The following is an in-depth analysis of the themes and subtext of Singham and Singham Returns, and as such contains Spoilers.
Lavish Bollywood spectacles, even more so than American action and genre movies, are a genre built on shallow, banal entertainment (and I say that with nothing but genuine love for shallow, banal entertainment) and as such, seem to come at us ready to deflect any attempts at in-depth analysis of their underlying themes and subtexts. The response one usually gets when one attempts a thoughtful deconstruction of something as superficial as a Bollywood film is something along the lines of “It’s just entertainment, man. Just turn off your brain and enjoy it.”
Well firstly, I can’t turn off my brain. If I could, I’d be a Zen monk and I’m not about to become one, robes do nothing for my figure. And secondly, the kinds of dangerous, destructive attitudes found in films like the ones I’m discussing here today are at their most dangerous when they come packaged in a way that makes them easy to brush off or ignore. There’s no situation, and I mean none, where it’s ok to watch something you find morally reprehensible and go “no big deal”, and yes that does include fiction. Because the more we get used to looking past things we know to be wrong, the closer we get to overlooking them not when they’re projected on a movie screen, but when they’re happening right in front of our faces.
So, Singham, then. Singham is a duology of Bollywod action films starring Ajay Devgan and directed by Rohit Shetty, the second of which hit theaters recently. The first Singham is, for the most part, a fun enough bit of over the top Bollywood enjoyment, the story of a hard-nosed, incorruptible country cop who comes up against big city crooks and meets them with slaps, lion sound effects and the odd belt-beating. It’s all silly and theatrical and perfectly enjoyable, like all good Bollywood films in this vein ought to be. But then the ending comes along, and takes a shotgun to the kneecaps of our enjoyment. In the film’s climax, the heroic Singham, backed into a corner by a mob boss with every politician and bigwig in his pocket, brutally shoots his cowering foe in a staged suicide, with most of his fellow officers looking on in approval. It’s the kind of ending I would have read as satirical or tragic in any other movie, a sudden turn from silly action to a profound and troubling statement about the loss of incorruptibility in an increasingly corrupt world. But it’s played with such sincerity and Singham is painted as such a hero even after his morally questionable turn that any thoughts that this may be a statement against this kind of action are hard to justify. It’s an unsettling turn to say the least, a sudden gear shift from pure, dumb enjoyment to the realization that there are some seriously problematic subtexts going on behind all the tan shirts and mustaches.
Then I saw the sequel, and “problematic” became “terrifying” and “subtext” became “supratext”. In the finale of Singham Returns, when the cult leader/politician villain continues to manipulate the system and goes free after overwhelming evidence of his guilt comes to light, Singham and the rest of the police force dramatically remove their police shirts, casting off their “restrictive uniforms” and descend on the villain’s compound as a mob of white shirted, club-wielding vigilantes to violently beat their enemies into confession before executing them. In broad daylight. And even after Singham’s hand is stayed from killing the cult leader and his politician cohort by someone (rightfully) pointing out that they must be made to stand trial to show that law, order and due process must be seen to hold sway, the film ends on Singham covertly killing the two in a fiery car crash. Irony and satire are nowhere to be seen, and the transformation of the Mumbai police force into a vigilante mob is treated with all the celebration and glorification of any superhero movie.
The subject of police violence is on a lot of people’s minds lately, with the current events in Ferguson showing more and more of the terrifying nature of an increasingly militarized and brutal police force. But even without the Ferguson riots in the back of my mind, seeing a film that glamorizes police vigilantism, violence and out and out fascism to this degree is still terrifying.
Fascist overtones in action movies, and glorification of police violence in particular, is nothing new to movies. Some of the most revered staples of action movie canon are pretty unseemly once you start looking under the hood. The Dirty Harry films, a series I’ll readily admit to enjoying, are a pretty blatant example of Reagan-era reassertion of the white male hero, who guns down “dirty hippies” and minorities with such fervor that one gets the sense that the entirety of the sixties themselves, with their movements toward equal rights and social change, are the real “bad guy” that Harry wants to introduce to his .44 Magnum.
But the Singham movies may be the first time that an action movie has genuinely frightened me with its politics, with its glorification of mob rule with a patriarchal, supposedly morally righteous hero at its front. These films present the ideal policeman not as a custodian of a balanced system of law and order, but a sanctified murderer who “heroically” takes the law into his own hands and installs himself as judge, jury and executioner, a choice celebrated by the film (and presumably the film makers).
Christ, even Dredd cast an ironic shadow on the actions of its masked hero, using high-framerate slow motion to turn the “kill shots” into grotesque spectacles whose disturbing nature cannot be ignored, and setting the film in a dystopian future, where this new system of law and order can be seen as just another symptom of a society on the brink of death. Singham seems to imply with full sincerity that the methods taken by its mustachioed protagonist would be a positive step in the fight against crime, that the solution to the problems of society is state sanctioned violence, and that the perpetrators of that violence should be seen as heroes and role models.
And the fact that all this comes in the form of a glitzy, ostensibly family friendly action romp that most will brush off as “just a movie” is almost as frightening as the contents of the film itself. People are going to watch this and not think critically about what they’re watching, and the kind of fascistic police brutality that is HAPPENING IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW will become just more entertainment to them. No, this is not “just a movie”. Someone wrote this, filmed this, and most likely believed that what they were saying was morally right.
That scares me. That scares the shit out of me. And I sure as hell hope I’m not the only one.