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The Many Faces of the Police Procedural

The Many Faces of the Police Procedural

By Ashwini Dabadge

Switch on the television, and it is more likely than not that one would find oneself watching a police procedural. This is hardly surprising as detective fiction makes for popular TV shows and cinema, where the focus is on finding the face behind a series of unexplained events, who is often someone you would least expect – so much so that it’s now a rule in crime fiction. While the highlight of such films is the big reveal at the end, other more discerning ones detail the manner in which the perpetrator is brought to light in order to bring out the different themes on screen that the film deals with.

Consider the 1991 American film, ‘Silence of the Lambs’, where the identity of the kidnapper-murderer is secondary to other themes, such as the relationship of convenience between an FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, and a convicted psychopath, Hannibal Lecter, who once practiced as a psychiatrist, or the subtle sexism that Starling sometimes faces from her all-male team. The film presents us with the criminal Hannibal Lecter, an unexpectedly polite man with polished manners who maintains a chilling yet calm demeanour even as he describes the gruesome details of his cannibalistic exploits. This is a far cry from the more straightforward unhinged behaviour of another psychopath Buffalo Bill, whose is chased by the FBI for a series of kidnappings and murders.

A major chunk of films in the genre of detective fiction is the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ type of film – where the detective’s deductive skills are the focus of interest as he tracks down the culprit. In such films, the viewers find themselves making mental notes of the clues presented and formulating their own theories of the resolution of the mystery.

This brings us to another kind of police procedural – like the recently released film, ‘Talvar’ which is based on the actual events of the Aarushi Talwar double murder case. Since the film draws from real life and has a highly publicized case at the centre of its plot, uncovering the identity of the culprits is no longer the primary goal. Instead, the focus is now on how the structural deficiencies of investigative agencies can mar an investigation from being objective and fact-based, and can put the wrong people behind bars. Although balanced and objective at the surface, where it presents different scenarios of what may have happened, the film quietly makes a case for the innocence of the dentist couple and a possible miscarriage of justice.

The theme that stands out is the class differences between the investigators, especially the local police, and those being investigated. This division provides fodder to speculative theories about the ‘character’ of the victim and the motive of the crime. The police sermonize on matters beyond the law, as their faces betray envious resentment of the comfortable, liberal lifestyle of this upper middle class family. This is evident in a scene in the very first few minutes, where the police field intimate questions about the victim in local Hindi, which are rebuffed by the stressed parents in polished English. The servant-employer relationship is also explored. The scene where the servant  is trying to reign in his drunken friends, who brazenly enter a young girl’s room with malicious intentions, sends chills down the ‘middle class’s’ spine and makes it question the level of access of the ‘lower class’ to their lives.

Along the lines of Talvar is the 2003 film, ‘Memories of Murder’, loosely based on the real life serial rape-murders of young women in South Korea between 1986 and 1991. Much like Talvar, this film too follows a fictionalized adaptation of the shoddy investigation that ensues after the murders come to light. The film is not interested in who is behind the brutal acts, but its psychological effect on a police force pushed to the edge in solving a seemingly unsolvable mystery. As the local detectives, with a touch of dark humour, try to pin the blame on and draw out false confessions from a series of suspects with a spurious connection to the case in order to make their job easier, a young promising detective from the capital city of Seoul arrives at the scene. Using his superior deductive methods and ingenuity, but regarded by the local detectives with suspicion, he tries to bring more order to the probe.

But after all their efforts to find the murderer reach a dead end, and all their leads turn cold, the only tool left in the investigative arsenal of the authorities as well as the young, once optimistic detective, is an active imagination, fuelling more unsubstantiated theories. Desperate attempts are made to string often incompatible pieces of the puzzle together. The mystery and the constant speculation that has led them nowhere continues to haunt them long after they have moved on from the case, some onto different professions altogether – thus showing how they keep looking for answers even in the face of a hopeless case.

There is some thought given to the place of women in society through the means of the investigation and the sexually violent murders. When a junior female officer provides an important clue, the local cops snigger at her. One observes how they themselves leer at women, while being thrust with the responsibility of finding the rapist-murderer, thus proving how deeply embedded misogyny is in societies and how it manifests itself in virtually invisible ways even in the light of brutal crimes against women.

Police procedures have been used to examine varied themes – right from the faults in the criminal justice system to other broader human values. Even in Hindi cinema, pure detective fiction like a Detective Byomkesh Bakshy film exists comfortably alongside a Talvar in the same year, presenting us with a wide range in the genre.

The author is a Research Associate at Prayas Energy Group with an education in Economics, a liberal in terms of outlook and a film buff at heart.

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