2020 Interviews

An Interview with ‘Class of ’83’ Director Atul Sabharwal

Class of '83 Movie Film

Class of ’83 is a Hindi cop drama that released on Netflix in August 2020. Directed by Atul Sabharwal and “loosely inspired by” journalist S. Hussain Zaidi’s non-fiction book The Class of 83: The Punishers of Mumbai Police, the film chronicles the plight of an honest Mumbai policeman who investigates the politician-underworld nexus that makes it impossible for upright officers to effectively fight crime. Class of ’83 is a fictionalized account of events that took place in 80s Mumbai when the crime scene was taking a drastic shift. Sophisticated firearms became an acquirable commodity to the underworld gangs, and shootouts in public places were a common occurrence. To restore law and order, the police officials resorted to staged killings of criminals. I recently spoke with Sabharwal about Class of ’83.

Dipankar Sarkar: Why does Class of ’83 begin with a quote from Plato?

Atul Sabharwal: That was Manas Mittal’s idea, one of the editors on the film. If I could avoid having any text in the beginning of this film, I would have.

DS: The TV Series Powder (2010) is the tale of a group of honest police officers on their mission to take down a drug baron. Your debut feature film Aurangzeb (2013) depicts how illegal business is run in the garb of a real estate consultancy, and Class of ’83 is a dramatised version of events taking place in the 80s, where an upright police officer decides to fight against the underworld and police corruption. What is the reason behind your interest in the crime genre?

AS: It’s more like the genre’s interest in me. I write/co-write a variety of stories across a couple of genres. The ones that have got made so far with me as director had something to do with the world of policemen. Having said that, I am a sucker for tragedies in drama and romance genres, and police dramas have a lot of scope for that, and for the interplay of morality, just like the Hollywood westerns, French noirs, especially Melville’s, or Japanese samurai and ronin films. I am a fan of those.

DS: Class of ’83 is an overt array of political and societal structures in Maharashtra, where the primary characters are representative of the state’s caste and class dynamics — cultural and religious features. What was the research process for the film?

AS: For the text-based research, I relied on S. Hussain Zaidi. For visual research, the team referred to a lot of documentaries, primarily from Films Division. We also revisited Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza and Shyam Benegal’s films from the era with a fresh perspective. It’s amazing how rich those films are, that one keeps finding something new in them. For the classroom scenes at the academy — which were longer, detailed and more in number in my two-hour version of the film — I took help from a friend whose father is a Dean at one of the police academies.

DS: Class of ’83 advances with a measured, unhurried pace, and the scenes unfold steadily within a running time of 98 minutes. Please share your thoughts on the treatment and the dialogue pattern of the film?

AS: The measured and unhurried pace was inbuilt into the film at the shooting stage because it deals with a man shunted to a forced exile. The sense of passage of time from protagonist Vijay Singh’s point of view was much better felt in the two-hour version of the film, which had no expository voice over, and was linear. That’s how the locked script was. The non-linear narrative, the fast cutting of shots and moments and voice over were all afterthoughts executed by the editors (Manas Mittal, Nitin Baid) who were brought in by the management. I can’t comment much on their approach. The editor that I had on board was Neeraj Voralia, who edited the two-hour version with me and is credited for the first cut in the film. What you feel as “measured” and “unhurried” is not the pace but the mood that was built in through performances and camera moves. To give you an analogy, the released version of the film is like a remix of a song whose original you never heard. Yet the strong original melodic composition of it does not let the DJ’s reinterpretation override it in its entirety. I do hope, knowing well that it’s improbable, that someday the original version comes out too. That’s the true labour of love of my team. Now that I have read and heard the feedback on the film, I can say that those who have liked Class Of ‘83 are the ones who took the pain to patiently seek that melody embedded deep within the short runtime — and to them, I am very grateful.

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DS: The death of Sudha Singh and the betrayal from Manohar Patkar made a deep scar in the psyche of the Vijay Singh. He had even made suicide attempts that were not fruitful. So when Singh receives a punishment posting, does the police academy serve as an emblematic space where he examines his belief and faith regarding the law and order?

AS: It does. He is away from active duty, shunted away from the active everyday chase behind the criminals. But what he does not realise, until his friend Raghav Desai tells him, is that the system had unwittingly placed Singh at the source of the stream, and he has the power and the talent to colour the water, to alter its course somewhat. Vijay Singh goes from treating the punishment posting as a prison to treating it as a hermitage, as a tapasya. Our mythologies and folklore are full of such exiles and epiphanies. 

DS: At the New Year’s Eve party, Vijay Singh first orders the five cadets to do the dishes and later makes them cognisant about the interlinked web of red-tapism, bureaucracy and crime in the city. What was the purpose of the sequence?

AS: The intent behind the party scene is to show our protagonist as a tactical, thinking policeman. First, he wants to have these five boys stay back at his quarter but does not want anyone else in the academy to suspect as to why he has held them back. So, washing the utensils becomes a pretext. The cadets think that they are being made into a laughing stock as the other guests walk away laughing behind their backs. Second, he wants to put into context for them why he has been training them in a certain way for the second semester. If the protagonist did not confide in the cadets about what had happened to him in the field, they will never get the context of the education or diksha that they have received from him.

DS: In another scene where Vijay Singh discusses with Raghav Desai the formation of a Mumbai police squad which will engage in the institutional killing of gangsters, the entire conversation takes place with both the characters sitting on a seesaw. What is the symbolic significance of the scene?

AS: What happens during writing is that sometimes you place your characters on a prop, like a chair, or a bench, or a seesaw if you may, and before you realise, the characters take over that prop. That’s what happened. I don’t know why I placed Raghav and Vijay on a seesaw. But when I wrote the dialogues for that scene, they both started using the seesaw. It came together in the end when Raghav gets off the seesaw and says “yeh jhoola hai, insaaf ka tarazu nahin, jise upar neeche karne se kuch badal jayega” (“It’s a swing, not the weighing scale of the law, moving it up and down won’t change anything”). This last line was cut by the management’s editors. I could restore only the first part of the line during dubbing. The sentence therefore never gets completed. The other thing that changed was the placement of that scene. In the original version, as in the script, that scene comes after Pathan has been killed by sheer luck, but Singh’s five proteges are not being able to have much success with the top brass of Kalsekar’s gang. That’s when he proposes the “squad” to Raghav. He has a professional reason at that point to make the suggestion. Once Raghav declines, Singh goes to GPO, to one of his trusted informers who mans the trunk-call counter there and places a call to Kalsekar in Dubai and makes Kalsekar insecure about the upcoming gang of Naiks. Singh plays reverse psychology on Kalsekar. We never see Kalsekar — only hear his voice as he taunts Singh about his Nasik posting. The scene ends with Singh saying “jitna main Nasik main baithe majboor hoon utna tu Dubai main baithe lachaar” (“If I am helpless in my Nasik posting, so are you ineffective in your Dubai hideout”). That is why when Patkar shares Kalsekar’s angst over the rise of Naik gang with Raghav, the latter gets the courage to propose the “squad” to his boss Patkar. Raghav senses the chain of conversation flowing from Vijay to Kalsekar to Patkar. This also was a much longer scene, one that I was very proud of. It was done like an soft interrogation scene, a highly placed policeman being questioned by a powerful politician, the very politician who had had Vijay Singh transferred and could do the same to Raghav with a stroke of pen.

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DS: Why does the portrayal of the female characters as wives, fiancées, daughters and even classmates lack character development within the constructions of the film?

AS: We were using the synopsis of the book as basis for the key components, and that had just one female character — Sudha Singh. I brought into the fictional adaptation the few I could. Niranjana (Monica Panwar’s character) was a fully developed track in the two-hour version, the bright student from academy who becomes the righteous rival of the five male proteges in the field. She was Eklavya of this story, the one whom Singh never trains with directly but who imbibes the most from him, not just his tradecraft but his values as well. Her track was deleted later by the editor Manas Mittal. Had the track survived, Niranjana was shown outshining the rest of the class at the academy, and then arresting Naik Sr. in the field. 

DS: Tell us about your choice for the synth-charged background score of the film that creates a subdued retro-like ambience.

AS: Synths have already made a comeback with It Follows (2014) and Stranger Things (2016). It’s a sound that I love, I have grown up on it — Kraftwerk, Phil Collins, Eye of the Tiger, Vangelis — the list is long. I was looking for an excuse to have fun with it, dive deep into it. The eighties as the setting of this film gave me that scope. I was also very fortunate to have a veteran composer like Viju Shah amidst us, who is a living encyclopaedia on synths of that era and has a mental library of what sound was from which D50 cartridge. He has saved all those cartridges and has kept them in working condition.

DS: Voice-over narrations have been used to propel certain events in the film. Scenes like the dispute between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and politician/trade union leader Dattatraya Samant also include the technique. What was the reason behind such creative choices?

AS: Like I said, voice over was an afterthought that did not emanate from my process, so I won’t be able to comment on the use of it. My contribution to voice over is limited only to the writing of it at the dubbing stage. I used that line about Datta Samant and Indira Gandhi from S. Hussain Zaidi’s synopsis. My feeling in general is that one should stay away from voice overs as much as one can. It’s done beautifully in a film like No Country for Old Men. BUT, and that’s a but in all caps, because one has to respect the fact that in No Country for Old Men, the background score is almost negligible. Now you may throw Casino at me and I’ll tell you that its runtime is much longer for the audience to acclimatise with the voice over. It’s a long debate. Aurangzeb was written with a voice over that was to come only twice, and the background score was to be minimal or negligible. The intent was to have sounds of arid landscape of Gurgaon. The voice over kept growing, and the score became relentless during post. People here prefer an aural overdose. Silences, or let’s say moments working only on sound design in a film, make people insecure about its reception. I wonder why, though. So much of Sholay’s impact is sound design and its minimal use of background score.

DS: As Friedrich Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby becomes a monster.” Similarly, the five cadets dispense justice without any jurisdiction or restriction — they never contemplate the morality of their actions.

AS: Morality depends on the cause that a character identifies herself or himself with. The character cannot have my morality or my critics’ morality. One nation’s terrorist is another nation’s patriot. Sometimes the reverse happens –a protege questions his mentors morals, like it happened between Chanakya and Chandragupta. What a writer or filmmaker can do and perhaps should do is balance the narrative with characters on the opposite end of spectrums, so that all kinds of moralities or values of that world get a play. Sometimes a writer can give a trigger to justify protagonist’s actions, like the juvenile bread thief being shot down in Deewar (1975) by Ravi Verma or the radio thief’s custodial death by inebriated Velankar in Ardh Satya (1983) . In Class of ‘83, Niranjana’s character was such an attempt, the one who believes in arrests and trials — and in the absence of that character, the scales tip to one side of the morality. Aslam’s character is not clean of extra judicial deeds, though he stays clean from monetary corruption. The other thing that I was very conscious of was not letting Singh himself take the law in his hands until the very end of the film. One may judge him either for what he does in the end or for what he had refrained from throughout his entire career as a policeman.

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DS: What was the purpose of using the archival footage within the narrative?

AS: Necessities of the budget initially. One could recreate “Bombay” provided it were a big budget film. Nevermind. Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely (2012) had used this juxtaposition quite well and that became a reference point for me. The footage that we found at Films Division was gorgeous, despite being kept in the worst possible conditions. No amount of recreation could have brought this authenticity. The good thing was that using archival footage was not an afterthought exercised in the edit. The films were purchased on DVD format for reference during prep and were seen by the direction team, the art team, the costume team and the cinematographer, and their feel was always on our minds. We were aware while prepping and shooting that we will be cross cutting with archival footage, and we chose the palette that would not cause a jump and would let the camera footage and archival footage blend in smoothly. So, the constraints of budget gave something quite unique to the film. When I was making In Their Shoes (2015), I was not bothered about the archival footage blending in with the camera footage since that was a documentary. The selection of blend-able clips therefore became very important for Class of ‘83.

DS: The film recreates the era of the early 80s from the police training school to certain nook and corners of the maximum city — vehicles manufactured by Hindustan Motors, film posters hanging on the wall of a bus stand, the General Post Office, etc. What sorts of ideas were shared between you and the department of production design for such authenticity?

AS: Endless screenings of documentaries and arthouse films from the 80s. Coffee table books like Sooni Taraporewala’s Parsis, Raghu Rai’s Man, Mettle and Steel. Old editions of Taj Mahal Hotel’s magazines. Relevant issues of The Illustrated Weekly of India.

DS: After the gruesome murder of one of the police officers, the friend of the deceased, along with Vijay Singh — who has now been reappointed — devises a scheme to exact revenge where a small girl is used as bait. How would you like to justify the deed?

AS: Vijay Singh crosses the line after Kalsekar crosses the line by killing a policeman. Even then, Singh first asks Patkar to convince Kalsekar for a surrender and Patkar asks Singh to wait until Kalsekar becomes “white collar.” The dilemma that the genre of police/crime drama faces today is that on the one end, a policeman as a public figure is somebody who is looked upon to uphold the law. Even if it does not happen in real life, opinion leaders rightfully expect that from fiction because fiction is for posterity, while reality/news is use and throw. But, on the other end, all fiction or drama stands upon age old archetypes set by mythologies, Greek or otherwise, where all the wars of good over evil were won by the good side through some deceit and extra-judicial tactics. They were written when the concept of court or justice was not independent of the palace. Those age old fundamentals of dramaturgy still define our narratives, our heroes. Now, as a civil society, we live according to laws that are implemented by courts that are theoretically independent of the palace, the government. Viewed from the lens of civil society, heroes of police dramas created from old archetypes of drama may come across as professionals acting beyond their powers. Ravi Verma had no right to kill Vijay Verma in Deewar and nor does Anant Velankar have any right to kill Rama Shetty in Ardh Satya . One hopes that someday society may evolve into doing away with extra-judicial tactics of lawmen, and doing away with capital punishment, and at the same time is also able to eradicate heinous crimes by criminals, especially against women and children. So, coming to your question on the choice that Singh makes to use a little girl, I don’t have to justify it — it is Singh who has to justify it, and to only himself, the idealist that he is. And for that, he does make sure that the child remains away from the scene of action, in safe custody of Jadhav and Surve, and is promptly dropped home post the mission. If anything had gone wrong during the abduction, and if some harm had to come to the girl, Singh would have never forgiven himself, to the extent of never ever pursuing Kalsekar again. That’d be another film though. 

DS: When Umar Kalsekar appears at the end of the film, before the showdown, he is shown as an aging figure, whose physical movement is dependent on a walking stick. He is not portrayed as a towering and intimidating figure.

AS: There are two sides to it. First is real life, wherein somehow the photographs of famous gangsters that I see in the media… I wonder how they remain ageless, forever young and always enigmatic in our perception. If one stops for a second and reminds oneself that the photograph that’s being flashed is 20 or 30 years old, then maybe one would also think that the same person would have aged. We all inhabit this reality called human-body. That was one angle behind having a stark difference between the Kalsekar that we see in the photos, and the one that we see in person. The second angle was the idea to make Singh’s vendetta as anti-climatic as possible. You don’t see Osama Bin Laden properly when he is eliminated in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), nor is the ending of Sicario (2015) a spectacle. Or take Don Ciccio in the The Godfather Part II (1974). Vito stabs an ailing, ageing man. That’s the extent of his hatred. Some of the Hollywood Westerns ended revenge dramas in this fashion, especially director Budd Boetticher’s films like Ride Lonesome (1959). They turned revenge drama on its head by ultimately revealing the villain as weak and degenerating, either in resolve or in body. Technically, you can’t exact vengeance on the same person who did wrong to you years and years ago, just like you can never meet your childhood heroes in your adulthood or the heroes of your youth in your middle age. People change.

Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.