The spectacular growth of Tamil films can be attributed to the passionate audience. Almost every ordinary citizen is able to effortlessly dissect cinematography, screenplay, direction, background score and editing after watching a movie and not get carried away by the lead actors alone. It also explains why dubbed English films do extremely well in this part of India. And while stars such as Rajnikanth are indeed demi-gods, you'll also witness audiences clap and whistle they see the names of music director Ilayaraja or cinematographer PC Sreeram in the title credits. The recent trend over the last 10 years is that directors like Bala, Myskin and Vetrimaran are also getting claps and whistles when their names come on screen.
It is this shift that has led to the evolution of Tamil cinema, with recent outstanding films including Pithamagan, Subramaniapuram, Aadukalam, Paruthi Veeran, Onaayum Aatukuttium, Pisasu and Kaaaka Muttai. The latest and indeed mightiest of all has been delivered by Vetrimaran through the nerve-wracking and spine-chilling Visaranai (watch the trailer here).
Vetrimaran is one director who is known for his ability to make reality even more 'real' and hard-hitting. In the 2007 Dhanush starrer Polladhavan, Vetrimaran took the audience to a low-income urban Chennai neighbourhood, capturing all its flavours beautifully. In Aadukalam, for which he won a National Award for Best Director, he moved to semi-urban Madurai, making it spring to life on screen. In Visaranai, he takes up a border town in Andhra where the lead characters from Tamil Nadu live as migrant workers. The story is based on real life incidents from M Chandrakumar's novel Lock Up.
At the end of the first half, if the audience doesn't feel a bit battered, I would be surprised. I flinched every time the lathi hit flesh...
'Visaranai' means 'interrogation' in Tamil. Four Tamil migrant workers go through brutal assaults and torture in the name of interrogation by the local police, who want to force them into confessing their culpability in a high-profile robbery. After getting released from this torturous incarceration, they get caught in a helpless situation through the same person who helped them out of their first ordeal. What happens to them is told through a masterful screenplay by Vetrimaran.
The first half of the film establishes the two lead characters masterfully, setting the tone for the film.
Protagonist Pandi's character is beautifully established through three scenes. He is a loyal servant who goes to open his shop even after working late the previous night. He is also intelligent, quickly figuring out when people come to his shop bearing weapons. He demonstrates his raw power to his newly found lover, who works as a maid in a rich family, by giving her a loud assurance in the middle of the road. This also helps to understand why he takes some confusing decisions, including cleaning the station and helping the locked up political sidekick, in the second half.
The other lead 'character' is the ruthless and corrupt system that shows how power affects the powerless. The system is laid bare in all its darkness as the film progresses to the second half. Even though the police guys act extremely tough, they also sound real when they explain their helplessness in completing a robbery case and how the system is forcing them to do certain things.
Every scene in the first half was gut-wrenching. One stand out scene:
The cops prepare a green lathi and Pandi is told that he needs to keep quiet and get up without falling when getting hit. If he falls, then his friends will get hit. The editing was top notch in that scene and when they show a close up of Pandi getting hit, the audience can almost feel the pain.
At the end of the first half, if the audience doesn't feel a bit battered, I would be surprised. I flinched every time the lathi hit flesh, so immersed was I in that world inside the police station.
Ultimately, the workers decide to help the police inspector who saved them in the court and as a result, they get into another scary saga. The second half explores the system, showing its darkest and scariest side. The film demonstrates how you are essentially trapped unless you have the experience or power to navigate the system.
The film demonstrates how you are essentially trapped unless you have the experience or power to navigate the system.
One stand out scene in the second half was the meeting between a top cop, the inspector and the police constables. The experienced police constable teaches everyone, including the top cop, how to navigate the system and the top cop then uses his power to orchestrate the system with the hapless inspector, brilliantly portrayed by Samudrakani, caught between the two. In the end, the system ends up changing the good to the bad.
Finally, it boils down to a fight between two underdogs--an inspector within the system and the four workers who are outside the system. Who wins is told through a spine-chilling and nail-biting climax.
Dinesh as Pandi and his three friends bring out the plight of migrant workers effortlessly. Samudrakani, as the inspector, was outstanding and all the actors who played the cops deserve special mention.
The art director and cinematographer bring the mood of a police station to life with their brilliant work. The editing was crisp and it is refreshing to see an Indian movie with a running time of 106 minutes. I wish the makeup was given more attention and investment. One would expect swollen faces and blood clots in wounds after such torture.
Vetrimaran is a master storyteller who proves that a gripping and entertaining film can be made without songs, dance sequences, big heroes and commercial elements.
Vetrimaran, of course, is the true hero. He is a master storyteller who crafted a screenplay that captivates, and frightens, utterly. He proves that a gripping and entertaining film can be made without songs, dance sequences, big heroes and commercial elements. I watch movies from almost all regions of India on a regular basis and I don't remember seeing a film of this kind ever.
It is a pity that such world-class films tend to go unnoticed at the national level. How many people in India know acting talents like Nivin Pauly and Dulquer Salmaan? Or films like Subramaniapuram, Onaayum Aatukuttium, Pisasu, Kaaka Muttai, Bangalore Days? How many people know the work of outstanding directors like Myskin , Jeethu Joseph,and Bala? It is my sincere hope that movies from all regions in India reach every part of the country. After all, good movies have the power to take us to places that we have never been to and to invest us in worlds that we could never live in.
My friend Kartik who lives in Florida sent this message to me after watching the film: "Watched Visaranai. It's 3am already. I don't think I will be able to sleep today." That says it all about the film.