On the road to Vetri Maaran’s fourth and presumedly most epic film, Vada Chennai (North Chennai), I’ve decided to revisit this filmmaker’s previous films, starting with his latest and arguably rawest to date, Visaranai. The film is now streaming on Netflix.
Visaranai (also known as Interrogation, India’s official entry to the 89th Academy Awards) is a film that is completely uninterested in the glitz and glamour of Indian blockbusters. It has no exaggerated fight sequences, no colourful dance numbers, no punch dialogue. It feels naked, unpolished and unflinching. The amplified, stylistic sounds that accompany your typical mass-masala fight sequences — in other words DOOSH DOOSH — are absent, replaced instead by the disturbing and unforgiving sound of bare skin being whipped. What is it that’s usually stated on the signboards at rollercoaster rides? This ride is not suitable for children, pregnant women and the faint of heart. The same applies here. Not because it’s an adrenaline-pumping ride, but because it is powerful and a very, very uncomfortable watch. It is also a bloody brilliant film.
There are two parts to this movie, one more interesting than the other, both equally riveting… and equally depressing. The film opens at the break of dawn, with three men sleeping on a grassy patch at a local park. These are our protagonists — Paandi (Dinesh), Asfal (Silambarasan), Murugan (Murugadoss), and Kumar (Pradesh). We learn that they’re migrant workers who have left their hometowns of Tamil Nadu and travelled across the country in hopes to make ends meet. And that’s pretty much all we know about these characters. Usually, a lack of character exploration would be a problem; here it isn’t even the point. Visaranai isn’t a character study. It is a peephole to (what many of us call), THE SYSTEM.
When a local big shot’s house is robbed, our protagonists get framed for it. At first, I wondered why them? Why our protagonists, in particular? The answer is simple and cruel: they were at the wrong place, at the wrong time — it’s crazy to think that if Asfal had stayed at the movies just a little longer, he might have missed the police roadblock that ultimately started the vicious chain of events. But also because they’re poor, from out of town and unable to speak the language. Without a proper education and the financial capacity to hire attorneys, they become easy targets. The cops see them as disposable individuals. Who cares if they go to jail? Who cares if they’re humiliated? Who cares if their futures are taken away from them?
The cops know that Paandi and gang are innocent, but frankly, do not give a damn. They just want to close the case, whatever the means. Their means, of course, is violence. The film may be called Visaranai (Interrogation), but I wonder if Vetri Maaran’s poking fun at that very concept. There is hardly any interrogating here. In fact, there is hardly any chatter.
The police are desperate for Paandi and his three friends to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. But they’re adamant, as any innocent person would be. So the bastards beat them to a pulp. You hear the sound of thick rattans smacckkking against bare flesh. You see human skin vibrate in slow motion upon impact. You also hear the sound of a man choking while he’s waterboarded. While the sound of torture rings in our ears, we see a senior officer tell a rookie, “all is fair to close a case.” I watched most of the film through the tiniest slits between my fingers of my left hand, my stomach queasy. But the violent here isn’t for violence sake. It isn’t torture porn. It’s real life.
“CONFESS! CONFESS! CONFESS!” the officers scream at Paandi and his buddies, as they lay out more beatings.
When Paandi and gang don’t break — oh, they wail and beg but they do not break — the cops dish out even more whackings. At one point, the inspector even turns it into a wicked game. Only Paandi, the most resilient of the four, will get beaten. But if he shows signs of weakness, his friends would get tortured too. (Dinesh is excellent in these scenes, in every scene. It’s not easy for an actor to channel so much emotion with little to no dialogue, but Dinesh does so in a nuanced manner.)
The second part of the film is slightly less interesting in its format than the first. The prison sequences in the first half feel fresh. It’s a piece of cinema we have never seen before, or at least, not executed with this level of vigour and confidence (which is crazy, considering this is merely Vetri Maaran’s third film). The second half takes place at a police station, but this time Paandi and his friends are bystanders. How they become bystanders in this cop house is, of course, a spoiler. It plays out almost like a standard thriller we’ve seen numerous times (perhaps not in Tamil cinema), especially when it comes to the final act.
But do not mistake less interesting as bad. The storytelling in the second half is still pretty much flawless. Here too, I watched the film through the slits between my fingers. Here too, the commentary and themes are just as harsh and disturbing as the first. This time, the primary victim that’s being interrogated is white collared (he literally wears a white shirt), someone who seemingly has a lot of influence and money. And so the dusty floors of the police station is replaced with a clean bed for the interrogatee to sleep on. Yet it still feels like being trapped in a shithole.
Vetri Maaran is making a ballsy statement here: regardless of who we are, regardless of our financial statuses and backgrounds, the system bends us over and fucks us all the same. Whoever said life’s unfair? Sometimes even the authorities who we assume make up the system are also mere specs, following orders and being screwed over.
We see this as we follow Samuthirakani’s character, Muthuvel, a reasonably high ranking officer. He helps Paandi and friends along the way. He seems nice at first. But later we learn that he isn’t exactly a by the books cop either. He kidnaps the white collared suspect and interrogates him unethically. But as the layers are peeled, we soon realize that he too, is just another small cog in a large wheel that just keeps on spinning. I can’t help but wonder what will happen to the rookie police officer that we see in the first half of the film. The one who seems genuinely kind in an unkind world. My gut tells me that she too will eventually become rotten, just like the rest of them.
Visaranai is a film that is completely uninterested in the glitz and glamour of Indian blockbusters. It has no exaggerated fight sequences, no colourful dance numbers, no punch dialogues. It feels naked, unpolished and unflinching..... It is also a bloody brilliant film.