The ancient Greeks probably had it right. According to them, gods were power-hungry pleasure-seekers who got their kicks by toying with human lives. It’s a fancy way of saying shit happens – but how else to explain away the mind-boggling randomness of, say, the recent floods in Chennai? Or the plight of the four Tamilian migrant workers tossed into a Guntur prison in Vetri Maaran’s powerful new film, Visaranai? The gods of this story, partly adapted from M Chandrakumar’s novel Lock Up, are the gods of our time – the powerful people who make up the nebulous, all-pervasive, malignant entity we’ve come to call the System. And they keep hurling lightning bolts at Pandi (‘Attakathi’ Dinesh), Murugan (‘Aadukalam’ Murugadoss), Afsal (Silambarasan) and Kumar (Pradeesh), who are arrested when a local big shot’s house is burgled. The cops don’t care who committed the crime. They just want a confession. Any confession. And who better to extract it from than these four… specks in the cosmic scheme of things? They’re voiceless, dispossessed. They’re sacrificial lambs, and the first act of Visaranai depicts their ritualised slaughter.
It’s ostensibly an interrogation, but we don’t hear too many words. Instead, we hear the thwack of a lathi when it lands on bare flesh, the gasps and coughs when a man is waterboarded, the crrrack of a tooth coming off, and most sickeningly, the fingernails-on-chalkboard rasp from a long stem being shaved and readied for a sustained thrashing. Suddenly, it’s a game. If Pandi buckles and falls, then his friends will receive more punishment. The camera moves in close to capture how flesh vibrates when that long stem falls with sadistic force. The sound design is chilling. You feel the welts on your back.
The violence in Visaranai is… horrifying is too mild a word. But it’s not torture porn. It’s necessary, dictated by the film’s structure. We need to know how bad it can get because there’s a second interrogation, subsequently, and when Pandi (who’s now free) attempts to help the new sacrificial lamb, we remember what can happen if he gets caught. This is the filmmaker as god – Vetri Maaran toys with us. It’s like a horror movie. I could barely watch.
The second interrogation occurs in the second act of the film, which is an echo of the scenes with Pandi and his friends. Another instance of framing. More stripping and beatings to extract a “confession.” Another suspension by rope. Another good soul trying to help with a cell phone. Another cop who appears to be a good man but isn’t. Another time we are thrust in the middle of action, without the facts, which emerge gradually – the who, the what, the why. But there’s a crucial difference. This victim (Kay Kay, played by Kishore) is white-collared. (Quite literally. He wears borderline-white shirts.) He is an auditor, he deals with Swiss bank accounts. He speaks English with a cop who questions him in an air-conditioned room. He hobnobs with political bigwigs, which has enabled him do the occasional good deed, like helping a cop’s daughter get a medical seat. Kay Kay may be corrupt in many ways, but without his influence, the cop’s daughter would be staring at a very different future. And yet…
Part of Visaranai’s agenda is to show that the System is truly egalitarian. The gods can toy with anyone. But the film isn’t a wail, it isn’t melodramatic (except during snatches of G V Prakash Kumar’s rather redundant score; the screams, the silences are their own music). Vetri Maaran doesn’t catch us by the collar and demand empathy. His is a cool approach, almost like a procedural – first the beatings, then the re-enactment of the “crime” in a house whose shelves have (auteur-geek alert!) DVDs of City of God and Cinema Paradiso, then the happenings in court, a pause, and then it begins all over again.
Visaranai is an adult movie – not just in the sense of its content being thoroughly unsuitable for children but also in its refusal to treat the audience like children. A cop asks a question, gets an answer, and remains silent, turning that answer over in his mind. We can almost hear him think. There’s jargon, and there’s no spoon to feed us. They refer to “A1” and “NBW” – it’s left to us to figure out that they’re talking about the prime accused and non-bailable warrants. The language, too, is refreshingly grown-up – though not in the censored version you’re seeing in theatres now. The first time I saw Visaranai was at the Mumbai film festival last year, and it was exhilarating to see people salt their speech with swear words – fuck, dumb cunt. The beeping out is grim affirmation that the Censor Board is another avatar of the System. They hurl lightning bolts at art.
We get glints of characterisation. We know Pandi and his friends stay in Gandhi Park – that name is surely one of the more ironic touches amidst all this blood. They haven’t bothered to learn Telugu (which some Telugus despise them for; finally, the court case has to be conducted with the help of an English mediator, a blackly funny reminder of the many Indias that might have remained islands were it not for the British). There are glimpses of a hero-archetype in Pandi. He stands up for his friends. Despite what he’s endured, he goes out on a limb to help someone like him. He’s a hard worker. He wants to make something of his life. He even gets a sort-of heroine (Anandhi) – but there’s no love angle. She’s a domestic help who’s being sexually abused – another victim of the System. (She works for a… cop!) In the film’s most startling touch, she vanishes without a trace. This movie tells us that happy endings happen only in the movies. Ultimately, it’s the suffering they endure that truly defines these characters.
Visaranai, thus, showcases a range of villains. Some of them, like the top Guntur cop Vishweshwar Rao (Ajay Ghosh), are obviously evil. Under his watch, the police station is treated like a temple, people are asked to remove their slippers before entering, prasadam is distributed – but the man is the devil himself. Other villains are subtler, like the cop named Ramachandran (the astonishingly subtle E Ramadas). He’s been in the System so long that he’s seen it all. He’s scarily practical, an amoral science teacher spewing toxic wisdom. (“If someone dies, then that death should be of use.”) Note the way he slips handcuffs on Pandi, like a father soothing a child dreading an injection. A similar parent-child equation is glimpsed between the cop Muthuvel (Samuthirakani) and Pandi. The film resounds with these ghastly echoes.
Muthuvel is the third kind of cop. We’ve seen the cop who relishes being bad, the equivalent of a lip-smacking masala-movie villain. We’ve seen the cop who doesn’t advertise his badness, who we don’t even realise is bad until he does bad things. And now we see a cop who wants to do the good thing, the right thing, but is forced by the System to become another bad guy. Samuthirakani is terrific – he shows us a man torn between salving his conscience and saving his ass. (The all-round good guys aren’t too many. We get Pandi’s employer, who offers money and asks him to flee. We also get the judge who dismisses, with contempt, a corrupt policeman’s offer to help with court proceedings. I smiled. I also wondered how long he’d last.)
Visaranai is a classy film. Despite the many layers, it doesn’t have a message – at least not overtly. You could say it seeks to open our eyes to the violation of human rights, given the statistics at the end stating that 30 per cent of cases in India are closed this way. You could say it brings up a discussion about caste, that Pandi and his friends belong to marginalised communities, which is why they are treated so – and that caste plays a part even in the police hierarchy. (The point is hammered home through dialogue. The overly expository tone of a few lines is the rare misstep in an otherwise impeccable film.) You could say it’s about how no one is safe anywhere, not in another state, not even in your own state – the System is everywhere.
But the only thing the film is about, really, is the terrifying arbitrariness of how the powerful prey on the powerless. Visaranai plays on our deepest cynicism, our deepest fears about the System. You could be coming home after a late show. You could be stopped by cops who ask your name, and when you say it’s Afsal, they’ll ask if you belong to the ISIS or Al Qaeda. It’s about how you think the worst is over, and then you realise there’s worse in store. Witness Pandi’s terror when asked to (symbolism alert!) “clean up” the police station for Ayudha Pooja celebrations the next day – and he thought he was done with the cops. Call it fate, destiny, gods toying with humans.
Visaranai is beautifully filmed, though this isn’t a film with much room for beauty. Save for a shot of light spilling through the slits in a door (and some distracting switches between colour and black-and-white), there’s very little of what’s usually hailed in these parts as “cinematography” – the frames appear to have been snatched from the back alleys of life. The verité illusion is aided by the utterly lifelike performances – even if the word “performance” seems wrong. No one seems to be acting. Dinesh, especially, does extraordinarily physical things – watch him at the end, whimpering like a cornered animal. At this point, he’s knee-deep in a morass – it’s another symbolic touch. Muthuvel is in the morass too. We’re all stuck in shit. The film’s early portions are set in places we identify with the System (the police station, the court), and by the end, the action opens out to a middle-class neighbourhood, the kind of place we live in. That’s the chilling takeaway. There’s no escaping the System. It’s all around us.
- Visaranai = interrogation
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