Tamil film at Venice fest captures cop cruelty

VENICE–Indian director Vetrimaaran’s film, “Interrogation” or  “Visaaranai” in Tamil — which screened on Sept. 9 at the Orizzonti or New Horizons section of the ongoing Venice Film Festival, grapples with a controversial subject: Police brutality.

Vetrimaaran deals with it in the local Indian context. But police brutality is a world-wide phenomenon. Put a man in uniform, and he tends to mutate into a monster. And higher the number of stars or stripes on his khaki, the greater is his autocratic cruelty. What is even more despicable is that he uses the baton or the bullet on the weak — economically or racially.

The blacks in America are a classic case in point. The New York Times screamed in a lead story in April about an unarmed black man who was shot dead by a South Carolina cop.

Scene from movie

Scenes from the movie

Some weeks ago, 20 Tamil Nadu labourers were gunned down in an Andhra Pradesh (a southern Indian state, bordering Tamil Nadu) by the police, because they were allegedly stealing forest wood.  At about the same time, five other men, accused of some other crime, had their bodies riddled with bullets — as they, all handcuffed, were being driven to court. The perpetrators here again were policemen.

These murders are termed “encounter killings”– a form of police brutality first introduced in the 1970s West Bengal, which was then under the Congress Party regime. Many young college students were shot by cops. The boys — yes some of them were in their late teens — were part of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). It members were also known as Naxalites, because the movement originated in the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal (an eastern Indian state). They believed in annihilating class enemies — the rich, the politically powerful and the police.

Such encounters became extremely popular some two decades ago, when the Mumbai (once Bombay) police killed tens of gangsters — without letting them face a fair judicial process. They were extorting money from rich real-estate builders and Bollywood producers, financiers and even actors.

Visaaranai_The cops who indulged in this kind of extra-judicial murders were called “encounter specialists” and decorated with medals. What is more, films were made on them, praising and popularising their work. Now, these men in uniform have almost become part of Indian folklore, and their injustice and heinousness are brushed aside.

A young friend of mine, who has recently become an Indian Police Service (IPS), proudly recounted that he already had some encounter killings to his credit! What is terribly sad about this whole business is that not enough is being written against it.

So, when the Tamil movie director, Vetrimaaran,  made “Visaaranai” (Interrogation), and was lucky to have it selected in the Orizzonti/New Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival (which ends on Saturday), it seemed novel and much needed.

Visaaranai..One cannot remember another movie that depicted police brutality with such rawness. Vetrimaaran, who has always had a fascination to be different — having made a film on rooster fighting and planning one on pigeon racing — tells a story about police inhumanness and cruelty in Visaaranai.

The work — with a good star cast like Samuthirakani (playing a police inspector), Dinesh Ravi and Murugadoss enriching the narrative — is based on the actual experiences of a 53-year-old Coimbatore (a city in the souther Indian state of Tamil Nadu) autorickshaw driver, Chandra Kumar. When he is not driving his rickshaw, he is writing, and in a book, Lock-Up, which he published in 2006, he talks about his nightmarish 13 days in a tiny prison cell in Guntur (a town in Andhra Pradesh). He was then in his twenties, and was incarcerated along with two friends from Tamil Nadu for no apparent reason. All of them had moved from Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh in search of small and menial jobs.

Vetrimaaran’s movie is based on Kumar’s book, and paints the disturbing picture of three daily Tamil- speaking wage earners in Guntur who are taken into custody by a police force which is compelled to solve a theft in the house of a top ranking civil servant. The three poor men are stripped to their waist and beaten in the most gruesome manner to elicit a confession. With language as a formidable barrier, the men, who do not speak Telugu (the language of Andhra Pradesh) are even more handicapped. Bewildered and wounded beyond endurance, they eventually find a samaritan in Samuthirakani’s  character, who, despite his moral high ground, finds himself trapped in a web of political deceit and money power.

At 106 minutes, Vetrimaaran’s work is arresting, and refreshingly different from the kind of  song-and-dance extravaganzas one is forced to watch in Indian cinema. However, the violence  tends to go overboard at times and is almost repulsive, but the director might quip that he could show the beastliness  of the whole system only through such sordid  sadism.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times, and just covered the Venice Film Festival for the enth  time.

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