Neeraj Ghaywan’s debut feature Masaan may have garnered a great deal of applause, but his opening sequence deserves a standing ovation and must be preserved for posterity—specifically, as a lesson on how the ‘law’ is being enforced.
The Cannes awardwinning movie opens with a man and woman meeting at a hotel. We witness the characters’ excitement at finally being alone in a country that scorns touch, then empathise with their terror as the police barge into the room, showering curses. We experience, in essence, the literally abusive relationship between the State and its citizens.
In the film, the police officer who allegedly ‘catches’ the couple and charges them with ‘public indecency’ tell the father of the woman with a smirk: “Your daughter says she did it out of curiosity.” A more educated observer might think this kind of curiosity is natural, but the comment has the desired devastating effect, rendering the patriarch insecure about his social standing and suffused with shame over his ward’s behaviour. The law enforcer proceeds to hold both father and daughter to ransom, threatening to ‘expose’ the ‘case’ to the media.
In a similar fashion, it was not in some medieval age but only last week that the Mumbai Police, dragged 60 people out of hotels and lodges in the city’s Madh Island and Aksa area following a ‘tip-off’. Apparently taking seriously the allegation that the hotels were havens for prostitution, drinking and ‘public indecency’, the cops who were deputed to investigate the Mumbai hooch tragedy ended up publicly humiliating, detaining and fining 13 couples for doing inside four walls what they would never attempt in public.
To stave off a barrage of criticism from all quarters over this overzealous moral policing – surely, at the cost of investigating other important crimes in the city — Mumbai Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria was forced to reprimand two police officers involved in the raids.
But, the flatfooted policemen might only have been living up to the benchmarks set by their boss. A year back, the city was subjected to two separate, bizarre incidents of moral grandstanding, allegedly under the directive of the same Maria. One couple was fined for their embrace in front of Oberoi Mall; the other victims were a group of men allegedly touching their women friends while taking a group-selfie before Dahisar bridge.
People in small towns, who thought Mumbai was a cosmopolitan, liberated place where this must be happening all the time, had a rude awakening to reality. In both the incidents, the ‘perpetrators’ were charged under section 110 of the Bombay Police Act that criminalises indecent public behaviour. This time, not only the Mumbai police but the law itself came under the scanner.
“I have stayed in Mumbai for a decade. It is upsetting to know that this is happening here. Why don’t the cops go and nail eve-teasers, rapists and politicians who watch porn inside legislatures?” asks Benitta Jacob, 34, advertising professional.
Though the Supreme Court has accepted live-in relationships as a ‘norm in Indian society’, several antiquated laws and laws that leave much room for ambiguity, have often accorded police officials ‘discretionary powers’ to haul any two adults — live-in, married or otherwise — to the police station. IPC sections 292 to 294, introduced way back in 1860 – that’s 155 years ago – take great pains to describe obscenity. While Section 292 criminalises sale and distribution of obscene books and content, section 294 gets hot and bothered about ‘obscene acts and songs’ that could annoy others in a public place. They were perhaps appropriate for the Victorian age but in between, a century has come and gone.