“BABA, MAINE AAPKO aam nahin rehne dena. Mujhe khaas banana hain aapko aur khudko… Bahut ho gayi yeh katarein aur yeh arziyan. Mujhe ek bari phir un daftaron main jaana hain magar mezke us aur, samman ke saath (Baba, I don’t want you be ordinary anymore. I want to make you special, and I want to make myself special. I have had enough of these queues and these petitions. I want to return to these offices but on the opposite side of the table, and with respect).” This dialogue from Doordarshan’s iconic show Udaan (1989-1991), directed by Kavita Chaudhary and based on the life of her sister, India’s second woman police officer, Kanchan Chaudhary Bhattacharya who retired as director general of police, Uttarakhand, embodies the aspiration that made many young women join the Civil Services in the era when government jobs were at a premium.
Cut to 2019, 30 years later, and watch DCP South Delhi Vartika Chaturvedi (based on the real-life police officer Chhaya Sharma) in the riveting Netflix series, Delhi Crime. Here she is bringing in the suspects in the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, being addressed by her officers as ‘Madam Sir’ and telling her daughter confidently: “Have you ever known your mom to fail at anything?”, even as she occasionally thrashes suspects and calls them chootiya.
The police force has become an integral trope in cinema, especially for movies made in Mumbai. Male cops have had several kinds of characterisations—from the honest, unbending, unsmiling police officer played by Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer (1973) to the crooked but charming Robin Hood aka Chulbul Pandey of Dabangg (2010), both imitated endlessly in movies such as Singham (2011) and Simmba (2018), respectively.
Women police officers have had fewer opportunities onscreen but they have usually been motivated either by lawful revenge (Hema Malini’s character in Andha Kanoon, 1983) or by vigilantism (Dimple Kapadia’s character in Zakhmi Aurat, 1988). Abha Mathur from Jai Gangaajal (played by Priyanka Chopra, 2016) and Shivani Shivaji Roy in Mardaani (played by Rani Mukerji, 2014) have been their ideological successors, respectively. Tabu as a cop in Drishyam (2015) who is also a troubled mother is a breath of fresh air. As an officer she follows the letter and spirit of the law; as a mother she’s tempted to take the law into her own hands; and as a wife seeks and gets support from her businessman husband.
Roopa D Moudgil cites Drishyam when it comes to realistic portrayals of policewomen in cinema. The 2000-batch IPS Karnataka cadre officer and former deputy inspector-general (prisons) rose to fame when she alleged that AIADMK General Secretary VK Sasikala had received special treatment in Bengaluru’s Parappana Agrahara jail. She says khaki always had an attraction for her. “I represented Karnataka Directorate at the Republic Day camp in Delhi for a month, and marched to Rajpath too. It was exhilarating. And then while we were in Delhi I heard Kiran Bedi speak.” Add to that while growing up she had watched Udaan, so when she was ranked 43rd in the all- India Union Public Service Commission examination, she had no hesitation in opting for the IPS, pointing to how it was only in 1972 that the first woman, Kiran Bedi, opted for, and got commissioned into the IPS. “Creating role models and portraying them on screen has a positive impact. When I put IPS as a choice I didn’t think twice. Otherwise women who didn’t get into the IAS chose the Indian Revenue Service,” she says.
“What is worse, most of the women colleagues are also either indifferent or jealous. The gender disadvantage becomes the most acute at the top for obvious reasons,” says Archana Ramasundaram, IPS officer
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Rema Rajeshwari, the brave 2009 batch IPS officer who has been taking on the toxic effect of WhatsApp fake news, is from Munnar, which she describes as a small hill station in Kerala. The Superintendent of Police of Jogulamba Gadwal district in Telangana lived in remote tea estates with minimum amenities and attended government schools. “Honestly,” she says, “I didn’t have a clue as to what Udaan was, though I did hear about Madam Kiran Bedi in college.” She fell in love with the job after joining the service. It’s not been easy. “There’s still a lot of reluctance on the part of subordinates to take commands from a female boss. In my case I worked very hard to make sure I am treated at par, and stay indispensable to the organisation. As a lady officer, there’s an unwritten rule we face. We have to work extremely hard on a daily basis to prove ourselves and be considered suitable for the job. The general trend is to post women to desk jobs or what they call in police lingo—‘loopline posting’. The logic given to justify this is varied: women go on maternity for a longer period, women don’t take risks, women are sensitive and not tough enough. The list goes on. The force will take a long time to ensure gender balance. Reason being, even though we announce reservations not much is done to make the job appealing for female aspirants,” she says.
She believes mainstream media and cinema still portray women officers as overly manly and aggressive. And the nuances get lost.
WHICH IS THE triumph of Soni, a movie directed by Ivan Ayr, which premiered on Netflix, as well as Delhi Crime, directed by Richie Mehta, starring a magnificent Shefali Shah as Vartika Chaturvedi. Here not only are the women police officers played true to life, weary at times, gung ho at others, always passionate about their work, but so are their relationships at work and beyond. The relationship of the two IPS officers— Vartika in Delhi Crime and Kalpana in Soni (played by newcomer Saloni Batra)— with their juniors, especially the women, is fascinating. Vartika plucks a young IPS trainee, Neeti (Rasika Dugal) and gives her the all important task of handling the rape victim, even when the junior is nervous. Yet she can be tough. When Neeti gushes about Vartika, she tells her brusquely: “Don’t blow smoke up my ass.” When Kalpana defends Soni for not following protocol, her husband, a senior police officer, tells her she is “getting too close to her juniors” and being : “soft”. Yet Kalpana doesn’t give up on Soni. There are layers and meanings to what these women do.
“There’s still a lot of reluctance on the part of subordinates to take commands from a female boss. I worked very hard to make sure I am treated at par,” says Rema Rajeshwari, IPS officer
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It is something that affected Dugal deeply when she was researching her role, attaching herself to officers during their field training in Delhi. “There was one woman officer in particular who had resigned a government job because she wanted to serve the people. You realise idealism is not a cliche for them. They want to see the change they are part of.”
For Shah, playing Chhaya Sharma was an honour and a privilege. “There were two overwhelming emotions I felt as the character: anger and pain. Chhaya just poured all of that into the manhunt. And what I liked about Richie’s writing was also the wicked sense of humour.” So even as an officer complains about the food he has to eat while on duty in Jharkhand, she cuts him off, saying he hasn’t gone there to do a food review; and when a particularly irksome Station House Officer doesn’t turn up on time, she says he must be at his ‘weekly manicure’.
Shah would consult Chhaya about the smallest of details, whether it was how to fold her sleeves, Amitabh Bachchan style, in the interrogation scene (Chhaya’s answer was no, it was December, there was no power in the police station and it was cold) or about her relationship with the daughter. Shah keeps repeating that the force needs more women, and it is something her real alter ego’s boss repeats.
Neeraj Kumar, who was commissioner of police, Delhi, during the Nirbhaya rape, is delighted at the tendency to “show women officers in a good light, if not glorify them. It is a welcome trend that encourages women to join the police at all levels. That said, there are good officers and not-so good ones in both genders, perhaps in the same ratio. Women officers, generally, walk an extra mile to stand out.”
ACCORDING TO government data, women constitute only 7.28 per cent of the police force. This is in the face of rising crimes against women and advisories being sent out by the Union Home Ministry to state governments in 2009, 2012 and 2016 to raise the percentage of women in the force to 33 per cent. This is as a result of the diversity deficit, which can be a function of there being no separate toilets for women constables as well as a psychological barrier to recruiting women to active police positions. This, as senior police officer Basant Rath has written, means ‘less than 1 per cent of policewomen in India occupy senior ranks and almost 90 per cent of them serve as constables. Women officers are routinely relegated to desk jobs or tasks that shield them from frontline policing. Such assignments away from core law- enforcement duties are an impediment to career advancement.’
“Creating role models and portraying them on screen has a positive impact. When I put IPS as a choice I didn’t think twice,” says Roopa D Moudgil, IPS officer
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Archana Ramasundaram, the first woman to head the paramilitary force, who retired as director general of Sashastra Seema Bal, acknowledges that during the formative years, the careers of women police officers take a back seat due to child rearing and other family responsibilities. She recalls her own case: “There was no child care leave and one was almost apologetic for going on maternity leave. These, ironically, were the years when our male colleagues would be working hard to build and consolidate their professional reputation. I also found much to my dismay that even the most lacklustre male officer would get important field positions as a matter of routine but women officers had to be content with desk jobs only. We had to make a specific request for field postings. It would be awkward at times; I recall when I requested the DGP to post me as a Range DIG, he looked very surprised and pointed out that this would imply posting me away from my husband. He was even more surprised when I replied I was ready for it because not having this exposure would place me at a disadvantage later compared to my colleagues. The look on his face said it all—what kind of a woman I was who placed my career above my family. As women professionals, we always faced this dilemma and the system, instead of being helpful, took vicarious pleasure in accentuating our predicament.”
When she was posted as the Range DIG, the local minister was candid enough to tell her that he had protested to the then CM against posting a “lady officer” to his constituency. “The body language of subordinate officers and junior colleagues is also different initially,” she points out. “It takes quite a while to establish the right equation. Women also lose out on networking as we are rarely a part of the informal channels. What is worse, most of the women colleagues are also either indifferent or jealous. The gender disadvantage becomes the most acute at the top for obvious reasons. Our rivals in the service also exploit this ‘gender’ factor, pointing out our ‘unsuitability’ for crucial assignments.”
She says the glass ceiling is very real in the police. What is heartening, though, is the public support and respect for women officers, especially in states like Tamil Nadu where their gender can be an advantage while dealing with people. “In the turbulent years in Tamil Nadu during the eighties following ethnic clashes in neighbouring Sri Lanka, to my pleasant surprise, I found as a young ASP that the agitating public would obey my advice to disperse while my burly male colleagues would face a non-cooperating mob.” She was the only female officer in her batch of 1980. But at least she can take comfort in one piece of data: of 4,000 IPS officers currently, 928 are women.