Can We Move On: From the Vigilante Trope As an Easy Solution to Complex Social Problems
In Can We Move On, we revisit old tropes and question whether they have any remaining cultural relevance.
Recently I watched Anniyan — well known (both ironically and unironically) as the greatest vigilante-driven film plot in India. Powerful cringe aside, a recurring motif is that of punishment: the protagonist Anniyan goes about delivering “justice” straight from hell to people who commit minor crimes, ranging from slight tax fraud to cooking bad railway food. People on-screen and off-screen wonder if such violent punishment is necessary for even minor crimes. The protagonist answers the same with a loud, rambly rant, structured like a 10th grader railing against all of India’s problems. From corruption to irresponsibility, he insists people need to fear the law in order to obey it.
Anniyan came out in 2005, but the movie’s message echoes from Tollywood to Bollywood — vigilantes always rule. From over-zealous cops committing extrajudicial murders, frustrated ‘ordinary’ men (A Wednesday) bartering with the police to brawny martial arts experts (The Baaghi series) who fight like the law doesn’t exist — everyone loves a hero who delivers swift “justice.” We’re all guilty of loving vigilantes because of the sheer catharsis they allow us — we watch them battle corrupt, evil antagonists for the duration of a film. Towards the end, when shots are fired, necks are snapped, and speeches are delivered, we can finally relax, because our quiet lives are quiet again.
Vigilantes in films either come from within the legal system or from the cadres of common people. Members from the latter group turn to vigilanteism when they lose a loved one to the morally wrong antagonist. We sympathize with the vigilante in these situations, recoiling in horror at the prospect of being in their solemn position. Many Indians may recall being deeply moved by Rang De Basanti (2006), in which a set of friends mourn their army friend who was killed by a defense minister. They protest to hold the corrupt minister official, but nobody pays attention to their peaceful act of dissent, so they choose to murder the minister and take a hostage — all to get their point across.
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In 2021, vigilante films litter our screens — from Radhe (2021) to Dabanng (2010) to Simmba (2018) to Akira (2016) to NH10 (2015), and many more. Researchers believe these films might be altering our perception of both crime and punishment. A report that analyzed more than 30 crime genre mainstream Indian films, TV shows, and web series found there’s a radical difference between how crime is dealt with onscreen vs. off-screen. Titled “Crime & Punishment in Indian Entertainment,” the report shows the public often perceives law enforcement agents to be incompetent in real life — partly because crime films push a biased narrative upon them. Because police officials can only use necessary force to restrain an individual, their lack of dishoom dishoom in real life might just make the audience think they’re incompetent.
The truth is that vigilante justice pushes the good-and-bad narrative, but that isn’t quite right. India has a rich history of vigilante justice buried in its fight for independence — with narratives of freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh stoking our soft spot for virtuous rebels. Indian millennials grew up on stories about the bravery of Phoolan Devi who took on her rapists, and the awesomeness of the Gulabi Gang who fought for women’s rights.
More than 70 years since Independence, vigilante justice lives on in India — but in a far more horrifying manner. Several lynchings of Muslim and Dalit individuals in the name of cow-slaughter and the harassment of inter-faith couples by far-right individuals become examples of the extreme side. For these custodians of “justice,” their acts of violence amount to moral righteousness; they are protecting their religion, therefore their vigilanteism is justified.
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Even vigilanteism that stands on universally moral grounds — the vigilante who fights the rapist or sexual offender — is tinged with grey. A real-life rendition occurred in Hyderabad in 2019, when police shot four alleged rapists dead without any legal trial or confirmation those four individuals were actually rapists. The murders were celebrated with fanfare — the cops received a hero’s welcome and received sweets.
But this particular instance points out how the focus shifted in media and citizens: the narrative moved away from the victim to the “savior” when it comes to sexual violence. Though the victim endures the violence, it is the vigilante savior who gets to decide the type of justice the victim gets. The victim died in this case, but another problem that affects sexual abuse survivors is the complete lack of interest in their well-being after the perpetrator is “punished.” The punishment seemingly ends the entire saga, but the victim never receives what they really require: an apology and acknowledgment of the wrongs from the perpetrator.
This plays out in a rather obvious way in films. Many films use women’s sexual assault as a means to build their vigilante hero’s characters, completely ignoring the assaulted woman after the man beats up the perpetrators. Watching vigilantes rise on screen may offer a short-lived dose of catharsis, but to prioritize catharsis as a means of entertainment without context or reflection is akin to playing with fire. It subtly creates an environment that justifies all vigilanteism and unwittingly promotes real life enactments of these crimes.
While there may be no ‘right’ answer to when vigilanteism is morally correct, or justified, in real life — perhaps it’s time we move on from glorifying it on the silver screen.