Visaranai’s Scathing View Of Crime And Punishment

India’s Oscar entry is depressingly real about our cynically exploitative media and dysfunctional law enforcement

Rahul Desai

December 14, 2016

Visaranai’s Scathing View Of Crime And Punishment

A few months ago, a leading Mumbai newspaper carried a mandatory outrage story: A film executive was threatened on his way to work by “Gau rakshaks” (‘cow vigilantes’ for the uninitiated) for carrying a leather bag. The (Indian) world and its family instinctively reacted to the incident, admonishing this most ridiculous aspect of ‘Hindu nationalism’. His Facebook post went viral. Liberal support poured in from all quarters.

A week later, however, the same world and its extended family attacked the man. Because his statement, now from police custody, went as thus: I accept that I lied about the entire incident. No such incident ever took place. My Facebook post was a lie. I lied because have hatred towards Hindus. 

The same newspaper went after him like a rabid dog. Public sentiment swayed with the media, who gleefully re-published what the cops fed them. Not one reporter bothered to dig deeper into this sudden backflip. This was their answer; it suited the narrative. Nobody stopped for a second to read the statement again. Any half-literate mind will scoff at its robotic composition. It’s a bruised, compromised voice.

Now imagine the sequence of events behind closed doors that perhaps led to this humbling confession: the press-induced pressure, warring political parties entering the fray, fast-tracking orders from ‘above’, the police forced to provide answers, frazzled cops scrambling to save their jobs, the hard interrogation, the threatening, the hungry press lapping up the ‘sensational’ reverse-scoop, the origins of a strategized everybody-wins smear campaign…one can sense every nut and bolt of the power-struggle machine.
By the end, a regular information-consumer like me felt a bit sick. The truth had become inconsequential. Whom should I have believed? I never trusted the tabloid to begin with, I stopped trusting the cops, and I became hateful and wary even of passport-office bureaucracy. They were all in the same leaking boat for me. I stopped trusting in general. A man was in jail, his career and reputation destroyed, and yet I wasn’t sure if I should sympathize with his plight yet.

But as I watched Vetrimaaran’s Tamil-language Visaranai (The Interrogation), India’s official entry to next year’s Oscars, my paranoid visions came back to life. Even though I was still uninformed about the cow controversy, my worst fears were confirmed – as if I were viewing a posthumous documentary about actual behind-the-scene events transpiring through that tumultuous week. In a sense, Visaranai, based on the novel Lock Up, which is in turn based on its author M. Chandrakumar’s experiences, exudes that manner of first-person postmortem angst.

Relentless in its pursuit of full disclosure, Visaranai doesn’t pretend to walk the thin line between victims and casualties of the system.

Relentless in its pursuit of full disclosure, it doesn’t pretend to walk the thin line between victims and casualties of the system. More importantly, and unfortunately, like Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court did last year, the film familiarises me with a withering sub-culture – a startlingly mechanical system – I hope to never precipitate. But there’s often no escaping it, and my ignorance satiates a see-no-evil weakness, much like Visaranai’s four unsuspecting Tamil labourers working in a Telugu-speaking Andhra town. Their alien language simply accentuates the topography of terror this city soon morphs into for them.

When the four, unofficially led (in a film-protagonist way) by Pandi (Dinesh Ravi), are arrested, and brutally interrogated without reason, us viewers are put on notice: expect the worst, fear the best. “Confess!” they are told, repeatedly, by all sorts of good-cop-bad-cop faces, who’ve made them scapegoats in a high-profile robbery case. Initially, their story looks to be heading into dark torture-porn territory, one of those untold tales that see the light of day too late. But their survival soon becomes a three-act film on its own, with some stirring ‘underdog’ moments: Pandi heroically resisting a caning to protect his friends, their directionless hunger strike, the inescapably callous cop-banter, fear making way for rebellion, and ironically, a court sequence where the law (whose apathy Tamhane’s film wryly examined) contrives to rescue the four ‘criminals’.

Muthuvel became the balance I needed, and I clung onto his business-like demeanor, badgered decisiveness, brash cigarette-smoking old-fashioned-ness and relatively ‘sincere’ face – all the while conveniently ignoring the phone calls he responds to. 

At this point, I searched for some kind of victory in their relief, even more so given that they are aided by the timely arrival of fellow-Tamil, Inspector Muthuvel (Samuthirakani). Muthuvel became the balance I needed, and I clung onto his business-like demeanor, badgered decisiveness, brash cigarette-smoking old-fashioned-ness and relatively ‘sincere’ face – all the while conveniently ignoring the phone calls he responds to.

In context of the film’s hierarchy, he just looks bigger and more influential than the petty-theft cover-up characters preceding his entry. Even his intimidation tactics, which we witness soon enough, are measured, and not as temperamental and needlessly savage as his Andhra counterparts. He represents the ‘big league’ of sorts, and instantly connects with the likes of Pandi; he comes across as an overworked arrow that has no time for the smaller fish, but by stopping in his tracks he is reminded for a split second why he chose this line of work. This glimpse of humaneness is muted, designed to win our affections amid an ocean swarming with quasi-official-ness.

But the chain of command he answers to, slowly, sneakily, yanks us out of this fleeting warmth of justice. Soon, his reluctant eye-in-the-storm transformation begins to take hold of the second film within Visaranai – a narrative that plays like a sinister outro, the continuation of a universe most close-ended movies terminate early in their quest to remain movies. After all, films are merely representative stories; if we were shown what transpires after the end credits, not many would willingly flock to the halls.

The fourth estate is repeatedly mentioned in sardonic passing – more as tongue-wagging mouthpieces than nagging truth-seekers.

The focus here shifts to the ‘higher’ powers, and Muthu’s spiraling involvement in the detaining of a well-connected political accountant (Kishore, as K.K). Torn between a terse DCP’s ruling-party loyalties and a frantic ACP’s opposition-party mechanics, we see Muthu’s predicament unfold over one long night at a Chennai-based police station. This is, admittedly, the “calm” before the (media) storm; everything is done behind the cloak of dark to customize the scraps fed to dawn-breaking journalists. The fourth estate is repeatedly mentioned in sardonic passing – more as tongue-wagging mouthpieces than nagging truth-seekers.

Pandi and his pals go from leading players to side-notes to footnotes over this period, even temporarily disappearing from proceedings. But the increasingly shady undercurrents of these new surroundings suggest their fly-on-the-wall presence. That they stay so long as cleaners at this venue is slightly baffling, yet somewhat necessary to cement their loyalties towards a withering Muthu.

Vetrimaaran treats this phase with the back-room urgency of a procedural thriller, allowing memories of the first part to oscillate between the bitterness of a bad nightmare and the longing of a distant dream. While he may have struggled to show technical restraint early on (a clumsy blossoming love-story, stubbornly mainstream dubbing and framing issues), one wonders in hindsight if the flimsiness was deliberate to lend a degree of primariness to Muthu’s disillusionment.

The craft peaks during the final fifteen minutes, when cinematic elements like background scores fade away during an extended shootout in the swampy outskirts. Each cop turns into a different kind of monster by now, the types who casually discuss fake encounters, badly aimed bullets, death and gore with the routineness of a bank-teller – perversely similar to Court’s lunching lawyers comparing judges on the length of their clients’ prison sentences.

Their dehumanization is such that when they randomly release a few frightened chain-snatchers to buy some privacy (“we’ll find other innocent sods”), one feels overjoyed for the kids who’ve escaped the hellhole. Somewhere along the way, the very notion of fair-play assumes menacing undertones, akin to that of a bunch of mild-mannered barbarians generously feeding their prey.

This film isn’t an easy pill to swallow. To look at it through an Oscar-submission lens, though, is a bit unfair. Given the selection committee’s notorious history, an air of submissive cynicism tends to surround even the ‘few good men’ like these.

This film isn’t an easy pill to swallow. To look at it through an Oscar-submission lens, though, is a bit unfair. Given the selection committee’s notorious history, an air of submissive cynicism tends to surround even the ‘few good men’ like these.

But the reason Visaranai remains consistently effective and enraging to a generation like mine is down to our armchair-activist habits. It merely validates our second-hand rants about an India we barely know. Yet, I suspect this could have been set anywhere in the country and still retain its relevance.

Earlier this year, I shifted into a flat with a troubled past. The previous tenant was jailed for allegedly abetting a double-suicide. The incident, even before he was arrested, made nation-wide headlines. This sequence sounds depressingly familiar. One of the security guards, however, off-handedly insisted that perhaps the man’s inability to ‘bribe’ the police led them to design their own suicide-note-ridden alibi. And that he may have been innocent after all.

The case is closed, either way. There were no follow-up articles.
An old wives’ tale? Or, as Visaranai suggests, a routine way of life? An observer can only believe everyone and nobody. But, for me, for many civilized citizens who think minding their own business is the same as staying safe, they are guilty until proven otherwise. And by “they,” I now mean the authorities, not the accused.

Visaranai, in this aspect, leaves me vindicated at a time I hoped to be proven wrong.

Visaranai (The Interrogation) is now streaming on Netflix India