Interrogation (Visaaranai) is an upsetting film. Based on a true story recounted in M. Chandra Kumar’s autobiographical Lock Up, Vetri Maaran’s tense socio-political thriller lands a well-aimed punch at rampant police brutality and corruption, to which the only response from the viewer is towering indignation. It may not break new ground in its subject or style of narration, but it covers the old ground extremely well, and its premise is so convincing and realistic that it seems like non-fiction. The first part, at least, is non-fiction, while the film’s second half turns into a fast-paced thriller. Produced by the Tamil star Dhanush and his production house Wunderbar Films, its Indian bow at the Mumbai Film Festival played to enthusiastic audiences, even though it’s far more of an art film than a traditional actioner. It won the Amnesty International Italia Award in Venice.
If the story were limited to the inhuman mistreatment of four perfectly innocent boys from Tamil Nadu, who have “immigrated” slightly north to find work in Andhra Pradesh, it would have lost much of its power. Instead Maaran and Kumar extend the horror to include the upper echelons in the police and government, who also need scapegoats to cover their crimes. This mirror plot becomes an ever more threatening nocturnal thriller, and takes the film much wider in terms of potential audience.
Young Pandy (Dinesh Ravi) runs a small convenience kiosk and sleeps in the park with three pals, all from the south. When they are randomly rounded up and accused of burgling a well-to-do home, the world turns against them. Locked up in a dark room and beaten senseless with bats by a burly police chief and is officers, they refuse to confess to a crime they didn’t commit. A memorably violent scene shows Pandy nobly taking a back-breaking beating on behalf of his friends. The realism makes it anguishing to watch.
Later on, things take an unexpected turn in an astute plot twist. Now the focus is on a good-hearted Tamil police inspector (Samuthira Kani) who befriends Pandy. Being the only sane and reasonable authority around, he is a natural hook for the audience, too. The story gets complicated, but its puzzling intricacies can be overlooked in the excitement of what follows. K.K., a well-protected private banker for some corrupt politicians, is kidnapped by the good inspector to stand trial in Tamil Nadu, before he can turn state evidence in Andhra Pradesh. Why this should matter is never really clear, in spite of some help from a new explanatory scene added after the film’s Venice bow. In any case, the boys find themselves involved in the kidnapping and in greater danger than ever before. Dropping the realism of the first half, the camerawork and editing become nervous and edgy, as an edge-of-seat chase through an overgrown swamp settles the case once and for all.
The character of the gentleman-banker introduces a new kind of fear into the story, given that evil and corruption are no longer confined to a few sadistic cops but seem to have spread to all levels of Indian society. Maaran is skillful in upping the ante, and the final rounds of police atrocities are truly sickening. Even a tenuous note of humor is scary, showing how the cops may bungle their job but they never walk away, even when it involves murder.
Maaran, on his third feature after directing the national award-winning Arena, follows the emotional tide of the film, empathizing with the boys while keeping technique low-profile. Even the film’s inherent violece, inevitable as it is, is played down. In one scene he switches to black and white, apparently to de-fuse the impact of blood. Dialogue alternates between two languages, Telegu and Tamil, which is conveyed in the use of two-color subtitles.
Production companies: Wunderbar Films, Grassroot Film Company
Cast: Dinesh Ravi, Samuthira Kani, Murugadas Periyasamy, Raj Pradeesh
Director: Vetri Maaran
Screenwriter: M. Chandra Kumar, Vetri Maaran
Producer: Dhanush Kasthoori Raja
Director of photography: S. Ramalingam
Production designer: Jacki
Editor: Kishore T. E.
Music: G. V. Prakash
No rating, 106 minutes