Cops and criminals: Brothers in arms

Both popular cinema and its audiences are enthralled by the brutal encounter cop. But does art imitate life or is it vice versa?

Published : May 04, 2023 11:00 IST - 12 MINS READ

Nana Patekar (right) plays an “encounter specialist” in Ab Tak Chhappan (2004).

Nana Patekar (right) plays an “encounter specialist” in Ab Tak Chhappan (2004). | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Liz Mermin’s 2008 documentary Shot in Bombay juxtaposes three stories: the making of Apurva Lakhia’s Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007), the career of Aftab Ahmed Khan, a former Additional Commissioner of Police of Mumbai (then Bombay), and the criminal trial of Sanjay Dutt under TADA. Shootout… was based on a 1991 encounter in which a team of police officers led by Khan (played by Dutt in the film) surrounded a building where Maya Dolas, a notorious gangster, was hiding and engaged in a four-hour shootout.

The film’s tagline, which claimed that it was “based on true rumours”, was itself mired in controversy. The production was delayed by Dutt’s arrest and trial. After its release, the film saw the emergence of an unlikely film critic—Chhota Rajan. A former aide of the mafia don Dawood Ibrahim and later nemesis, he criticised the film for portraying the encounter as a real one, alleging that it was actually staged at Dawood’s behest. Meanwhile, Khan objected to this insinuation in the film, while Dolas’ mother found her representation objectionable. In short, it was a perfect example of the messy world of encounter killings and cinematic representation.

In the documentary, Khan says: “Yeah, Dirty Harry, that’s the word one of the newspapers had coined and it circulated. It was always apparent that Dirty Harry always shot persons who, according to me, deserved to be shot.” Clint Eastwood’s character Dirty Harry, a rogue cop who engages in extra-legal execution of criminals who “deserve it”, has become a putative metaphor for the phenomenon of encounter killings, and Indian cinema often acts as a co-producer of the popular belief that vigilante super cops, in the face of crime and social disorder, uphold the law in the only way they can, by flagrantly violating it.

From Gautam Vasudev Menon’s Tamil superhit Kaakha Kaakha (2003) to Shimit Amin’s critically acclaimed Ab Tak Chhappan (2004) to the recent Simmba (2018), popular cinema in India has been enthralled by encounter killings and the Dirty Harry syndrome.

The epithet has most prominently been associated with two cops—Pradeep Sharma and Daya Nayak, members of the notorious Special Task Force of the Mumbai Police, and arguably India’s most famous “encounter specialists”, with more than 200 killings attributed to them.

Also Read | ‘Encounter Pradesh’ model of instant justice indicates terror may become state policy

Routinely referred to in the press as the Dirty Harrys of Mumbai, Nayak and Sharma became minor celebrities in Bollywood. Celebrated in innumerable encounter films, their eventual fall from grace was brought on by revelations that they had amassed huge amounts of wealth through payments made by various gangs to kill rival members.

Ab Tak Chhappan (with Nana Patekar playing Sadhu Agashe, an unapologetic encounter specialist) fictionalises the competitive relationship between Nayak and Sharma and their race to top each other’s list of encounter deaths. But if Nayak and Sharma were closely connected to the film industry and if they had a parallel career as undercover film actors or scriptwriters, then it should not completely surprise us to learn that actors also lead double lives.

It is purported that Nana Patekar maintained close connections with the Mumbai Police and allegedly helped them after the Mumbai riots, continuing to work with them as an undercover cop keeping tabs on the industry.

It seems the murky real world of encounter killings is reflected in an equally murky cinematic world where supercops turn out to be criminals, stars accused of terrorism play supercops, and actors who play supercops turn out to be undercover cops.

Also Read | Encounter killings and the strongman phenomenon

If encounters are about the liminal space in which the line between law and disorder becomes a dirty scrawl blurred by the very people who man the line, here we have another kind of liminality in which there is a blurring of the lines between the real and fictive, fact and rumour, the cinematic and the legal.

It is this indeterminate zone that enables the emergence of the cop as shape-shifter—the saviour-violator of the law.

Through its dramaturgy of the intimate nexus of cop and the criminal, Indian cinema intervenes in an important debate on law, violence, and exception. But this intervention is not merely a matter of representation: the cinematic space of the police extends far beyond its onscreen world to emerge as an actual site where the cop and criminal exchange masks and uniforms.

Daya Nayak, one of the most famous “encounter specialists” of the Mumbai Police, seen outside a court in 2006.

Daya Nayak, one of the most famous “encounter specialists” of the Mumbai Police, seen outside a court in 2006. | Photo Credit: VIVEK BENDRE

Being Daya Nayak

Daya Nayak was born in a small village in Mangalore and came to Mumbai (then Bombay) as a young boy in 1979. He began work in a restaurant, and then worked as a plumber until he graduated and joined the police force in 1995.

Also Read | Assam under the scanner after rise in encounter deaths since 2017

Acutely aware of the “filmi” nature of his own story, Nayak once said: “When Ram Gopal Varma was making Ab Tak Chhappan based on my life, I requested him to make a decent film. They wanted to know physical details like how I hold the gun, etc. They’ve also made films like Kagaar: Life on the Edge and a Kannada film called Encounter. There are 75,000 articles on me on Google. My life resembles a movie. I come from a very poor family. I ran away from my village to Mumbai. I worked for several years in a hotel and attended a night school. I know my biography will be a sell-out.”

For his role as an encounter cop in Risk (2007), the actor Randeep Hooda spent time with Nayak, went on patrols with him, and described the latter as his real-life hero. In an interview, Nayak said: “I instructed him on the length of hair, the clothes and the walk that would go with his character.”

He recalled: “Randeep and his director Vishram Sawant came to me after they finished their first film D. They wanted to make a cop film called Risk. My first request to them was to not make the cop look like a fool. I won’t name him, but one major leading man wore the cop’s cap front-to-back and was seen dancing in the garden with a girl.”

In 2002, Nayak opened a school in his village named after his mother, and the list of celebrities who attended the inauguration included Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt, Suniel Shetty, Aftab Shivdasani, and even M.F. Husain. Bachchan was apparently flown in on a private plane.

Also Read | Failure of governments to investigate encounter killings as murder rankling

Nayak’s fall from grace began in 2004, when a journalist, Ketan Tirodkar, filed a petition claiming that Nayak had links with the underworld and that he was paid to kill members of rival gangs. He alleged that Nayak’s close links with two mafia dons resulted in him amassing private wealth of around Rs.100 crore. Nayak was subsequently suspended and arrested by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB). Of the various transactions he was involved in, one was a Rs.10-crore loan given to Jhamu Sughand, the well-known producer of films such as Aks (2001) and Rangeela (1996). During investigations, the ACB issued summons to at least 20 film personalities, including Jhamu Sughand and Boney Kapoor, in connection with Nayak’s disproportionate assets.

In his defence, Nayak said: “I helped sort out extortion and underworld problems. When I began to fraternise with film folks, I had to maintain a certain lifestyle. I think some of my colleagues got jealous. I was accused of being too speedy in my working style. In my opinion, speed is important for optimum efficiency. Fortunately, all my friends from Bollywood still continue to be in touch with me.”

  • Clint Eastwood’s character Dirty Harry has become a putative metaphor for the phenomenon of encounter killings.
  • Pradeep Sharma and Daya Nayak, members of the notorious Special Task Force of the Mumbai Police, were India’s most famous “encounter specialists” who inspired several Bollywood films.
  • The murky real world of encounter killings is reflected in an equally murky cinematic world.
  • Indian cinema intervenes in an important debate on law, violence, and exception.

Pradeep Sharma

Like Nayak, Pradeep Sharma also comes from a small village. Sharma joined the Mumbai Police as a sub-inspector and is credited with having gunned down over 112 gangsters. Between 1998 and 2003, Sharma, as head of the Crime Intelligence Unit at the Crime Branch, made headlines after killing several gangsters, including Rafik Dabbawala and Vinod Matkar.

Displaying an extraordinary disregard for the law combined with justified paranoia, Sharma once told a reporter: “I am like a World Cup for the mafia gangs. Each one wants me dead.” Like Nayak, Sharma also fell from grace after he was accused of working for gangsters and staging fake encounters. After his arrest, Sharma expressed concern that he too would face an encounter death by the CID Crime Branch.

Pradeep Sharma, another renowned encounter specialist.

Pradeep Sharma, another renowned encounter specialist. | Photo Credit: PTI

Sharma, one of the inspirations for Ab Tak Chhappan, told an international news agency: “Encounters are an addiction for me. I feel bored on Sundays.” Mouthing dialogues which have now been repeated ad nauseam in various films, he said: “Criminals are filth. And I’m the cleaner.” He described the Mumbai underworld as a gutter that he cleans.

These media accounts of Daya Nayak and Pradeep Sharma could serve as annotations to various encounter films that feature either of them.

In Ab Tak Chhappan, for instance, Sadhu Agashe returns home after an encounter (casually buying vegetables on the way). At home, he gives the vegetables to his wife and they discuss the ingredients that go into making sambar. She notices bloodstains on his clothes and reprimands him, asking him to change before his son (ironically named Aman) comes in. Agashe, meanwhile, has clearly been oblivious to the stain, as any other working man would to the grime collected in the course of a working day.

Also Read | Torture, custodial killings continue to haunt lives in Jammu and Kashmir

The film literally weaves extraordinary acts of violence into the fabric of the everyday world of vegetables and detergents.

Much of the rhetoric of the “dirty but necessary duty” of the encounter cop occurs in conversations that Agashe has with a young officer named Jatin Shukla who becomes his protege. The dirty business is accompanied literally by dirty talk—with many scatalogical references—an appropriate allegory for the obscene excess of encounter killings. Ab Tak Chhappan attempts to portray the life of encounter cops in a realistic manner, but this is a realism that can only be understood in the context of the multiple layers of fiction that make such realism accessible to the audience. The film derives from the popular myth of encounter cops circulated as hushed rumours in society, so the film’s use of the standard disclaimer that it is a work of fiction seems a little ironic given that this disclaimer is immediately followed by an acknowledgment of D. Sivanandan, another supercop, and Daya Nayak for their assistance.

Reality and fiction

The “chhappan” or 56 in the film’s title is a reference to the body count from Agashe’s encounters. Responding to an interview query about the excessive focus on the number, Nayak said: “It is not a numbers game. We have different styles of functioning. We have divided Mumbai into five territories; each of us manages one’s own territory. But we are not competing with each other.”

Elsewhere, he said: “The policemen of the special task force, like two batsmen at a cricket pitch, work together but also compete, keeping track of the other’s score.” In the film, after his first successful encounter where he kills two gangsters, Jatin Shukla returns to the station and is congratulated by a police officer, who says: “Wow, two wickets in the very first over that you bowled.” In real life, a newspaper story termed Pradeep Sharma’s 100th encounter as a century. It is only appropriate that he referred to his life as the World Cup.

A poster of the 2007 film Hindi film Risk, for which Daya Nayak provided his expertise.

A poster of the 2007 film Hindi film Risk, for which Daya Nayak provided his expertise. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Jyotirmoy Dey, a crime reporter with Mid-Day, who was himself killed by a sharpshooter in 2011, authored an intriguing book Khallas: An A to Z guide to the Underworld, a lexicon of the secret vocabulary of cops and gangsters. Just as the term “encounter” obfuscates murder, the book lists out all the euphemisms borrowed from the world of cinema and cricket that shapeshift to acquire sinister connotations.

Thus, fielding becomes a plan for a public killing, “chouka marna” (to hit a four) means threatening someone, while “chakka marna” (to hit a six) is to have someone bumped off. When a gangster is told he is being sent a bat, he knows that he will be supplied with a sophisticated machine-gun like an AK-47. Films like Ab Tak Chhappan and books like Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City (2005) and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games (2007) can partly be read as texts that simultaneously decode this secret language even as their success depends on their ability to replicate them, reminding us of how this murky world moves between light and shadows.

Of monsters and men

Ab Tak Chhappan begins with a quote from Nietzsche: “He who fights monsters must take care lest he become a monster.” In a film framed as the memoir of an encounter cop, the use of the Nietzsche quote is intriguing. The figure of the monster has been crucial in political theory, popular culture, and journalism. The monster as a figure outside the realm of the human is the preferred term to describe serial killers, and this epithet is deployed in India for gangsters and terrorists.

Serial killers, gangsters, and terrorists make the law in their own image, and in becoming a law unto themselves they become genuine outlaws beyond the pale of the law. Those deemed not human reside in the borderlines of the monstrous, which is a very important trope in defining the boundaries of legality. In Kaakha Kaakha, defending encounter killings before a human rights enquiry commission, the protagonist says that he can at best be charged with cruelty to animals since the people he killed were “not humans but animals”.

Also Read | Editor’s Note: Impunity for the state means impunity for the mobs

This blurring of man and beast finds its expressive sovereign force when legal actors competitively appropriate the language of the beastly in order to emerge as the biggest monster of them all. In Madhur Bhandarkar’s Aan: Men at Work (2004), for instance, during the torture of a gangster in the police station, Anna Nayak, played by Sunil Shetty, says: “You think you are a big gangster, don’t forget we are the biggest gangsters.”

Similarly, in Ab Tak Chhappan, Sadhu Agashe laughs at a gangster who threatens to blow him away, and says: “All in all, how many people do you have in your gang? A hundred and fifty? I have a gang of 40,000 cops, you won’t even know where I bump you off.”

Truly, those who fight monsters must take care lest they become monsters themselves.

Lawrence Liang is a professor at SLGC, Dr B.R. Ambedkar University Delhi. He works on the intersection of law, culture, and technology.

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