Cast: Dinesh Ravi, Aadukalam Murugadoss, Samuthirakani, Kishore Kumar G., E. Ramadoss, Kayal Anandhi, Misha Goshal
Director: Vetri Maaran
Runtime: 106 min.
Verdict: Turns audience empathy into a moral question. Middle class self-righteousness turned around on its head. Comfort of moral privilege replaced by the uneasiness of perspective.
Genre: Thriller, Drama, Crime
There was this young and I suspect unprofessional actor accompanying Mr. Maaran on his screening of the film at the recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival, and when asked about why he chose whom he chose to play the part, Mr. Maaran’s deceptively casual answer was – the audition involved screaming while being beaten by dummy lathis (obviously) and his screams were the most convincing. In media we use the term Telepresence, or Presence, which International Society for Presence Research defines as –
“Telepresence, often shortened to presence, is commonly referred to as a sense of ‘being there’ in a virtual environment and more broadly defined as an illusion of non-mediation in which users of any technology overlook or misconstrue the technology’s role in their experience.”
This presence, if we were to break it down even further, we would have engagement, spatial presence, social realism, and perceptual realism, and so on. An intuitive reflection will probably mark many of them to be more a variable of sound rather than the image. If we were to take a gun fight in a street, and break it down essentially on a gut level as to what causes us to ‘be there’, if you will, we might agree that more than the image the factors such as engagement and spatial presence and even perceptual realism have seemingly to do more with the quality of the sound at hand rather than the quality of the image. Alternately, for social realism, I believe, the image, or more specifically the content of it as opposed to its quality probably does the trick.
Now, I watch two fiction films from India (not that this grouping makes any sense or provides any insight whatsoever, and it is merely a pseudo-construct to start a point) – Chauthi Koot and this one here – which use sound in interesting ways to exaggerate the presence, and Mr. Maaran is hardly interested in showing what happened. You, dear reader, your presence is very much needed for Visaaranai to be what it wants to be, which is to not merely record a specific set of events and indulge in self-righteous moral posturing (as Talvar does), but to understand and attempt to deconstruct, very much like a Michael Sandel moral experiment, the various dynamics to a simple issue of lock-up torture. He reduces his narrative to a handful of locations – a police station in Guntur, a court, a police station near Chennai and a middle class locality – and toggling between a ‘socially-realistic’/’perceptually-realistic’ image detailing provide for him a platform from where he can modulate our degree of engagement (presence), and thereby our moral response, by amplified/subdued sound detailing.
Several keywords then, we have here, and let us try and understand the ones concerning the images before we arrive at the modulation. Mr. Maaran provides us on a placard what seem to be facts about Tamil Nadu immigrants in Andhra Pradesh, and proceeds to morning 4 .a.m. shots containing a lot of movement, where Pandi (Mr. Ravi) cycles his way to a provision store where he works. On the way he stops to drink tea (image) and comb his hair at a barber shop near a railway station (sound, for all we hear are the announcements off-screen), and these establishing details if you will, are essentially observational in nature – of behavior, of process, of locations – providing for a degree of sympathy (bathing and cycling at 4 a.m. to open a shop). We’re thus removed, and privileged (I may be presumptuous here, but the degree of engagement will be more towards the sympathy end of the spectrum rather than the identification, and also I’m an outsider), and can indulge in judging his behavior. Hook.
We further see his interactions with his shop owner while taking the keys, and a girl who is a housemaid (Ms. Anandhi, the archetypical damsel in distress), and his heroic overtures towards the latter are cute, especially when she returns the gaze. It is important for Mr. Maaran for us to be there, to have an investment without identification, and a reaction that is more of a “that-is-so-sweet” variety. Mr. Maaran’s images are still lit in the golden hue of streetlights, whose lack of brightness, at least for me, suggests an appropriate shade for social realism. We were sympathizing the economic plight, and after the personal details, we care. I say, line.
And just about then he pulls the plug off the social-realism treatment and has Pandi and his friends arrested by the local police. The images have greater contrast between light and shadows, and there are mostly shadows. He has the platform almost ready here now, for the images are freely moving between social realism and perceptual realism, our sympathetic and judgmental sentiments generously flowing, and here’s where he decides to amplify and contrast his sounds. Not since Raging Bull have there been punches and blows so visceral. Mr. Maaran’s sound designer does deserver a bonus and a hike, not merely because the body contact is more felt than seen (there isn’t a great degree of visual evidence) but because he amplifies such social indicators as the sounds of a shoe or the raspy voice of the cop. It is a brilliant detail, one which yanks us out of our observation tower and locks us within the chamber (complete and utter immersion), and the cop letting every syllable of every word be properly shaken by the growl in his voice, it is indeed frightening. We cared, and between that voice and their loud wailing screams, we are scared. So much so that a crucial narrative juncture, of the cop lashing Pandi at his house, is entirely predicated on the interplay between the sounds – of the lashes, of Pandi’s screams, and of that of his friends. Sinker.In my eagerness to describe Mr. Maaran as a filmmaker of supreme skills, I might be risking him being branded a provocateur yanking our moral strings, which I ensure you he is not. His concerns are human, not sentimental, and his endeavor is not to proclaim that the middle class morality is keen on self-righteous judgment, but to deconstruct our reactions and possibly highlight that beneath that veneer of sympathy/identification/envy dynamic there is a degree of apathy, an removed reaction to what is essentially an interplay of events if you will, that probably allows systemic tortures to happen at the first place. The cop beating Pandi is not the starting point, and Mr. Maaran takes to another police station, which is lit entirely under fluorescent lights, with almost little to no shadows, allowing more spaces and thus a far greater degree of movement. It is a different form of representation of social realism, again toning down completely on the sounds while pushing Pandi and his friends to the periphery, while focusing on another event involving now a rich man and a seemingly influential person (Mr. Kishore), whose personal detailing involves indulging in threesomes. He provides for both a poetic and narrative counterpoint to Pandi – he has no backstory, his demeanor is “arrogant” (i.e. little by way of screams) – and the essential contrast in our emotional reactions, one for whom we don’t really care about all that much having readily made a judgment and one for whom we want to essentially run away from it all. There are two floors here, upward movements and downward movements, movements aided (cops) and unaided (Pandi and his friends escorted by the cops while they clean it), rooms with cops conspiring and rooms with Pandi and his friends, and the dynamics that are drawn here remind me of Mr. Altman’s Gosford Park. The spaces assume a personality, far removed from the cut-and-dried light-and-darkness moral simplicity of the police station in Guntur, and while we cry tears of such jolly compassion when a female cop (Ms. Misha Goshal) mediates, a similar action in this police station near Chennai evokes significantly different reactions out of us. Again, Mr. Maaran isn’t a what-if filmmaker, and his concern is the human collateral. The system is people, not one person easily demonized (again contrasting with the police station in Guntur), and it is a lovely sight (I think I mean refreshing) to see this system trying to pin down Pandi and his friends while they always seem to make a resourceful run. It is one such run, set amidst a sewage in a middle class society during the night, that is one of the great scenes, purely from a functional (read: skill) viewpoint, and in its density. The police stations are external to us, but the society is when the action has invaded our territory. We no longer have willfully entered the chamber, and the event is now amongst us, whether we like it or not. We could be curious, and so doors open, and close. A biker stops, and when the cop asks him to bugger off, he drives away. And I think Mr. Maaran, if not already a master, is at least a master in the making.