Mohimarnab Biswas (Megh)
This study locates the middle-class ‘vigilante figure’ in Bombay cinema within the larger paradigm of the rise of the ‘vigilante publics’ in the backdrop of the BJP’s massive electoral gains in 2014. It attempts to do so by focusing attention on the articulation of justice in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero. It looks to characterise the shift in visual codes of representation of the vigilante figure since 2014 through the lens of politics of thematic engagements and tropes within the genre of vigilante films. I attempt to deconstruct the vigilante figure with respect to the notions of citizenship, masculinity and territory and also explore the embedded function of caste in them. This study includes an effort to understand the construction of vigilantism as an ideology in order to unpack the ways in which the society–or at least a part of it–is imagining justice, framing itself and the others it is ‘othering’ in the process. The effort will be to deconstruct the vigilante figure in the film and analyse it on various registers like caste, masculinity, the production of the ‘ideal citizen’, and the notion of justice.
The vigilante figure post-2014
2014 was chosen as a starting point in this study for various socio-politico-cultural reasons. 2014 General Elections saw a single party gaining a majority of seats for the first time since the 1984 elections, thereby having implications for the polity. Since 2014, there has been an increased reportage and visibility of cases of cow vigilantism and mob violence and there seems to be an apparent surge in incidents that can be characterised as mob justice. The last few years have also been characterised by the rise of new media technologies that have worked in tandem with transnational capital flows to create a pervasive effect in the domain of imagery. The digital realm characterised by Whatsapp forwards, Youtube, and other social networking sites has reconfigured the modalities of construction and reception of imagery. It is in this vein that I wish to undertake this study to understand how the ‘vigilante figure’ has been constructed in the popular Bombay cinema landscape post-2014 general elections.
The representation of the vigilante figure in Bombay cinema seems to have undergone a tectonic shift post-2014. The vigilante figure in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (Vikramaditya Motwane, 2018) is a Brahmin and hails mostly from the middle class (or even upper-middle-class). The representation of vigilante figures is not a recent phenomenon in the Bombay cinema. Vigilante heroes often catered to the escapist fetishes of the film-going audience and its imagination of justice in the face of rampant oppression. Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘angry young man’ image that was formulated in his films of the 1970s (Deewar, Zanjeer, Kaala Patthar, etc.) and action films of stars like Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt, Sunil Shetty, Akshay Kumar, Nana Patekar ruled the roost in the 80s and 90s where the hero fought injustice and oppression. Owing to the complete breakdown of law and order machinery, these heroes had no faith in legal recourse. Ravaged by the invasion of evil forces in their personal sphere, the only viable option they explored in order to fight the evil was a brutal display of their machismo.
Earlier, a vigilante figure fighting against big capital could be from oppressed socio-economic strata, but increasingly, one sees the middle-class vigilante figure as the hegemonic persona within the domain of vigilantism in Bombay cinema. I situate such a shift within the larger paradigm of the 2011 Jan Lokpal protest and the involvement of mostly the Savarna middle class in such a protest. As discussed later on, the Jan Lokpal protest provided an impetus to the right-wing to mobilise itself, the electoral culmination of which is the result of the 2014 general elections. Such a shift involves the marginalisation of corruption as an issue beyond the realms of politics and the exoneration of Savarna middle class culpability.
One of the major strands of socio-political development, as mentioned earlier, which informs this study is the apparent surge in cases of mob justice and vigilante activities across the country since the BJP was elected to power in 2014 which can be identified as a trait of what Shakuntala Banajiformulates as the ‘vigilante publics’. Drawing upon Telle’s idea of ‘vigilante citizenship’ and Rajagopal’s concept of ‘split publics’, Banaji describes ‘vigilante publics’ as the co-option of the caste Hindu and Jain population to the cause of the Indian far right. A feeling of natural superiority pervades the consciousness of such ‘publics’ and the violence they inflict upon the ‘othered’ communities, who are positioned as antithetical to the vigilante public sentiment, is an embodied form of communication which is collectively endorsed as ‘civic action’ as opposed to any action (possibly even self-defence) by the ’othered’ communities which is invariably conceptualised as violence or criminality (Banaji, 2018). The idea of the ‘vigilante publics’ should be read in juxtaposition with the rise of new media technologies and the pervasive effect of the digital in the imagination of vigilantism. In other words, the digital realm is one of the most important components in the formation of the ‘vigilante publics’ and the performance it demands out of the ‘publics’.
The rise of the ‘vigilante publics’ should be situated within the larger question of citizenship per se which in turn is central to the construction of vigilantism as a political ideology and hence the vigilante figure. Citizenship is a process and not an end unto itself. It demands performance. The understanding of citizenship has to be grounded in a particular moment in history. As discussed earlier, the idea of ‘citizen ideal’ which is a major driving force of the narratives in the genre of vigilante films, has interlinkages with power, culture, gender, caste, class, etc. (Dutt, Reinelt & Sahai, 2017; Clarke, Coll, Dagnino & Neveu, 2014). With the rise of the ‘vigilante publics’ within the ambit of neo-hindutva post 2014, the question ‘who is a citizen?’ gets problematised. The study of the imagination of the vigilante figure post 2014 promises to address questions regarding the contemporary discourse on citizenship.
In order to understand the imagination of the vigilante figure, it is imperative that we discuss the construction of vigilantism as an ideology. The film discussed in this article is not a mere revenge saga. The vigilante hero in the film asserts a moral superiority owing to his actions which is a function of their belief in vigilantism. The fact that the hero wants to introduce a fundamental change in the way the society functions proves his deep-rooted ideological belief in vigilante action, which is nothing but a function of his caste entitlement.
Vigilantism as an ideology
Borrowing from Les Johnston’s criminological understanding of vigilantism and the essential characteristics it entails, this study frames vigilantism as a social movement leading to premeditated use of force or threatened force by autonomous citizens as a reaction to the transgression or potential transgression of institutionalized norms by individuals or groups, thereby focusing on crime control and/ or social control and ultimately aiming to offer an assurance of security both to participants and to other members of a given established order (Johnston, 1996).
The film under question functions according to the codes of a retributive paradigm as opposed to a restorative paradigm as far as justice is concerned. The protagonist in the film is a non-state actor who uses violence against criminals and perceived social deviants in a way intended to equate popular ideas of justice. In that pursuit, the film frames the idea of the ideal ‘citizen’ within a territory that it imaginatively produced and reproduced. Pandian and Krishnan engage with the vigilante figure in Shankar’s Anniyan (2005) but the lens they deploy is the discord between the binaries of caste and citizenship the film raises. They argue about the interlinkages between the vigilante figure and the notions of caste, citizenship, territory, and masculinity, thereby framing the possibilities of the process of othering such notions invoke due to the attempt at the production of Brahmins as the ‘citizen ideal’ (Pandian & Krishnan, 2006).
A major narrative approach adopted in retributivist films is the construction of crime as an ‘invasion of middle-class domesticity’ (Welsh, Fleming & Dowler, 2011). As discussed later on, this is precisely the logic that operates in Bhavesh Joshi. According to a report recently released by the Civic Studios titled ‘Crime and Punishment in Indian Entertainment’, in a sample of over 30 Bollywood films released in 2016-19, the majority of crimes (37%) shown were vigilante killings (including extra-judicial encounters and citizen vigilantism). The following sections move towards a focused discussion on the film.
Thematic engagements in vigilante films
In order to study the construction of the vigilante figure, attention must be paid to the thematic engagements. Corruption and rape (often as a rhetoric device to validate aggressive masculinity) are tropes which have often been invoked in the genre of vigilante films in Bombay cinema. But the thematic of corruption has assumed a new meaning post 2011. Bhavesh Joshi deals with the issue of corruption. The Lokpal protest in 2011 provided a fertile ground for the narrative of Hindutva ‘anti-politics’ containing conceptions of the ‘apolitical’ to breed. Corruption as an issue serves this framework of the ‘apolitical’ precisely because it acts as a rallying point of mobilisation (Modi’s 2014 election campaign stressed on corruption as a major issue) in the veil of humanitarianism and the agendum of development for the right-wing (Reddy, 2018). The conceptualisation of ‘apolitics’ as an undercurrent of Hindutva anti-politics is key to decoding the neo-hindutva imagination, which entails transcending the political realm through the emphasis on the corrupt as the ‘other’, and as an extension, the vigilante figure in Bombay cinema post 2014.
Bombay cinema and its stars have often stood for causes like street dogs, women’s rights (usually limited to urban middle-class and elite women), displaced Kashmiri Pandits, education for low-income students, public health, sanitation and electricity. These represent archetypical forms of neo-liberal do-good ‘causes’ that align with a modern, humanist agenda (and, of course, donations to these causes and charities reduce the actors’ taxes) (Yengde, 2018).
Corruption, as a theme, specifically, helps class analysis over caste analysis. Although the campaigns against corruption launched by the caste-blind middle classes should be lauded, they appear to be chasing the superficial and not the systemic corruption that escapes as mere “irregularity”. The Bangaru Laxmans must be punished but should the Nitin Gadkaris be allowed to go scot-free? The Savarna middle-class campaigners against corruption fail to understand that in India corruption cannot be disassociated from caste (Teltumbde, 2012).
The vigilante hero as reminiscent of Parashuram: Icon of New Brahmanism
Disillusioned by the state of affairs, Bhavesh and Sikku join the Lokpal movement in Mumbai (refer to Image 1) and pledge, like thousands of others, against corruption. When the police crackdown happens at the protest site, Bhavesh and Sikku request the police to arrest them as well. They join a group of people in the police van and arrive at the police station, where they sing songs and chant ‘Sachin…Sachin…’ to keep the spirits high. Getting arrested for a cause seems to be just an item on their bucket list. Bhavesh and Sikku’s romantic idea of getting arrested reflects a Savarna idealisation of resistance where the act of resistance is subservient to the idea of who resists.
Although the death of Bhavesh Joshi becomes a point of inflection for the character arc of Sikku and the fight becomes gory from thereon, the idea of changing society for the better was pretty much there in both Sikku and Joshi. Their idea of ‘Insaaf TV’ was a culmination of their inner saviour complex to deliver justice. The Savarna complex of taking up the burden of social change is what colours their journey. It is interesting that they start their journey with the backdrop of the IAC movement. Corruption became a rallying point of mobilisation in this movement and the huge Savarna support, including Joshi and Sikku’s in the film, the movement enjoyed reflects the humanitarian, ‘social’, casteless framework the privileged Savarna population glorifies. The protagonist in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero hails from the middle-class. Corruption as an issue attracts the attention of the middle-class Savarna population because it satisfies their persecution complex which frames the victim card often played by this demographic. Bhavesh Joshi Superhero functions within the logic of production of Savarna middle-class as the ideal citizen who turns vigilantes only when its back is pushed to the walls because of transgression by ‘evil’ forces in their personal sphere, the invasion of middle-class domesticity we discussed earlier. The impression this film seems to be projecting is that in the absence of such a transgression, the Savarna middle-class is largely a docile subject. Bhavesh exhibits Parashuram-eque traits. Why I resort to Parashuram to explain the vigilante hero in Bhavesh Joshi is because of the Brahmanical understanding of Parashuram as the ultimate Brahmin warrior who fought for justice and did not shy away from using violent methods to establish a just society (maintain the domination of the Brahmins). Parashuram is the ultimate answer to the image of the docile, peace-loving, scholarly Brahmin. If the need arises (threat to the Brahmanical status-quo), a Brahmin can rise like a phoenix to fight the odds. A Brahmin icon of this stature who is celebrated till date can be a very effective index of the genesis of the protagonist in Bhavesh Joshi and also the operative codes of the Brahmanical popular culture per se. Parashuram, an avatar of Vishnu, has emerged as an icon of new Brahmanism in India. The Brahmins seem to be indulging in projecting the image of a warrior like Parashuram, the legendary brahmin hero who is popularly believed to have wiped out the kshatriyas (the evil) several times from the earth in the past. The re-imagining of Parashuram and the rejuvenation of his figure in popular culture portends to the victim complex of Brahmins in a post-Mandal era where they believe they have lost out on opportunities due to reservations (Anurag Kashyap, the co-writer and co-producer of this film, had participated in the anti-Mandal protests).
There has been vehement lobbying for declaration of a holiday on Parashuram’s birthday in states like Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh (Shah, 2006). Multiple states declare a holiday on Parashuram Jayanti, i.e., the birthday of Parashuram. The reification of Parashuram as a national icon is achieved through the Brahmanical popular culture. In 2019, on the occasion of Parashuram’s birthday, PM Narendra Modi tweeted, “Greetings on the special occasion of Parshuram Jayanti. Bhagwan Parshuram personifies bravery and honesty. May the power of his ideals make our society more just and harmonious.” (Modi, 2019) If one looks at the words Modi associates with Parashuram (bravery and honesty) our argument about the vigilante figure being reminiscent of Parashuram becomes a little more comprehensible. The notion of Parashuram as the warrior who fought for justice reflects in Modi’s tweet. It is not surprising that someone like Modi who caused the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and spearheaded the passing of the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act recently would perpetuate the legacy of a figure like that of Parashuram. An analysis of the Parashuram-eque vigilante figure promises to address how popular culture functions within the Brahmanical mould and reproduces icons to imagine how the society or at least a part of it is framing the notion of justice. The use of ‘ethical violence’ is what characterises the protagonist. ‘Ethical violence’ as a necessity in restoring the balance of the world or the larger good is what characterises Bhavesh Joshi’s drive, which is also a function of the retributive framework of justice. Like Parashuram, Bhavesh is on a mission to provide immediate justice and preserve the interests of the status quo, which in this case, is the interests of the caste society. By addressing a systemic issue through the lens of individual misdeeds, he essentially poses no threat to the status quo. On the contrary, his approach privileges a class analysis over caste analysis to the question of corruption which reified the humanist, apolitical paradigm within which such vigilantism functions.
Through an imagination of the archetype of ‘ideal citizen’, what this film also does is to constantly produce and reproduce the territory or the idea of the territory called India. Who qualifies as an ideal citizen within this territory is a function of the popular imagination of justice. Popular sentiment as perceived and framed by the Brahmanical mind plays a huge role in this territory production. What the vigilante figure does in Bhavesh Joshi is to pacify the bloodlust of the popular imagination, according to which, corruption is the significant ‘other’. The IAC movement in 2011 acting as a breeding ground of the Manusmriti-inspired right wing’s rise through the electoral ranks laid the foundation for the reification of this ‘other’. This is precisely why addressing this ‘other’ involves multiple erasures, navigation and manipulation, case in point being, the severing of the issue of corruption with caste, and viewing it through a liberal, centrist, humanist lens. The bifurcation of national electoral politics (Congress and BJP essentially being the same force) and in the case of this film, Bollywood’s resistance towards sub-national assertion (which is linked to its self-projection as ‘the’ culture industry of India) frames this erasure.
Image 1: A still from Bhavesh Joshi Superhero
The vigilante figure in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero is a function of post-2011 apolitical, humanist, neoliberal framework that has aided in the rise of a vigilante government at the center and by extension the ‘vigilante publics’ (this category is a contemporary manifestation of the casteist population that has existed for ages). The Savarna middle-class retributive vigilante in the film works within the limits of the interests of a caste society which perpetuates the production of an ideal citizen who will align themselves to the machinations of the Brahmanical nation-state, i.e., India. The way justice and citizenship are imagined within the narrative spectrum of this film reflects a reinvigorated mobilisation behind the iconography of Parashuram in popular culture. The ‘docile Brahmin middle-class turning into Parashuram if the need be’ narrative is embedded within the interlinkages of capital, caste, citizenship, territory, and masculinity. Bhavesh Joshi Superhero is thus a threat by the Brahmin to prove how far a Brahmin can go if there is any threat to the caste society.
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Mohimarnab Biswas (Megh) is a research scholar currently pursuing an MPhil in Cinema Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. He completed his postgraduation from the School of Media and Cultural Studies, TISS, Mumbai.