Fifty Shades of Khaki - Ruminations on Visaranai and Action Hero Biju
The writer ruminates on Visaranai and compares it with Nivin Pauly's Action Hero Biju to talk about the cinemagoer's response to onscreen representation of police excesses and institutional violence
It's been over four years since I saw Visaranai. I had more than a few sleepless nights after watching it. I am someone who doesn't mind occasional gore and gratuitous violence on screen as long as it is on an even footing. However, that is where Visaranai differs from other films featuring violence. There was no even footing. There was no redemption. There was no last-ditch heroism. There was no resurrection. And unfortunately, there was no rescue.
Visaranai, Vetri Maaran's third directorial dealt with an important topic — Institutional violence and police brutality.
This wasn't the first time Vetri Maaran dealt with violence in his movies. In his debut film, Polladhavan, we saw a common man fighting against a dreaded gangster. We didn't question the possibility of a commoner battling the odds to save himself, his family, and his bike. Somewhere deep within us, we believed that if our family was threatened, we too would retaliate. And Dhanush was the everyman's representative who fought the good fight for us.
Tamil cinema has given us many actors of all statures fighting the good fight. They take on local rowdies, unscrupulous bureaucrats, and corrupt politicians. They take on various kinds of mafia. These acts of heroism gave the commoner hope of taking on all these establishments and much more. But, if you were going against the police, you needed to be a certain kind of star. You needed to be a Thalapathy Rajinikanth or a Nayagan Kamal Haasan... You couldn't be a Mahanadhi Kamal Haasan.
That's why when Krishna of Mahanadhi couldn't do anything against the never-ending bouts of injustice meted out to him, we didn't question it. He's not a history-sheeter. He's not a gangster. Our lives might never become like that of Nayagan's Velu Naicker, but we could easily be a Krishna — a common person of this Indian republic. Even if we are model citizens, we tend to avoid the police as much as we can.
Why? Fear. Many might argue that fear is good. There are times when I do too. But, the larger question still remains — This fear comes at what cost?
In Visaranai, the police pin a theft case on four unassuming men. Four random men who were innocent. Their worlds are turned upside down because someone else decided their lives didn't matter. And this someone else wasn't just one corrupt cop. It was the system. The way the police treat those four men is downright unacceptable. It is gut-wrenching. Every thrash, every slap, every scar, every lash, every drop of blood made me look away from the screen.
To an extent, one is right in assuming that these four are subjected to such tortures only because of their place in the class hierarchy. Who cares about the vulnerable? At times, even the laws in place to safeguard their interests seem to be out of reach when they really need it. However, Kishore's character and the way he meets his end in this film is a stark reminder of how one can never beat the system even if not necessarily vulnerable. Of course, money helps, but it is always about power. And no one, I mean, no one is above the system.
Three of those four men meet with painful endings only because those in power think their lives are dispensable. They were just nameless and faceless labours of this billion-strong country. It was all about an ever-evolving system serving an ever-changing agenda. Even the seemingly compassionate are sucked into this vortex and find themselves either doing its bidding or perishing. But what is it that one can actually do? How do you fight for justice against the ones with the power to dole out justice? How do you battle against the torchbearers of law and order?
Basically... how do you battle against someone like Sub-Inspector Biju Paulose from Abrid Shine's sophomore film, Action Hero Biju, which incidentally was released just a day after Visaranai?
Action Hero Biju, which deals with the various cases that come the way of a regular cop in a regular police station in a regular city with regular criminals, tells a lot about our reaction to policing than any other film. Yes, we were repulsed by the violence in Visaranai. But we are much softer towards Biju and Co's propensity for violence. Why?
Probably because the film cleverly shows SI Biju as someone who doesn't bow down to the rich. We see Biju taking to task an obnoxious rich man who made his dog bite a kid. We see him treat politicians with disdain. We see he isn't swayed by bribes. We see Biju as a hero. He stands up for the poor. He ensures justice is served to the employee of a travel company that tries to shortchange her. He stands up for the poor...and women. Once again, we see Biju as a hero. He lets young impressionable kids off the hook in a drug bust because their futures are at stake. He stands up for the poor, the women... and crying mothers of misguided youth. And again, we see Biju as a hero.
However, these same cops are nonchalant about custodial violence. They are cavalier about threatening people with false cases. They don't bat an eyelid before making disparaging comments that outrage the modesty of a woman. But, they also stand up for the poor, the women, and the crying mothers of misguided youth.
I agree that we cannot afford to be a nation of binaries. Everything in our country works in the grey areas. We are outraged by cops unleashing gratuitous violence in the name of enforcing lockdown. But we also feel bad for them not having a place to have a proper meal or be with their families, etc. We just can't blame the cops for everything when we, who are angry at people being shot during protests, rejoice over encounter killings and laugh at various accused "slipping on the bathroom floors."
We don't like the four innocent youth of Visaranai being used as scapegoats by the system. We are conflicted by the kind of violence meted out to them. It makes our insides squirm. What if these were actual thieves and the police use the same kind of treatment to 'get the truth out'? Would we be okay with it then? This is a question we need to ask ourselves. Was the violence in Visaranai only repulsive because it was meted out to innocent people or was it because it was violent?
In Action Hero Biju, the cop, who spoke to the wailing guardians of the drug-abusing kids and let them off the hook, didn't do the same with the poor domestic worker who stole from her employers to pay her kids' school fees. Why were his hands tied then? Why did he choose the 'legal' road and not the path of 'justice'? Because his superior officers wanted the case to be solved. Something similar happens in Visaranai too. Although Visaranai is a tonally different film from Action Hero Biju, both act as stark reminders of a very important realisation: Even a hero — an Action Hero — cannot actually escape the system. Nothing will change unless the rot is addressed from within.
We can't normalise dialogues like, "Police ku mattum dhaan adikra urima irukku"(Only the police have the right to beat people) or "Adicha dhaan unmai vella varum,"(Only thrashings will get the truth out), etc. Where do you draw the line? Where do you stop and say, 'No, this is not right'?
Even when subject to varying degrees of violence, unlike in films, one can't really retaliate in kind against the cops in real life. Why? The system will eat us alive. But this very system also includes us. We, who wax eloquently on social media about police brutality like the one seen in Visaranai, also pledge allegiance to the Bijus of the police world. We are moved to see the all-powerful cops plead to our fellow citizens to stay at home and respect the lockdown. That image with folding hands tends to obliviate the scenes of lathis being rained on less-privileged citizens in other parts of the country. Even during a protest against police brutality, we make peace with them by offering hugs or roses. We don't want to antagonise them too much. We would rather make peace with the system.
You see, to go against the system, you need to be a Velu Naicker. But, at the end of the day, all most of us are is Krishna — just a common person of this Indian republic.