Cast: Suresh Ravi, Raveena Ravi, Mime Gopi
When a cop stops your bike even when you’re wearing a helmet, you feel a quiet dread as you think of the tedious and humiliating experience you’re about to put yourself through. Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban is that dread stretched over two hours. Though not as visceral or hard-hitting as Visaranai, this is also a bleak film about police brutality: if you rebel against the System, you will pay for it, and sometimes, you might even disappear. Director RDM suggests that individual insignificance is the terrible price we pay for a collective good like the police department.
These abstract ideas are discussed through the story of Prabhu (Suresh Ravi) and Indhu (Raveena Ravi), a couple that can barely make ends meet. Out on a bike at night, they run into Inspector Kannabiran (Mime Gopi, who plays evil with a child-like enthusiasm). He moves Prabhu to the station, flogs him, and seizes his bike. You’d think the film is going to be about how Prabhu escapes Kannabiran. But Kannabiran is reminded by his constable about his own track record with anger issues, and he lets Prabhu go so that his promotion isn’t affected. Kannabiran didn’t just do the right thing; he did the right thing for the System.
But it’s the System that draws Prabhu back again into the station, and it begins to feel like a haunted house that he keeps running into. Kannabiran makes him wait, beg, and grovel for his seized bike with no other motivation than the sadistic pleasure of knowing that Prabhu is now an adimai that he can show off to his subordinates. And just as Prabhu is about to leave the station with his bike, something else happens and draws him in—again. This keeps happening over and over and you begin to realize — with increasing weariness — that there’s absolutely no provision for a common man to interact with the system and keep his dignity. As a constable puts it: you will lose all your happiness once you set foot inside a police station.
But it doesn’t apply to everyone. There’s an ironic scene where petty criminals speak freely to police officers in a way that a person like Prabhu never can. It’s as if cops are friendlier to ‘the bad’ rather than ‘the good’ in society. And we find out why in the next scene: criminals help cops by falsely surrendering in cases that are stuck. Unlike the criminal, the common man has no useful service to render to the police force.
Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban makes you take a deeply sinister attitude towards the police force. RDM tells us through conciliatory dialogues that there are still several good cops left and only a few bad apples give the force its bad name. But what he actually shows throughout the film suggests the opposite: a few bad apples are enough to ruin the good ones. Though it’s understandable why dialogues defending ‘good cops’ might be necessary for balance, they also cheapen the suffering of Prabhu and Indhu; as if arguing whether the System is good or not is even relevant to them.
Though director RDM keeps it engaging in the scenes between Prabhu and Kannabiran, sequences showing the relationship between Prabhu and Indhu are generic. Instead of being an emotional counterpoint to police brutality, they make us forget the film’s gritty tone. After the pre-climax song, it takes a few minutes to remember all the physical and psychological abuse Prabhu has gone through to do what he does in the end.
Just as the architecture of a cathedral is optimized for humans to feel small and insignificant before god, Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban is set up to make one experience the senseless rage of a police officer and the feeling of utter powerlessness. It’s a first-person view of what happens to an ordinary person asserting against a System that’s designed to serve the whole nation, but not individuals.