India’s official entry to the Oscars in 2017 is not in Hindi nor does it deal with a subject that symbolises this historic nation to the western world – no colours of Rajasthan, no snake-charmers of Varanasi or the slums of Mumbai. Vetrimaran’s Tamil film Visaranai (Enquiry) is a triumph in that sense. The film deals with a set of events that happen inside a police cell in the name of an enquiry (hence the title) and the story can be typed out in a single line – an enquiry that ‘quietly’ happens in a little town bordering Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh that ends up in an bloody encounter.
Visaranai is an in-depth insight into the procedures of a ‘black-money’ investigation by a police officer that embroils four hapless young boys into its nightmarish tale. As gruesome as one can imagine but not without losing its sense of being ‘cinema’ where story-telling rules, Visaranai’s success lies entirely in its screenplay and direction. The story is adapted from the book Lock Up by M. Chandrakumar, who is the sole survivor of a real-time police investigation (his ‘by chance’ exit from the police jeep forms the film’s interval point).
Writer-director Vetrimaran is considered the foremost amongst his peers in Tamil cinema. His films bridge the divide between ‘art’ and ‘commercial’ films, and he sustains the Indian format of song and dance as well, whenever a script calls for it. He won accolades and box office success with his first film Polladhavan (‘The Bad Guy’; 2007) starring Dhanush. He followed it up with the multiple award-winning Aadukalam (‘Arena’; 2011), which fetched Dhanush a national award in the best actor category. Dhanush and Vetrimaran have a rapport that has delivered some good films from Tamil Nadu to the world such, as the 2011 film Kakka Muttai (‘Crow’s Egg’) directed by Manikandan, and produced by Dhanush’s Wunderbar Films and Vetrimaran. They are currently working on a gangster series called Vada-Chennai (North Madras), the underbelly of the apparently calm and staid city.
Visaranai is a commercial film with the music relegated to being just the background score. The ‘commercial’ quotient lies in the layered-with-suspense scenes and their staging. This is not a film where you can update plot points minute-by-minute on twitter. Vetrimaran cleverly strings you along into his taut narrative with minimal moments for a breather and ensures you are never free to ignore what’s happening on screen. The plight of the boys is preset with the opening shot in the wee hours of dawn in a quiet park, where they ‘live’, unknown to the watchman; the film ends in the wee hours of another dawn. What follows from here-on are the building blocks for arguably the best police procedural film from an Indian director in Indian cinema.
The unfairness of it all arrives pretty much early on and just like there is no escape from one’s own life with all its vagaries, there is no escaping this story. Constantly the heart beats for only one answer – will these four boys ever escape to a regular, normal life? The film grips you and makes you own its suffering. Every character reacts to what happens to their situation at hand; it’s enacted so well that there is no ‘pre-meditated’ moment. The film is a box office winner, having so far collected Rs 110 million as against its budget of Rs 22 million. Vetrimaran’s command over his craft shines through the cinematography of S. Ramalingam and the powerful sound mixing delivers the constable’s blow on our back.
Apart from Samuthirakani, who plays Muthuvel, the investigating officer, a man caught between the selfish police team and his humanitarian self, Dinesh (one film old at the time) and Kishore (a Kannada theatre-film actor whom Vetrimaran introduced in Polladhavan) the rest of the cast are not recognisable or ‘saleable actors’. The film was produced on a budget that was as tight as its screenplay.
Visaranai was sent to film festivals the world over where it garnered much appreciation. For those who expected a low profile release at home, the opening day was a surprise. The film’s story at the box office had a happy ending, even though the film itself had a heavy one.
Visaranai won the Amnesty International Italia Award at the 72nd film festival and won best film, best supporting actor (Samuthirakani) and best editing award (posthumous, for T.E. Kishore) at the 63rd National Film Awards. A film with these many ‘awards’ was usually destined to just have one or two shows in a multiplex but Visaranai got more shows after its modest release in every town of Tamil Nadu, in theatres big and small.
Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur begins with a dedication (and rightly so) to the Madurai triumvirate – directors Bala, Ameer and Vetrimaran, all of whom were assisting the late cinematographer-director Balu Mahendra. Among the three, Vetrimaran is consistent in making films which work at the box office and also win awards and admiration from the fraternity and film lovers alike. Having won so many honours, its selection to compete to be nominated in the best foreign film category at the 89th Academy Awards is a rather light feather in its already glittering crown.