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The spotlight was on Indian cinema

First look of the film 'Visaranai'  

The oldest, most iconic and influential film festival in the world, I write two despatches after 10 captivating days here. I attended the 72nd edition of the festival, watching, absorbing, thinking and talking films.

My first report is of the Indian presence at this gathering of some of the finest accomplishments in the cinema of the world: thin, but still significant. Of 55 new fiction films screened at the festival, only two were from India. Both little-known films, even within India, were received warmly, with extended generous ovations by international audiences.

Harsh Mander

A Hindi language feature, debut film Island City by young director R. Oberoi, deploys black humour to portray, with three stories, the universal experience of loneliness of urban living (the “island” of the title refers not just to the city of Mumbai but also to many of its residents). The first story is of the soulless, exploitative automation of a modern office. What happens when a model employee who has never taken a day’s leave and fulfils every target is commanded to have fun for one day? The second uses the over-the-top, television soap opera to reflect on a middle-class family for who the events of the television serial are more intensely ‘real’ than the far less gratifying materiality of their everyday life. The third asks what happens when a friendless, young, woman factory worker, who regards herself to be plain and unattractive, receives a letter from an anonymous admirer. The film won the “critics’ award for Best Young Director”.

India was also celebrated in the classics segment of the festival, where Guru Dutt’s painstakingly restored classic Pyaasa was among the 20 classics honoured. It is remarkable that 58 years after it was made, Dutt’s poetic and melancholic lament about the futility of worldly success still finds echoes with contemporary, arthouse European audiences. Art truly endures across time and borders.

And for the first time in the 83 year history of the festival, a Tamil film was selected for the prestigious competition section. Not just the film — Vetri Maaran’s Visaranai (Interrogation) — but the story behind its making is astonishing. It is based on a novel written by M. Chandra Kumar, a Class 10 drop-out autorickshaw driver. Now in his 50s, between plying his rickshaw through the streets of Coimbatore, he writes novels. One of these, a fictionalised version of his own experience of being picked up with three friends by the police as a young migrant worker and tortured for a crime they did not commit, moved Vetri Maaran deeply when he read it. So much so that he persuaded his producer Dhanush to shelve the film he was then making and instead to start shooting Visaranai.

Speaking at Venice, he explained, “The agony Chandra Kumar and his friends underwent is not an isolated incident. Immigrants and the homeless worldwide share their fate. I thought their suffering… could be the face of those thousands of faceless people behind prison walls waiting for justice across the world.”

The film portrays the nightmarish predicament of four young Tamil migrants in Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, who sleep at night in a public park and earn their living as casual labour or working as shop boys. Suddenly, without warning one night, they are rounded up by the police, stripped and mercilessly beaten and tortured, and compelled to confess to a crime which they did not commit. The policemen know they are innocent, but under enormous pressure to “solve” a high-profile theft from the home of an influential person, they trap these hapless and powerless homeless migrants. The frightening depiction of torture is graphic but authentic and never gratuitous, illuminated always by the acute humane observation of the director and his compelling empathy with his underclass protagonists.

I found the harrowing account of the ways the four young friends suffer, endure, hold together, resist and finally succumb to 13 days of torture to be riveting, in the best traditions of realist cinema with heart and conscience. Vetri Maaran is accurate about the universality of the story, as millions of faceless young people the world over leave home and cross borders to survive, and too often are hopelessly entrapped by law-enforcement authorities for crimes they never commit. In the film, the chance mediation of a magistrate and a police officer of some conscience sets them free. The second part of the film which sees the friends drawn into an even darker crime is in the more conventional mode of a thriller.

In the screening in Venice, the writer, director and four protagonists were all present, dressed in starched, sparkling, white veshtis. They were introduced to the audience, and the director generously gave first place in the roll-call to the autodriver-writer, Chandra Kumar. As the audiences cheered and clapped, I must confess to have felt a surge in my own heart.

Harsh Mander is a human rights worker, writer and teacher

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 10:06:02 PM |

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