Thursday, March 10, 2016

Visaranai: Don't look away...

When Visarani came out a few weeks ago my twitter timeline was flooded with praise for the film but I’m wary of spoilers these days so I avoided all the reviews. The only sense I had of the film was that it was a gritty, psychological thriller and very, very good.

Now after having seen the film myself, I can say that it is not a gritty, psychological thriller but it is very, very good.

But Visarani is a difficult film to watch. It follows a group of ordinary men as they are slowly crushed by the wealthy and powerful. It’s a story of corruption, desperation, and cruelty, of men who slowly poisoned their own souls until they can no longer tell right from wrong. And what makes it so hard to watch is that we are not seeing the events dispassionately from a distance or through a filter of meta-irony. We, the audience, are put directly into the humble slippers of the victims, the ordinary men ground to dust under the heels of the powerful. Their teeth are broken, their arms pulled from sockets, their backs covered in welts. They are starved, humiliated, and in great pain. And why? Because we are weak; they are strong.

The main plot goes like this: Pandi (Dinesh Ravi) and his buddies Murugan (Aadukalam Murugadoss), Afzal (Silambarasan Rathnasamy), and Kumar (Pradheesh Raj) are Tamil migrants living across the border in some urban center in Andhra Pradesh. None of them speak the language although Murugan understands a bit. The guys sleep rough in a local park and work menial jobs to earn cash. It’s a precarious existence but one assumes they’ve come to the city because the potential for earning money is so much better than in their home villages, even at the bottom rung. But everything goes to shit when Pandi and his friends are picked up by the local cops.

Pandi and his friends are told to confess. We know you did it, say the cops, and we’ll beat you until you admit it. But Pandi and his friends know nothing. They frantically try to think of something, anything, that might have have triggered the arrest. Was it Pandi’s fault for being sweet on a girl working as a maid in the neighborhood? Maybe the girl’s master, a cop, found out that Pandi knew the girl was being taken advantage of. The scenes of torture are unbearable to watch. We want it to end but Pandi will not confess to a crime he didn’t commit and nobody will tell the men what it is they’ve done.

As the scenes in the police station play out, we come to understand that a “big shot” was robbed by a bunch of Tamil-speaking thugs and the head of the station, the menacing Ajay Ghosh, is under pressure from his boss to close the case as soon as possible. What else is a cop to do in those circumstances? Round up the first bunch of Tamil speaking men you find and arrange to “recover” the cash from a buddy. The frustration on both sides is palpable. Ajay Ghosh nearly vibrating with it as time and again the Tamil-speaking men refuse to bend to his will.

Eventually, when the physical pain is combined with some powerful psychological manipulation combined, Pandi and his friends give in. They are broken men. The cops bring them to the courthouse to confess to their crime. But fate intervenes in the form of a group of Tamil policemen, led by the kind-looking Samuthirakani, who are there to take possession of a white collar criminal, a weedy-looking accountant named K.K. (Kishore).

With the Tamil policemen’s help, Pandi and his friends are freed and the cops take them and K.K. back over the border.

Kumar asks to be dropped off on the side of the road.

But, alas, poor Pandi.

And Murugan.

And Afzal.

And K.K.

They travel back to the police station with the cops.

And here, dear readers, shit really gets real. Pandi and his friends have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, going from being framed for a robbery to something much, much darker… politics. A man missing a few lakhs is nothing to a man with real political power on the line.

Although technically free men, Pandi and his friends are still bound by society’s rules. The cops ask (a.k.a. “tell”) them to clean the station and they cannot refuse.

K.K. is being held as a pawn in the political game and over the course of the second half we watch him go from respectable, neoliberal, upper-middle class businessman to shivering, vulnerable prisoner, no better than Pandi and his friends. Even a man like K.K., with all his money, is not safe.

Pandi and K.K., they are the same, in the end.

I won’t give away the ending but needless to say, it is dark.

Are the cops evil? Perhaps some of them. Others have been playing the game for so long that self-preservation is their only remaining instinct. If cases aren’t “closed” it’s their necks on the line, so better to pin the blame on some innocent sod. The system corrupts absolutely.

I was in tears, real tears, by the end of the film. The performances from Dinesh Ravi as Pandi, Aadukalam Murugadoss as Murugan, and Silambarasan Rathnasamy as Afzal were incredibly powerful. Afzal is younger than the others, more fragile and more trusting. His pain is especially difficult to watch. Murugan is the affable one. He tries to get along with everybody and would probably have given in to the cops if not for his loyalty to his friend Pandi. Pandi is dangerous because Pandi has a powerful sense of self-worth. He’s a natural leader, what heroes look like among ordinary men. It’s easy to understand why the pretty neighborhood maid would trust him with her troubles. And Dinesh Ravi is wonderful in the role. He bends to the point of breaking but, despite the odds, he never loses his sense of human dignity even as we want him to give in to the dark side to save his own life. It’s an incredible performance.

After the film ended, I looked up a little of Lock Up, the novel it was based on. It seems M. Chandrakumar, an autorickshaw driver, wrote the book based on both his own experiences and the stories he heard from men in prison. He says about his experience being held with his friends by police for a crime he didn’t commit: “The film was shot at the same place where we were held captive. It was a 10X10 ft room without any source of air and light.” And after the ordeal, he continues, “We parted ways fearing we may be arrested again. I hope when the film releases, they watch it and know it’s our story. I wish I could meet them again.”

I was inspired to finish this review because last night I read this piece from the New Republic and it had a chart showing the “proletarianizing” of formerly nice middle class jobs… and it reminded me of K.K.’s journey from accountant to prisoner. But Visarani isn’t a “message” film. There are no easy answers here. How can you “solve” entrenched inequality? Abuses of power? Basic human selfishness? We’re all guilty of walking past people who need help, of letting the system work around us, even as we see it harming others. As long as our own lives are safe and secure, nothing else matters. Let’s just ask K.K. how that worked out for him.

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