Tuesday, February 28, 2017

INTERROGATION (Visaranai, 2015)

The poor are always in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's the message of the mononymous Tamil filmmaker Vetrimaaran, who adapted a novel based on author M. Chandrakumar's personal ordeal at the hands of corrupt police. Chandrakumar's ordeal took place sometime in the 1980s, but Vetrimaaran updates the story to the present cellphone age and adds to the story, having the author's analog make a timely exit to avoid the worse fate suffered by his friends. The actual main character of the film is Pandi (Dinesh Ravi), a Tamil shop clerk working in Andhra Pradesh, a Telugu-language state neighboring his Tamil Nadu home. Pandi and his Tamil buddies, some of whom can barely speak Telugu, are poor, despised objects of suspicion, as Tamil criminals have been committing robberies, possibly to raise money for the Tamil Tiger terrorists of Sri Lanka. Pandi has a glancing encounter with the real robbers, but is shortly arrested in a sweep of Tamils while the actual perpetrators apparently get away.

For the cops the top priority is closing the case. Catching the actual culprits doesn't matter so much. The main idea is to get Pandi and his pals to "accept" the charges against them. The interrogation process consists of repeated beatings, their only security being the cops' desire to have living suspects confess in court. When the prisoners start a hunger strike, the cops use psychological warfare. They pretend to give in and treat the prisoners to a hearty meal before they return to headquarters to sign their release forms and receive compensation for their inconvenience. Of course, once the hunger strike is broken it's back to the beatings. Finally, cajoled by promises of light sentences and aid finding jobs afterward, the Tamils agree to confess, only to double-cross the cops by protesting to the judge, with timely help from a Tamil translator. Fortunately they've found a judge with integrity who doesn't take crap from the cops, but Pandi and friends soon learn that they've escaped from the frying pan directly into the fire.

Their translator was a policeman from Tamil Nadu who's in Andhra Pradesh investigating a corrupt Tamil politician. Eager to repay his favor, Pandi's crew help this policeman, Muthuvel (Samuthirakani), snatch the politician and take him back to Tamil Nadu. They end up at a Tamil police station, where our earnest protagonists go to work on a clean-up detail to further repay Muthuvel for his benevolence. To their horror, they see the politician getting treated much as they were in Andhra Pradesh. Pandi has a cellphone and, having been given one by a sympathetic policewoman in Andhra Pradesh to call his boss and ask for help, he pays it forward by giving the politician his phone. If anything, that makes things worse for everyone. The politician is tortured to death (without Muthuvel's okay) as part of a high-stakes party intrigue, and a cover-up is hastily arranged to make him look like a suicide. But what about these dumb dudes who've been wandering through the building cleaning stuff? Did they see something or hear something they shouldn't? No one's certain, but why take chances? As Pandi and his buddies realize that they're being set up for death, they argue over whether to try to run for it, until events leave them no more choices....

You won't see many more blatant exposes of official injustice than Visaranai. It's a no-holds-barred assault on our compassion that has no time for western stoicism. If anything distinguishes Asian film in general from American cinema it's Asians' willingness to suffer abjectly and vocally. To some western ears these Tamils may seem like big babies given how they scream and cry all the time, but films like these almost certainly present pain more honestly than Hollywood or Europe often do. Few films I've seen convey the terror of unjust confinement as convincingly and compellingly as Visaranai does. At the same time, I think the actors did a decent job of crafting distinctive personalities for the hapless Tamils, Dinesh Ravi especially, so that the characters become more than objects of our vicarious masochism. If they were nothing but victims, nothing but receptacles for torture, we might not feel for them as much as I expect any viewer will.

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