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'Class of '83' review: Law, order and the training of killer cops

Atul Sabharwal’s film, about a group of policemen given free rein to eliminate gangsters in 1980s Mumbai, might be a bit too taut

Bobby Deol in 'Class of '83'. Photo: Netflix
Bobby Deol in 'Class of '83'. Photo: Netflix

It would seem that a few months of online premieres have done what a century of theatrical releases couldn’t: tame the running times of Hindi films. Raat Akeli Hai may have stretched its legs but Shakuntala Devi and Gulabo Sitabo were just over two hours, Gunjan Saxena and Dil Bechara were 112 and 101 minutes, while Bulbbul was a scarcely believable 94 minutes. At an hour and 38 minutes, Class of ’83 is another time-efficient title. Yet, this is one film that actually needs that extra hour.

Atul Sabharwal’s film begins at a police training academy in Nashik in 1982, where five cadets are having a tough time reining in their rebelliousness and keeping up with lessons. Shukla (Bhupendra Jadawat), Aslam (Sameer Paranjape), Jadhav (Ninad Mahajani), Surve (Prithvik Pratap) and Varde (Hitesh Bhojraj) seem to be on their way out when the academy's elusive dean, Vijay Singh (Bobby Deol), takes an interest in them. Instead of cutting the quintet loose, the grizzled cop tweaks the syllabus to engage their attention. Training montages with Moroder-like synths follow (welcome back, Viju Shah). Eventually, Singh reveals his endgame—he wants to form a secret squad of hitmen who’ll take down Bombay’s gangsters.

Singh has his own demons. In 1981, while leading a raid on gangster Kalsekar, he was ambushed and ended up losing several of his men. To make matters worse, he returned to find that his ailing wife—whom he’d left in the hospital—was dead. We learn that the academy is a punishment posting, and that he tried to commit suicide. The hit squad is a way to redeem himself. And for a while it works, as his protégés start killing criminals in fake 'encounters'.

Class of ’83 adapts S. Hussain Zaidi’s nonfiction book on the actual cops who became 'encounter specialists' in the ’80s. Singh spells it out to a friend: “The institutionalised killing of gangsters by policemen." The film treats such killings as a moral imperative—a cure to a disease. There’s a political parallel drawn too: the ‘Punjab model’. But encounters are illegal for a reason, still prevalent and often misused. The cops in this film are only seen as having crossed a line when they accidentally gun down civilians and start taking money from gangsters. The shooting of unarmed criminals isn’t even framed as a necessary evil—it’s just necessary. It’s difficult not to see an aligning of hardline attitudes in Aslam’s use of the line from Uri: The Surgical Strike, “ghar mein ghus ke maarenge (we’ll enter your houses and kill you)".

This is where the film’s runtime works against it. Even if there’s a willingness to examine the effects of committing officially sanctioned murder on these cops, there isn’t enough time (surely Aslam, the most conscientious of the five, has some qualms?). Class of ’83 feels like it has material enough for three hours, crunched into half that time. All the characters besides Singh are light sketches: I couldn’t tell you anything about the individual members of the squad beyond Shukla being a compulsive masturbator. Wives and children appear out of nowhere and are never seen again. Singh’s relationship with his son appears to be damaged beyond repair but when he turns up an hour later they seem reconciled.

When the film does dwell on a scene, it gives Sabharwal and screenwriter Abhijeet Deshpande a chance to tell us something about who these people are. In a scene with the five of them at a restaurant, the conversation turns to striking mill workers. Shukla has been injured in one of the rallies, and Varde mutters that stone-pelters will die if they carry on like this. Jadhav says his father is a mill worker, which leads to an argument. It's the film’s best scene, not only for how it shows the unstable dynamic of the group but also the way it addresses the larger social forces altering Bombay at the time.

In creating the Bombay of the 1980s, Sabharwal does something clever. He splices in clips from old Films Division documentaries, using them like quick ‘joins’ in the narrative. This isn’t done often, or for long, so the shots just about blend in with the film's brown-and-grey palette (credit to editors Manas Mittal and Nitin Baid). There’s the boy being splashed by a wave from Charles Correa’s City on the Water, a top-angle view of Flora Fountain from G.L. Bhardwaj’s Destination Bombay, a crowded train station from Mani Kaul’s Arrival. It’s a simple and effective strategy, a way to ground the film in reality while not departing from the world of fiction. The era is established in other ways as well: billboards, popular songs (Surve sings a line of John Jani Janardhan), movie posters, Viju Shah’s exuberant retro synths and the wonderful detail of how postmen helped cops track gangs.

If Shah is back, it’s only fitting that Bobby Deol is too. The actor isn’t making a comeback exactly, just a comeback to films that aren’t, you know, Yamla Pagla Deewana: Phir Se. His Vijay Singh is not a commanding performance but an adequate one, testament to what can happen when an actor with years on his face gets a sympathetic director who’ll cover his limitations. The actors playing the young cops are a fine, ornery ensemble—though again, a little more time with each would have been welcome.

Class of ’83 has shades of Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy, another dry cops-and-gangsters film that takes its Mumbai period recreation seriously. But where Daddy was coolly detached, Class of ’83 ends on a note of moral certitude. “Sometimes, to maintain order, one has to break the law," the narrator says as the cops do a hero walk—shot from below, unsmiling, purposeful—towards the camera. It’s a walk you’ll probably see in Sooryavanshi when it eventually releases, and while that film will scarcely resemble Class of '83, their ideas regarding vigilante cops may not be that far apart.

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