A long time ago, A asked me if I had watched the trailer for Vetrimaaran’s next movie, Visaranai. We spoke about it for a little while, mostly discussing how it was all too much, and would it just be torture porn. But we knew we’d be booking tickets on a Wednesday when show timings for the following weekend come up on the Sathyam Cinemas website. It has been three days since I watched Visaranai now, and I can’t seem to get it out of my head.
Pandi (Attakathi Dinesh), Murugan (Aadukalam Murugadoss, who I’m beginning to like quite a bit), Afzal (Silambarasan) and Kumar (Pradeesh) are migrant labourers, making a living in Telugu country. They’ve been living in a park for the past year, and even the watchman doesn’t think much of them. He is annoyed that they still haven’t managed to learn Telugu. There is a scene where Pandi takes a quick bath in the toilet inside the park. The water is too cold, the sun hasn’t come up yet. Pandi cycles to the store he works in, shivering all the way. I felt sorry for him. But looking back at what happened to him later, I’d say his life was a fairy tale right until then.
When an important person’s house is ransacked, the police, acting on a tip that one of the men spoke in Tamil, round up Pandi and his friends. They first nab Afzal, who is returning from a night show. They ask him for his name, and then ask him which terrorist organization he belongs to. It is surely a twisted sense of humour that makes the most baby-faced actor essay this role.
The policemen begin to systematically beat these men, hoping to make them confess to a crime they have no idea about. Surely this is easier than investigating the case. The men are beaten brutally, with sticks and lathis, and what looks like a thick green stem. Pandi appears to be some sort of a hero archetype. He spurs his friends to refuse to eat – their own non-cooperation movement. He refuses to admit to a false case. The inspector decides to focus on him. He hits Pandi with the stem, saying his friends will be beaten up if he falls or screams. Pandi falters initially, and then holds his ground. Again and again. The inspector strikes his ear with all the rage he’s been working towards. We hear a ringing noise and see Pandi fall. I found myself crying. I don’t know what I was feeling. Sad? Angry? Violated? Pained? I didn’t realize tears were streaming down my face. I couldn’t watch, couldn’t look away either.
The four men are released, thanks to a compassionate judge and a Tamil inspector Muthuvel (Samuthirakani – how amazing is he?), who translates their grievances into English. The judge pronounces them free men. Are they really? Muthuvel enlists their help in staging a kidnapping; he is set on catching KK (Kishore), an auditor to the Richie Rich of Tamil Nadu. KK is so important that they say what he reveals will determine who comes into power. But being important can only get you an air conditioned room on your first night at the police station, and a change of clothes. You aren’t much different from a migrant labourer after that. You can still get beaten up, killed, and your body hung from the ceiling fan in your own house, so it’s taken to mean you killed yourself.
The action shifts to a police station in Tamil Nadu in the second half. We see that the policemen here might speak a more familiar language, but they are all the same otherwise. There are people above them they have to answer to, games they must play, lies they must spin, lives they must take. Most of them don’t feel much remorse, maybe the job numbs them. Pandi, Murugan and Afzal set about cleaning this police station (Kumar gets down on the way, thus becoming the only one of the four to come out of the ordeal alive), and they happen to overhear the policemen debating what to do with KK’s body. They are terrified (I was too). Especially Pandi, whose fear is like a physical object you can touch. Take the policeman who looks like your friendly neighbourhood uncle. When someone suggests running them over with a speeding vehicle on the highway, he says that is a sin. “Every death must have its use.” He treats them like his children, comforting them until they ease up in his presence, so he can kill them. There’s a monster inside everyone.
Muthuvel tries to be a decent human being, one whose moral compass hasn’t gone missing yet. But he cannot always do the right thing. He wants to, though the feeling alone can’t help him. There’s a line, which refers to his character as someone trying too hard, when the only reason he got in was reservation. The higher-ups put him in his place relentlessly. He may think he’s powerful but he’s just another pawn.
Things come to their inevitably depressing end, when Pandi, Murugan, Afzal and Muthuvel all die – an “encounter”, it is announced. The voiceover says things like, “Ask TV channels to show his weeping wife and child” or “Let’s place a picture of his family in the papers, that should distract everyone” or “How about a debate on whether there’s enough protection for the police.”
The movie is based on a book by M. Chandrakumar, and we see him with his family when the movie ends. I couldn’t help thinking of another movie based on a real life story – Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanum. When that movie ended, I was left with a sense of wonderment. So this is what life is, I thought to myself. A man loses his memory, gets married, doesn’t remember it, and then his memory comes back. This is the stuff of miracles! I was happy to think of it as a true incident. With Visaranai, you wish you didn’t see the old man speaking about what happened to him. Too real, you can’t distance yourself from it, claiming it is fiction. You wish these things didn’t happen. You begin to wonder if life isn’t a cruel game designed by director Bala’s best friend, in which you pick a bad card and you try to deal with it. You are silenced by how unfair it all is, that you can do the right thing every time and your life can still go horribly wrong.
To the people who brought their toddler along: What were you thinking?
I am now thinking how it would be to watch Sethupathi after Visaranai. I think I feel a bit like how I felt after watching Kaaka Muttai, when I couldn’t order a pizza without feeling guilty. I don’t think I can watch a cop movie the same way again.