India's disturbing Oscar entry takes on police torture
A thriller in Tamil language has been chosen as India's official entry to the Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Oscars. Sudha G Tilak writes on an unusually gritty crime drama on police brutality and corruption.
A homeless young man is walking down a street after watching a late night movie in Guntur, a town in Andhra Pradesh in southern India. A police patrol halts by and asks his name.
"Afzal", the man replies.
"al-Qaeda? Isis?" sneers a policeman.
"I'm a Tamil migrant worker," he replies not comprehending, and is rudely rounded off to the police station for unending torture in custody.
This scene from Tamil film Visaranai (Interrogation), India's official entry to the Oscars this year, sets the tone for this gritty crime drama on human rights violations.
The film won the Amnesty International Italia Award for focusing on human rights violations after it premiered in the Orrizonti section at the Venice International Festival this year, the first ever for a Tamil language film.
Visaranai is set in the border area of Andhra Pradesh where four innocent migrant workers from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu are callously picked up.
The four are tortured into taking the rap for a crime they have not committed as the police find it easier to make scapegoats of the poor than searching for the real culprits.
"This film heralds a new language in Indian cinema. I have not seen anything like it in India for a long time", says Bollywood filmmaker Anurag Kashyap who has lent his name to the film.
As India's big cities see migrants pouring in from villages and towns, Visaranai is a condemnation of the utter inhumanity and wretchedness that displaced people, struggling with poverty, endure. They are shown as hapless victims before brute authority and state machinery.
"Migrants are not a problem, accepting them is the issue," director Vetri Maaran told the BBC.
In the film the Tamil migrants are homeless, sleeping in a park at night and doing odd jobs by day. They are easy targets for policemen hunting robbers, suspected to be Tamils, who have looted a rich man's home.
'Threat of violence'
The four men's rights are withheld and they are not even told what they are in custody for, and instead subjected to gory violence to "confess".
"To what?" they ask puzzled and after much torture are asked to confess to a robbery they have no idea about.
The film's germ is based on the autobiographical novel Lockup, published in 2006, by N Chandrakumar alias Auto Chandran, a Tamil auto-rickshaw driver, who in 1983 began life as a youth, waiting at tables at a roadside eatery.
Chandran and his pals were picked up by the police in the town of Guntur and subjected to police torture for two weeks, to confess to a crime they knew nothing about. Chandran survived and wrote a novel about the harrowing experience.
"The novel made me realise how close the threat of violence is prevalent around us and how vulnerable we are to it," Maaran says.
The scenes of custodial torture are deeply troubling to view, as the four men, led by Pandi, a shop assistant, refuse to take the rap.
"Why should we lie about something we have not committed?" Pandi asks and is rewarded with unrelenting beatings and torture.
More than 14,000 people died in police and judicial custody in India between 2001 and 2010, according to data released by the country's Human Rights Commission.
Rights groups say a large number of such deaths happen because of torture in custody. And the government routinely attributes deaths in custody to illness, attempted escape, suicide and accidents.
The process of filming Visaranai over 42 days was "a disturbing and draining experience", Maaran admits.
The actors suffered injuries and some would collapse in tears, consumed by the scenes. "Filming it was rough and intense on the actors and crew", he says.
"After the film was wrapped we all went in for meditation and group therapy to calm ourselves from the emotionally exhausting experience," says Maaran.
Visaranai also weaves a parallel narrative that is a social indictment of class and authority.
"The casualties in this system are the poor, voiceless and defenceless", says Maaran.
It shows, on the one hand, a visceral and corrupt police force whose hands are bloodied by both careless and wilful deaths, internal machinations and political intervention.
On the other hand, morally bankrupt people on the make are shown to collude with the police and politicians to safeguard their interests.
"This is a country where possessing money is laced with guilt and not celebrated", says a corrupt auditor in the film.
"Here an entire system is on the take," agrees a police officer.