Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed many aspects and bits of this movie. It made me laugh out loud and feel a bit emotional and, for me, Ranveer Singh only almost overdid it. In fact, the first third of the movie was downright good. The opening number, “Aala Re Aala” was the standard masala fare, but delightfully so. My favorite part was the female back up dancers who looked nothing short of badass in their suits and aviators. In the second half, where the film becomes something else entirely, there are admirably given performances and exciting moments of derring-do. However the last acts of the film can best be described as problematic. If you’re a fan of Rohit Shetty and cop movies in particular you will probably want to see this one as well. But be warned that the second half takes on a very serious topic, often clumsily. From here on out SPOILER ALERT.
Ranveer Singh plays a corrupt but somewhat lovable police officer Simmba, whose childhood ambition was to wear a uniform so he could have a power he lacked as a poor orphan. For the first forty minutes or so there were no surprises, but the execution was well done. The introduction of the female lead Shagun (played by Bollywood royalty Sara Ali Khan in her debut) was the usual lust at first sight. But her character was no wilting maid and if anything she pushed forward the romance. Then she proceeds to disappear for the rest of the film to make way for what the movie is actually about. And that, ladies and gentleman, is rape.
The young teacher of orphans and Simmba’s honorary sister, Akruti, is discovered investigating a goon’s drug house and is assaulted, raped, tortured, and murdered by the brothers of our main villain, Durva Ranade (Sonu Sood). The movie pulls no punches. While the attack is entirely offscreen, a doctor explains emotionally that Akruti was raped over and over again before being further brutalized in such a way as to destroy her intestines, even her DNA. The description of the crime is meant to remind viewers of the infamous and utterly tragic 2012 Nirbhaya case in Delhi. (This case is later explicitly mentioned). She dies before she can identify her attackers. Her final word, “brother.”
Simmba, at last, has found his line, the line that cannot be crossed. It is unclear if an attack on any woman would have elicited this in him, or only this particular woman. Would Simmba be this rage filled over the rape and murder of a beggar? A sex worker? A woman he does not know and has not promised to be like a brother to? Again and again the movie invokes the women of India, but the only women shown are the respectable, middle-class ladies inside the male character’s circle. I digress.
The police manage to gather evidence, the primary piece being a video on Akruti’s phone of the moments before she was dragged away. Lo and behold, when they go to court this data has been erased and the primary witness has been disappeared. Given two days to try again, Simmba and his men confront a politician protecting the goons. The politician unsurprisingly is a cad, stating that Akruti’s family should take the money offered by Durva. After all, it’s far more than she could have earned in life. Simmba proceeds to beat the man while his wife records. The recording of the beating spreads quickly and dooms the investigation. Simmba decides they must take matters into their own hands. We are used to seeing police in these films take matters into their own hands, slapping, punching, breaking bones. But what follows is, for me, unprecedented. Simmba, with the help of his officers and local women, decide to kill the rapists in an “encounter.” Shagun’s father was himself an officer and was famous for these extralegal attempts at justice.
To be sure, the legal system is too overloaded, too slow, to prone to impotence. But police vigilantism will not fix this or deliver justice. Criminals must be found guilty in a court of law. The two rapists in this film deserved to rot in prison, no doubt, but this brand of police vigilantism does not make women more safe. It does not prevent crime. There is also the fact that the rapists aren’t totally unenviable, from a certain point of view. The movie says frequently that they are bad men, but they are also portrayed as fit, powerful, wealthy, and masculine. They strut into rooms and intimidate policemen and locals. They get what they want how they want. Though they lose in the end, this ending is the fantasy, not the crimes. Young people, and may I say men especially, have decided from time immemorial to risk censure and punishment to gain power, especially power over women. Many men believe that rape can prove their masculinity. That these men died later is beside the point for misogynists.
What’s worse, is that the killings are made totally irrelevant by the men’s confessions before they are drawn out into the fight that kills them. At least one admits to the crime, describes it, and says he will do it again. An audio of this could very well have been evidence enough for the courts. Yet, they are killed, and now Simmba is on trial instead.
Not content to wait for the results of an impartial inquiry, Durva seeks his own revenge and this is where Simmba and his nemesis agree. They both have no faith in or respect for the legal system and want to bypass it completely. Durva’s lawyer attempts anyway and we find ourselves in the ridiculous position of having the odious lawyer of a disgusting criminal deliver the most ethically and legally sound statements of the film while pleading his client’s case before the judge.
The movie seems to suggest not only that all Indians should and do stand firmly behind the death penalty, but they require no due process for it at all. There is no evidence in the real world that the death penalty deters rapists, much less random, Duterte-style slayings in police stations. At one point a character says, “rape is worse than murder,” opening up a whole host of ethical and moral questions.
All that said, and this may seem to contradict all that preceded it, Simmba offers one of the better and more sincere attempts in a masala movie to address the rape epidemic.(Keep in mind, I still have limited experience and am comparing it to travesties like R….Rajkumar). The judge in the case is a woman, the victim is given a semblance of a backstory, the other female characters are not treated like objects. But Simmba still ends up creating only more questions and continuing harmful tropes: the perfect victim, the perfect criminals, the ideal hero. As the goons dragged our darling Akruti into the back room I could only feel profound disappointment that, yet again, a young side character had to be sacrificed to the development of the male hero. Despite its best efforts to stick up for women, this fact cannot be escaped: Simmba is not about the victim or victims. It is about police officers who decide to become vigilantes. They succeed and are praised for their efforts. And the women of India sleep no easier.