports. That is the reason that films in this genre avoided a moral position and preferred to convey just a hint of retribution. The blacks and whites gave way to a uniform grey.

The psychopathic villain has arrived to be joined soon by the psychopathic hero, wrote Phillip French in Violence in Cinema. It has happened in our backyard with a slight spin. The bad guy is also a hero, perhaps not in the classical mould, because he sets his own standards of behaviour. Even if the idiosyncrasies include merely getting two people to kill each other, today’s films and the media at large are doing it with finesse because today’s criminal does the same. His spit is his polish.

And to think there used to be endless debates about how Bollywood glorified the criminal. The debates stopped ever since crime began to be realistically portrayed; instead of Ajit and his Mona darling, we got Bhiku Mhatre and his matronly wife.

In a sardonic twist Phoolan Devi, who had killed 22 people and had 55 registered criminal cases against her, transformed after surrender, parliament and, most importantly, Bandit Queen, the movie. She was completely appropriated by men, usurped by their fantasies and power lust – whether it was as consort to Vikram Mallah who taught her to “laugh, swear and speak her mind without inhibitions”, or as the simpering wife to the opportunist Umed Singh, or the pawn for the leaders of the backward class segments. These politicians, incidentally, have no sympathy for the rape or travails of village women who in the year 2008 are still won in a game of dice.

The danger in authenticity is that it takes itself too seriously. If there is anyone who makes crime and the characters that people it appear like heroes and idols it is realistic cinema and news channels. It may seem strange, but devoid of the standardised glamour they become something easy enough to aspire to. There is no hoodlum with one patch on the eye. You have got someone who you cannot differentiate from the man in the street. While it is legitimate for the former to be based on the latter, it becomes a tragedy when the roles get reversed. For example, Phoolan’s attempts to emulate Shekhar Kapur’s caricature version of herself in real life made her almost schizophrenic. One moment she would be the canny businesswoman demanding and getting 40,000 pound sterling to stand by a portrayal she had been assiduously denying, and the next minute she would become a bored housewife who found amusement by watching her life unfold before her own eyes.

To call ours an age of cynicism would be giving ideological obfuscation legitimacy. Both crime and its portrayal, through the false movement of the unreal, actually get us in touch with only our basic instincts while giving us the impression that we have our feet on the ground

Vikram Mallah was quoted as saying in the Bandit Queen, “Aadmi ko marne ke liye bohut riyaaz karna padta hai”.

Even death is not spontaneous in this world. It is an exaggerated version of an unreal reality. Today’s criminal can live in a chawl, wear a Gandhi topi and be addressed as daddy.


  1. oh good stuff. I thoroughly loved this post.

  2. Thanks Madiha...and how are we?


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