Vetrimaaran’s film is not merely an artistic achievement, but a document of the imperfections of our society.
Tamil filmmmaker Vetrimaaran’s critically-acclaimed outing Visaaranai has been chosen as India’s official entry to the Oscars. This, in itself, is no reason to be optimistic, because in the past we have seen many questionable entries chosen by people with minimal understanding of cinema.
However, Oscar or not, Visaaranai is a rare film and deserves an audience beyond the regional market (where it has had a successful run already). The subject matter it deals with makes the viewer cringe, yet appreciate the story – albeit uncomfortably – because we all know that it actually happens.
The film, partially inspired by true stories, is about a group of impoverished Tamil immigrant workers in Andhra Pradesh. They are not merely underprivileged, but also away from their native land, thus devoid of any kind of support system.
One day, they are picked up by cops and don’t even realise why. As the film progresses, it turns out that the cops are trying to find some scapegoats to close a robbery case. Who better than a few poor, immigrant labourers with no possible support? They are tortured for days on end to confess a crime they did not commit.
Visaaranai is a fine example of new-age Tamil cinema that seamlessly blends commercial elements and good production values with gritty realism. Not that I have seen too many Tamil films, but I was immediately reminded of another one – Subramaniapuram (2008).
Now, a typical parallel cinema of the ’80s would have ended in the lockup itself. But Visaaranai is different.
As the film progresses, new characters and interesting twists with political undertones emerge. However, nothing improves the fate of the characters and the tone of the film remains bleak throughout. It is even shot mostly during the night, partly adding to the mood.
Thus, Visaaranai also becomes a very engrossing thriller that keeps the audience glued till the end without losing an ounce of its realism.
Vetrimaaran has delivered a technically competent film here. Low light camera work and excellent sound design ensure the audience feels every undeserved blow received by the protagonists – every kick in the gut.
The actors portraying the roles are probably better known in Tamil Nadu, but for the audience outside, they are strangers – much like the immigrant labourer working at a construction site next to our offices. We never interact with them or bother about their lives. If something goes wrong, they will probably be left to die as well.
This brings us to the primary triumph of this film: an uncompromised depiction of the gross inequality and resultant injustice in the society. This is not necessarily limited to India, but can probably be seen anywhere in the world with mild variations. An educated white-collar professional would never end up in a situation depicted in Visaaranai.
In fact, we would like to believe that we have a reasonable system in place that provides a fair chance even to dreaded terrorists to defend themselves. Yet, this film is based on a novel written by M Chandrakumar – based on lived experiences. He now drives an autorickshaw for a living in Chennai, but was once unlawfully confined and tortured when he went looking for work in Andhra Pradesh.
This also shows us how linguistic and cultural barriers create a significant divide even after so many decades of Independence. Suddenly, the plight of Bihari labourers in Mumbai or students from the Northeast no longer seems surprising.
Visaaranai is an important film in the sense, not merely as an artistic achievement, but as a document of the imperfections of our society that we comfortably ignore till something happens to us.
It makes one uncomfortable, but that is exactly why one needs to watch it.