Hours before a scuffle between police and students at Pitt last Thursday, Carnegie Mellon University’s International Film Festival showed a film dealing with similar tensions — but in a place halfway across the world.
The theme of this year’s festival is “Faces of Conflict,” a theme embodied on every level by “Visaranai,” which translates to “Interrogation” in English and is India’s submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. “Visaranai” is a film adaptation of the novel “Lock Up” by M. Chandrakumar, which is based on a true story. CMU held a preview screening of “Visaranai” on Nov. 18 at McConomy Auditorium for the festival that will run from March 17 through April 3.
Directed by National Film Award-winning director Vetrimaaran, “Visaranai” tells the story of four migrant workers from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu trying to earn enough money for food and shelter in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. Conflict underscores many scenes from the very beginning, as Telugu is the primary language spoken in Andhra Pradesh while the migrant workers speak Tamil — this is conveyed in the film through subtitling Tamil in white and Telugu in yellow.
The migrant workers’ native language serves not only as a barrier to communication but as an identifying marker. When a wealthy local’s house is robbed by individuals speaking Tamil, the police use this as cause to detain anyone who speaks Tamil, including the four workers at the center of the film. They are stripped of their clothing, viciously beaten and detained for days, never once informed of why they are there. From there, the film highlights the systemic issues of corruption and brutality in the Indian criminal justice system.
The police’s level of violence is one of the most unforgettable aspects of “Visaranai.” In a short speech before the film, director Vetrimaaran warned, “This film is brutal,” and he doesn’t flinch away from showing that brutality on screen. One scene depicts a migrant worker forced to sustain beatings in silence, lest the others be tortured as well should he cry out. Vetrimaaran doesn’t shy away from the workers’ pain, giving us close-ups of their agonized faces.
With this violent sequence, the film reaches a point where it strikingly differs from American productions. In American entertainment, violence is often sensationalized, from guts and gore horror films like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its many incarnations to bloody, brutal video games like “Mortal Kombat.” Even when it furthers the plot, violence in American media is often for the pleasure of the audience — dismemberment for the sake of dismemberment.
In the post-viewing Q&A, moderator Neepa Majumdar said, “There is nothing titillating about those images.” Despite Vetrimaaran’s unflinching scenes, the brutality is not simply for the sake of depicting violence — it is the disturbing, horrific fuel of the film’s plot and message.
When Vetrimaaran shows the police pummeling innocent citizens, it is not to sensationalize that violence but to use it as evidence of his larger point that 30 percent of convictions in India are still achieved through forced confessions. It is the ugly yet necessary bedrock for the film’s political message.
Ultimately, “Visaranai” is a story of idealism in the face of overwhelming injustice. The migrant workers at the heart of the story never once admit guilt, despite horrific torture, because they are not guilty. They refuse to allow themselves to be crushed by the criminal justice system — fighting, kicking and screaming every step of the way. Though this may make their situation much worse for them, the purity of their conscience bleeds through. They are innocent, they are being wronged and they refuse to let it happen, no matter the cost.
Though certainly not for the faint of heart, “Visaranai” is a beautifully executed and thoughtful piece that paints a frightening picture of corruption and brutality of the Indian criminal justice system while also providing a fascinating contrast to the way violence is portrayed in American media.