Gangaajal: 15 years ago, a film warned us about lynchings and mob justice

By Parth Pandya

Midway through Prakash Jha’s Gangaajal, Amit Kumar (Ajay Devgn), the honest Superintendent of Tejpur Police, tells his wife that he is in a dilemma: Should he take a bet on Bachha Yadav (a fine Mukesh Tiwari), a temporarily suspended subordinate and include him in a sensitive operation? In the next few scenes, we find out that Kumar follows his gut and is rewarded for it. The operation, which involves cracking down on the district’s most notorious crime family, is successful and Yadav wins his confidence back.

But a little later in the film, Kumar is tested on this very decision when Yadav and his colleagues commit a horrific act of brutality. They blind two prisoners who they thought deserved a gruesome punishment. If it weren’t bad enough that this extrajudicial violence is meted out by the men Kumar trusted, public opinion is also in their favour. Naturally Kumar, horrified at this breach of power, is caught in a quagmire, for upholding his principles, means that he’d be required to throw his colleagues under the bus and go against the sentiment of the janata.

In the aftermath of the blindings, the town unconditionally stands by the accused cops, who they claim have brought them justice faster than the due process of law. It doesn’t take long for the neighbouring towns to follow suit, resulting in more unlawful blindings. Any dissenting voice, critical of this “practice” is not spared: An enraged mob heckles and threatens a local journalist while the police watch in silence.

Despite the public mood, Kumar takes a moral stand against his colleagues for their ghastly actions. There’s an elaborate scene where he explains to an anguished crowd that public lynchings — even when they are committed against criminals — are never the solution for a society founded on democratic principles. And it’s through the moral conundrum of its lead that Gangaajal takes a stand against police excesses, goading the audience into an ethical dialogue over mob mentality and vigilante justice. It’s been 15 years since the film released, but given the country’s turbulent socio-political climate, there might not be a more appropriate time to revisit it.

Gangaajal’s stand feels all the more revolutionary when you consider the message that most films were disseminating at the time. For the better part of the noughties, Bollywood was churning out movies which romanticised police officers bypassing the law for the just cause of decriminalising the streets. Films like AanGarvKrantiKagaarIndian, and Ab Tak Chhappan – in varying degrees of nuance – humanised police brutalities. They’d be accompanied by a standard narrative: A garden variety upright cop being driven to the point of forcibly taking matters in his hands due to the loopholes of a corrupt system. In these films, the end always justified the means.

But Jha admirably went against the tide to drive home the point that the tempting immediacy of justice can never be a justification for vigilante killings. In his last relevant film, the director also dissects mob behaviour and pinpoints where it germinates. He goes as far as to say that a culture of mob violence can’t exist only due to groups of people assembling to vent out their anger. In order to lynch another person with impunity, any group requires a tacit endorsement from the state. The police in Gangaajal not only set a precedent for vigilante justice but also remain silent enablers to situations that descend into violent chaos.

It’s exactly the kind of state patronage that both abets and emboldens this organised violence against lower castes and religious minorities in the country today. There’s hardly a need to incite people with speeches directly calling for violence when gestures like a BJP Union Minister, garlanding men convicted of heinous mob lynchings are seen as a nod of approval. Moreover, members of the Parliament labelling the rise of lynchings in tParth Pandyahe country as “minor incidents” or citing the rising population of Muslims as a contributing factor for the violence comfortably provide the endorsement vigilante justice thrives on.

As we’re witnessing, when extrajudicial brutalities of the police find a heroic reception in the media, violence feels like a normal reaction to replicate by ordinary men on the streets. In a way, the police then conveniently outsource the grammar of violence to the public, escaping any legal scrutiny. Take the recent Hapur lynching for instance. A man who was beaten to death over rumours of cow slaughter, was dragged on the streets in the presence of three police officers. What’s unfolding today isn’t all dissimilar from a scene in Gangaajal where the police conspire with the locals to incite a mob into violence and promising to look away. Gangajaal predicted this reality.

In order to lynch another person with impunity, any group requires a tacit endorsement from the state. The police in Gangaajal not only set a precedent for vigilante justice but also remain silent enablers to situations that descend into violent chaos.

In a sea of cop dramas where police officers are pictures of unabashed machismo, Gangaajallet us in on their insecurities, anxieties, and even, pettiness. Once the realisation of their horrific act sinks in, the cops in Gangaajal resort to more violence to prevent the witnesses from testifying against them. Prakash Jha’s nuanced narrative resists broad strokes and no one is an outright villain. But while the film attempts to separate the man from his crime, it also takes no half measures in exposing the moral illegitimacy of police excesses.

In today’s time, when powerful sections of the media, in collusion with the state machinery, justify the mistreatment of dissenting voices in the name of nationalism, Gangaajal is a timely reminder of where this madness leads.