Class of ‘83 on Netflix, with Bobby Deol: A gritty thriller that finds clever little ways to rise above its generic premise

Posted on August 29, 2020

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The film is deeply moral about the broader sense of good-versus-evil, but it does not cast judgement on whether these encounters were “right”.

Spoilers ahead…

Atul Sabharwal’s Aurangzeb played like a mashup of Hindi cinema before it became “Bollywood”. It brought to mind Trishul, Don, Deewar… If you sensed a Bachchan connection there, let me tell you that the protagonist of the director’s new film, Class of ’83, is named Vijay. Vijay Singh. (He’s played by Bobby Deol.) Given the timeframe, the “Bachchan connection” doesn’t seem too much of a stretch. The film opens in 1982, the year Amitabh came out with Satte Pe Satta, Bemisal, Desh Premee, Namak Halaal, Khud-Daar and Shakti. He wasn’t just in these movies. As far as Hindi cinema was concerned, he was the movies. And it’s not a surprise that his on-screen aura spills over to this story, woven around a legend referred to as “Bombay ka top police officer”.

This is before we see him. These words are uttered by cop-in-training, at Nashik. (The as-yet-unseen Vijay Singh is the Dean of the facility.) In other words, we are being set up for the big hero-introduction shot – and this hero probably deserves that introduction. The subject is itself heroic. Abhijeet Deshpande’s screenplay is based on The Class of 83: The Punishers of Mumbai Police, by Hussain Zaidi, which the publisher’s web site describes as follows: “At a time when Mumbai was plagued by underworld gangsters like Dawood Ibrahim, Iqbal Kaskar and Chhota Rajan, the batch of 1983 from the Police Training School (PTC) in Nashik – trained by the legendary Arvind Inamdar – produced a group of prominent encounter specialists who have been credited with bringing back the rule of law in the city.”

Class of ‘83 shows how Vijay Singh forms a group of five, who are then given special powers to knock off criminals. This quintet comes to be called “Dirty Harry-s of Bombay”, but if we are harking back to Hindi cinema’s masala heydays, might we not label them Hum Paanch, instead? The film is deeply moral about the broader sense of good-versus-evil, but it does not cast judgement on whether these encounters were “right”. These extra-judicial killings happened, and this is the how. How else do you tackle criminals, when they are being protected by corrupt cops and politicians who are even more corrupt? Class of ‘83 does not say this is the way. It just says this was a way, and hey, what do you know, it worked! “Kabhi kabhi order ke liye law ka bali chadhana padta hai”.

Going in, I did not know this film’s plot (I don’t watch trailers), but if you did, the tone of the early scenes might suggest the classic vigilante-justice scenario that was a staple of the masala movies. Let’s return to the stretch where we’re still waiting for the hero’s introduction. Here’s a sample line: When the Dean gets angry, a volcano erupts somewhere. It sounds like one of those Rajinikanth memes. Much later, when Vijay Singh leads his students to the scene of a crime, they puke their guts out at the stench and at the sight of worms crawling out of the corpse. Our man calmly looks around and has a snack. He takes a bite from an apple to the sound effect of a crrunch right out of a 198os Vicco Vajradanti commercial. He’s that level of used-to-all-this, he’s that level of cool.

And yet, note the staging of the big hero-introduction scene we’ve been primed for. Three students plan a rowdy prank. Vijay beats them up, his essence encapsulated in a hard-edged, ten-note synth riff. (Viju Shah channels the Giorgio Moroder, Vanraj Bhatia era marvellously. But then, it was the Viju Shah era, too, for he was behind a lot of the synth sounds we heard in Kalyanji-Anandji’s music.) But the scene itself feels truncated. It’s not a full-blown action sequence. And it sets up the aesthetic of Class of 83: “masala minimalism”, if you will. The emotions are huge, but the delivery mechanism operates in drips. See how Vijay reconciles with his estranged son, without a fuss, in a hospital room. The way the scene is set up, father and son are at opposite ends of the frame. They’re not exactly buddies, overnight. There’s still some… distance. But something beautiful has happened, and it’s brought them closer.

Part of this restraint also comes from Vijay Singh’s tendency to internalise things. If there is a Bachchan character you’d compare him to, it’s the protagonist of Kaala Paththar, whose name was… Vijay Singh. He’s similarly wracked by internal turmoil. He’s even attempted suicide. (“ It’s a phase, it’s over,” he tells a friend, dryly.) This is what keeps the film interesting, despite the generic goings-on. There’s always a touch that lifts things out of the ordinary, like how the villains are treated. In a typical 1980s masala movie, the bad guy would be someone we’d love to pump bullets into, and the hero became our proxy. Here, the bad guys aren’t even defined as characters. They are just the rust that has to be scraped off so the gears of the city can get grinding again.

The city, again, is something we haven’t seen in a while. It’s a city of mill workers and strikes. Another Bachchan film comes to mind: Namak Haram. And I was suddenly struck by how much social reality was woven into these films that, today, would be termed “unrealistic”. Atul Sabharwal doesn’t reach those heights, but he gives a small masterclass about taking masala cinema seriously. The killings aren’t glorified. Instead, they result in a different kind of “corruption”, that of the young – and gradually, not-so-young – officers themselves. (Apart from the dates on screen, the passage of time is almost invisible.) They begin to have measuring contests among themselves about whose tally is longer. The cast of unknowns (Ninad Mahajani, Prithvik Pratap, Bhupendra Jadawat, and the two standouts, Hitesh Bhojraj and Sameer Paranjape) works to the script’s advantage. Anyone could get bumped off. One of them does.

There’s a lot of quick, subdued action – bursts of violence, rather than something sustained. (The palette is brown, and the blood is magenta.) The highlight is a set piece staged around a dargah. There’s a lot of overt masala touches – the “good Muslim”, a brilliantly melodramatic touch involving a cigarette butt, and a pair of echo moments involving a shootout in a boat. I wish they’d all added up to something more… explosive, but then, maybe you can’t really manufacture explosions from masala minimalism. As such, the film worked for me, as did Bobby Deol. He’s no longer just Dharmendra’s prettiest son. With age and lines and jowls, a semblance of personality has crept into him. I don’t know if I’d call it a performance so much as a presence. Without mimicking Bachchan, he shows how it used to be done, Deol-fashioned way.

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