A robbery occurs in a wealthy household in Brindavan colony in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh; jewels and cash are stolen after keys are extorted from the lady of the house at gunpoint. And the police are under intense pressure to quickly solve the case – the only clue being that the robbers reportedly spoke Tamil. But that clue is adequate for the police to catch a “suspicious” youth returning home after a late night film show. Thereafter begins the police saga of four Tamilian laborers eking out an existence working as painters and shop attendants in the area and living in a park by bribing the watchman with money and booze. This in short is the plot line of Visaranai, a Tamil film written and directed by Vetrimaaran. The film is partly based on a novel titled Lockup by an auto driver Chandrakumar based on his own experience as a 17-year-old labourer in an Andhra police station and the second part of the film is based on a record of everyday policing events.
Torture is pervasive in India; a well-known fact often normalized in many Hindi films including the iconic first scene of Slumdog Millionaire where the chaiwalla (tea seller) was tortured because surely he must have cheated if he managed to answer all the questions in the game show. But Visaranai is different in so many ways – it is integrally a reminder about how policing and torture often coagulate in criminal investigations spiced by corruption. It is a reminder that criminal investigations are one of the three main sites in which torture actually takes place in the Indian context. Torture is most visibly documented in the behavior of the police and military in conflict areas such as Kashmir (Amnesty International Report, 2015) and the North East (Report of torture in Manipur, 2015), and elsewhere against those who are picked up in terror related cases (mostly Muslims as captured in Manisha Sethi’s powerful book Kafkaland) or suspected Maoists (as narrated by Arun Ferreira in his harrowing account in Colours of the Cage). What enables the latter two as sites of torture is the presence of extraordinary laws such as Public Safety Act; Unlawful Activities Prevention Act; and Armed Forces Special Powers Act that are generally more permissive of torture and extended detention than routine laws.
But the most excruciatingly difficult part of viewing Visanarai is the common use of torture in routine theft cases despite laws prohibiting torture. It is the banality of the use of torture in everyday criminal justice system that is most shockingly registered in the film. I watched the film in the South Asian International Film Festival in New York on December 11th, 2015. Even as I wanted to turn away from the scenes of repeated brutality (and I saw many others also squirm in their seats), it was necessary to feel the brutality visually as that echoes the relentless nature of custodial violence occurring at the complete mercy of the police especially before an arrest is recorded and the laws formally (may) begin to take effect.
Another striking aspect of the film is the tension between sheer brutality and an occasional use of interrogation techniques alongside a bureaucratization of torture. The labourers were hit with lathis (batons) incessantly or with makeshift whips made of banana tree stalks reminding one of Elaine Scarry’s evocative point that things of everyday utility are easily translatable into instruments of torture. In this small police station of Guntur one didn’t see even the semblance of the Supreme Court judgments that require all police stations to prominently display the D K Basu directives meant to ensure that an arrest is recorded (in this case the invisibility of migrant laborers is reinforced) and right to a lawyer ensured (here eventually the lawyer is introduced but for a totally different reason) among other things. But even here, where the space seems free from any accountability, there is oscillation between the brutality and a semblance of interrogation techniques mentioned in manuals. The occasional use of a bad cop-good cop routine where when the beatings fail to get a confession, they are treated to biryani; when more beatings and the water torture fail, a policeman speaks to them in their mother tongue Tamil; and when all else fails, the owner of the shop where one of them worked is invited to cajole them to confess to a crime they never committed. The impact of laws and judicial and human rights interventions is occasionally visible in the police attempt to bureaucratize torture for despite these beatings and use of falanga (where soles of the feet are beaten while hanging them upside down), the police have to keep the laborers alive (at least in the police stations). If that meant making them run to regain blood circulation and avoid deadly clots and grant some medical attention, that’s what is chillingly ordered to contain the effects of torture. For in custodial deaths, the fear is that law and human rights interventions may creep in forcing occasional accountability.
The film is also unusual because it shows torture not just affecting those who are from the marginalized sections/the poor or the dissenters that challenge the sovereignty of the state but a rich auditor as well. The second half of the film reminded me of the words of a renowned lawyer/activist that since torture affects everyone, it should have led to a national movement against its use. Yet we see neither a public movement in person nor words.
The film above all is not only about torture but about policing –the corruption that animates it but also the pressure on the police to produce results at any costs; the lack of any training (except sometimes how to beat the laws and maintain the code of silence); and the political pressures that affect the functioning of the police force since the politicians decide police transfers and favours. And yet the film somehow manages to show the cracks within- the only two conscientious police officers were a woman and an officer taunted as a “quota person”(apparent reference to his caste status) who may have to suffer the consequences of their conscience or get trained out of their human instincts.
The film has got some publicity both because of its famous director and also because Dhanush (renowned film actor and singer) has produced it. It is the first Tamil film that was shown in the 72nd Venice Film Festival and got the Amnesty International Italia Award. It deserves not only a wide viewing (it amazingly also has humour, romance, and admirable attempts of resistance) but its content also needs to shock our conscience. Its audience must remember that literally anyone can be the subject of this torture – only depends on whether we happen to be at a wrong place at the wrong time or things go wrong for us wherever we are and whoever we are, even if certain sections of the population feel its impact disproportionately. Above all, this film reminds us of the ubiquity of torture in the Indian criminal justice system and the dark recesses of custody that we sometimes enjoy with special effects in a Bollywood film. In Visaranai, the effects appear in the form of anguished cries and bloody mess that will affect us but that we can no longer distance ourselves from. Perhaps this will help reignite the debate on the Torture (Prevention) Bill that still hasn’t been passed in the Indian parliament despite its revised 2010 version coming close to finally addressing the loopholes in the law on torture and gain accountability and prosecutions and not just compensations in custodial death (and torture) cases. The Supreme Court earlier this year came out with its 7th order in the 1997 DK Basu case acknowledging the pervasive nature of torture and the Court’s inability to stop its use. Perhaps the Court will explicitly recognize the synonymity between torture and interrogation that the film’s title so aptly represents –Visaranai in Tamil means Interrogation- for in many instances that remains the frightening reality of the Indian criminal justice system.