I have lived across the country in various places, across various states without ever facing any problems in terms of adjusting to the new place. Of course I have been lucky for 2 reasons, for one I have been fortunate enough to be able to blend into any city that I have been part of, without really having any major cultural issues as such to handle. Secondly I never had to struggle for work, accommodation or food wherever I went, which I consider to be an advantage considering that the majority of the people who migrate to other locations, do so in search of better pastures and are not lucky enough to have access to resources easily. So these days when I see hordes of people from Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal in Kerala or in Gujarat, I do wonder what is it that makes them leave their own home state and go all the way to a totally different part of the country armed with just hope, hope of a better future.
Do we realize that the local population in a particular state generally does not look upon these immigrants with respect? After all these are not corporate individuals residing in your apartment complex and/or working in a cubicle next to that of yours, so why would people even care, right? If your answer to the same is a yes, then that kind of explains the whole scenario. But if your answer is a no or if you are too confused about the whole thing, then don’t worry, you certainly belong to the minority that principally at least condemns the whole funda of looking down at people from anywhere else. Remember in 2012 when a rumour of alleged violence led to a panic attack among the people of North-East living in Bangalore, leading to a massive exodus of sorts? It deeply disturbed me and I realized how self-centred we tend to be at times. More recently, last year there was this sad case of a few woodcutters from Tamil Nadu who were gunned down by the Andhra police allegedly for indulging in smuggling of Red Sanders. When I heard of Vetrimaaran’s Visaaranai and the tale it’s based on, I was both shocked and surprised at how real the premise sounded and the similarity in a way with the recent incident in Andhra Pradesh.
Well, of course by now we do know that the film does appear realistic thanks to the source material, the Tamil novel Lockup by M.Chandrakumar, an auto driver in Coimbatore. Based on his own experience of being rounded up along with a couple of his friends by the police in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh and allegedly tortured for nearly 2 weeks without any particular reason, the book has been quite well adapted by Vetrimaaran. As a result, the film comes across as a shining example of how a piece of literary work based on a real life incident can be adapted into a film, without resorting to compromises unnecessarily. And considering that the second half of the film is actually fictional, it’s no easy achievement at all. When I heard that Visaaranai would be featuring in the Mumbai Film Festival 2015, I was quite looking forward to it and was happy that the film did not disappoint me in any way. Obviously when the film’s release date was announced I was keen to watch it once again, not only to re-visit one of the better Tamil and Indian films of late, but also to compare the theatrical version with the festival cut and realize how different the two versions are.
For those who still perhaps would be bothered about the synopsis of the film, well here I go. Pandi (Attakathi Dinesh), Murugan (Aadukulam Murugadoss), Afsal (Silambarasan) and Kumar (Pradeesh Raj) are youngsters from Tamil Nadu, working in Guntur to make a better living and staying together at the local park in the city. One night there’s a theft in a rich and influential household in the city, and to their bad luck it is revealed that one among the gang of robbers is a Tamilian. Unfortunately the 4 of them get picked up by the police who want to foist upon them the case of theft and close the chapter. They feel it’s just a simple open and shut case but soon realize that these are men with a steely resolve and the local police struggle to get a confession from them. In the process all the 4 of them go on to endure high level of brutality in every form as the policemen use every technique known to them to break the resolve of these innocent men. When they had almost resigned themselves to the prospect of impending judicial punishment, they receive an unexpected ray of hope in the form of Muthuvel (Samuthirakani), a cop from Tamilnadu who is in Guntur on a mission. Muthuvel manages to help Pandi and his friends get out of their precarious situation and in return requests them to help him and his team on their mission. What looked like a simple act of showing their gratitude for Muthuvel goes on to unleash a storm in their lives.
Spoiler Alert: Mild Spoilers Ahead
Visaaranai is quite gut-wrenching alright, no doubt about the same. The film is definitely an attempt to look at how poor outsiders with no strong backing can always be at the mercy of the forces that matter. Vetrimaaran’s writing is more than impressive, the narrative style adapted by him also proving to be quite effective. There is no time wasted in building up the premise, we are quickly taken into the World of Pandi and his friends as we see them struggling to make a living and working despite a lot of hardships, spurred on by the determination to make enough money to take care of people back at home. We are also exposed to certain harsh realities, like how in general the perception of outsiders is not very encouraging. A case in point being the owner of the shop where Pandi works, he is someone who seems to have made it reasonably well for himself and his family, thanks to his business. But then he is married to a lady from Andhra and has more or less managed to pass off as a local man over the years, but now he fears for himself since the police now know that he is basically an outsider too.
Also in terms of the police brutality we are clearly shown that there is no real method to the madness. In case of Pandi and the other 3 men, it’s just an unfortunate case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. After all, time and again we are told that the cops haven’t been able to find the actual robbers, but to save their face and show their efficiency, they have no choice but to make these 4 men confess and foist the charges on to them. The plot goes through a sharp turn post the interval, but one thankfully never feels the proceedings going out of sync with what one has been seeing so far. While I was a little unsure of how the theatrical version would turn out, considering how raw and brutal the festival cut was, it was heartening to see Vetrimaaran declare during the Q & A after the screening that he would make sure that the essence is not lost while re-editing the film for a theatrical release. Closer to the release of the film I was quite surprised to know that the theatrical version is longer by around 10 minutes or so, making me wonder how did that happen.
There is a sharp contrast between the look and tone of the film over the two halves, the two police stations (in Guntur and Chennai respectively) are totally different from each other in terms of how they are designed and structured. Similarly while there is an air of tension throughout the film, the way it is conveyed post interval is quite different from that of the first half. In the first half there is a quick scene showing the smartness of the inspector (Ajay Ghosh) as he outwits the 4 guys by tricking them to eat and then continues to torture them. This scene is missing in the festival cut, similarly there is an extended scene in the second half where Muthuvel and KK (Kishore) have a detailed discussion, most of it being pruned in the festival cut. This apart there is an epilogue of sorts at the end of the film which shows M.Chandrakumar, the writer of Lockup sharing his thoughts on the film, this again is an added feature in the theatrical version. If perhaps there is anything that the festival cut has but not seen in the theatrical version then I can only say that the violence in the first half appears a little toned down, but Vetrimaaran has certainly done it without letting it appear obvious.
End of Spoilers
The film has a brooding intensity all through the narrative and technically it’s difficult to actually find anything amiss in the film as such. G.V.Prakash Kumar’s background score works out well for the film and accentuates the grim atmosphere quite well. S.Ramalingam’s cinematography brilliantly contrasts the dark interiors and bright exteriors and the climax scene in particular stands out for the way it has been captured, equal credit to the cinematography and the brilliant choice of location. Late Kishore T.E’s preliminary editing work (majorly the festival cut) is once again a reminder of how talented he was. Visaaranai is also embellished with wonderful performances, each of the actors being suitably positioned for their respective characters. Misha Ghoshal as the sympathetic lady constable, Ajay Ghosh as the menacing inspector and Kishore as the auditor K.K who unknowingly changes the dynamics of the plot are all very effective. Anandhi as the girl on whom Pandi has a crush leaves a mark; thankfully Vetrimaaran doesn’t dwell too much into their romance over here.
Of the 3 friends of Pandi, Aadukalam Murugan is very effective and leaves an impression. Attakathi Dinesh as Pandi and Samuthirakani as Muthuvel shine in the first half and second half respectively, both of them sinking into their characters quite wonderfully. Be it Pandi’s steely determination in not accepting the policemen’s demands to confess to a crime which he has not done or Muthuvel’s frustration at being used as a pawn, Dinesh and Samuthirakani literally elevate the proceedings with their performances. Ultimately Visaaranai is a cinematic triumph for Vetrimaaran and his team and it’s wonderful to see his association with Dhanush (he’s the producer) grow from strength to strength. This is the kind of film which goes beyond categorization and leaves a deep impact on us. This should easily rank high among the best of Tamil and even Indian films of this year.