Visaranai, an antidote to ‘Action hero Biju’….and thoughts on crime reporting

Filing crime reports, especially on arrests, for the newspaper has always been an uncomfortable thing for me to do. No, am no crime reporter, but I do have to file those short news items when am on night duty. You get a press release with the name, age and detailed address of the accused, and other details of the crime, in case of high profile arrests. The details of the arrests in petty cases you get during those routine calls to the police stations, when the personnel on duty rattle off the personal details of the arrested. The press releases and the police personnel on the phone invariably add one small sentence to the description of the accused — “The arrested was also an accused in so and so cases in the past.”

Now, the discomfort in writing these down comes not from any guilt of having committed a crime in the past, but from the fear that at least one of those names which will come printed in the paper the next day will be that of an innocent. (The Malayalam newspapers usually carry the photographs of the accused too). It’s not an irrational fear, rather it comes from the knowledge that our system has taken in many an innocent life, which either disappears forever or is spat back to the world, forever branded a criminal.

It’s for the same reason that the prime time crime shows in the Malayalam channels makes me uncomfortable. Daily at 10.30 p.m, all our channels switch diligently to the half-hour crime shows, in which the accused are paraded. The camera encircles the accused, so as those familiar to the person would have no confusion left in their minds that their acquaintance is indeed a criminal. The moral and ethical questions of such parading of the accused, who are to be considered innocent until proven guilty, does not seem to have crossed the minds of our channel editors.

Even in high profile terror cases in the past decade, we have seen that those arrested had nothing to do with the attacks and it has been proved in courts that cases were foisted by investigators under pressure to ‘solve’ the crime and close the case. From Askhardham attack to Mecca masjid blasts to last week’s acquittal of Abdul Karim Tunda (who once was featured regularly in our front pages as the lashqar bomb maker responsible for 40 bombings), the number of such foisted cases have been mind-boggling. If this is the state of cases which are investigated under constant media glare, what of the investigation into all those cases of burglaries, chain snatchings and murders. Tamil film ‘Visaranai’, directed by Vetrimaran, provides some of the answers to these questions.

The film is based on the novel ‘lock up’ by M.Chandrakumar, an autorickshaw driver, based on his experiences in prison. The plot follows four Tamilian migrant workers in Andhra Pradesh. Being homeless, they sleep in public parks. The Guntur police are under pressure to find the culprits behind a burglary case. They have got the jewelry and money arranged, all they need is four culprits. The homeless Tamilians fit their bill and are picked up one early morning. What follows inside the station does not make for pleasant viewing. To extract a confession out of them, they are subjected to third degree torture, from merciless beatings to water boarding.

‘Visaranai’ manages to frighten you in how the all powerful system can swoop down on you one fine day and shut you up forever, for no fault of yours. A huge number of cases are ‘closed’ through such arbitrary torture and forced confessions. Here, the four of them does not buckle under the torture, which makes it even harder for them.

As I was watching ‘Visaranai’, images from the recent Malayalam movie ‘Action Hero Biju’ flashed across my mind. That film is still running to packed houses in Kerala. Here, the entire police force is presented as being filled with good souls. The one-sided portrayal glosses over reports of atrocities committed by the men in uniform. Torture and extra-judicial measures are condoned as the need of the times. It makes torture a heroic activity, when the hero inspector Biju, played by young star Nivin Pauly, displays his trademark torture method of wrapping a coconut inside a cloth to rain down blows on the backs of the accused, aided by a pulsating background score. In contrast, the torture in ‘Visaranai’ is from the perspective of the accused. So, instead of the heroism of Biju, what you feel here is the searing pain as the skin cracks upon from lathi blows.

‘Action hero Biju’ stops just an inch short of glorifying encounter killing. Surveillance is portrayed as a ‘heroic’ activity when the hero drops in on the private conversations of a man to his lover. It works almost like an ad film for the police force. It’s such a massive whitewash job for the Kerala Police that the Home Minister himself invited the star and the movie’s crew for a meeting. In ‘Visaranai’ on the other hand, you see the sheer heartlessness and mindlessness of an encounter killing. It shows how even a cop with some conscience left (played so brilliantly by Samuthirakani), has his hands tied and has to become a heatless tool in the hands of the system.

For those who have seen and admired ‘Action hero Biju’ and have suddenly become fans of the police force, ‘Visaranai’ is an antidote. It perhaps is the most powerful film yet from the country which portrays our police force is a most unforgiving, but true, light.

After watching ‘Visaranai’, the act of filing those single column news items on ‘arrests’ would not be the same anymore.