Carnegie Mellon's International Film Festival

Vetrimaaran leaned on the wall of the corridor leading into McConomy in a plain gray sweater over a powder-blue, button up oxford. He checked his phone, and smiled warmly as his Tamil-speaking fans asked for photos, while soon-to-be fans poured in to fill the auditorium. Outside, Gobi Manchurian (Spiced Cauliflower) and Pakodas (fritters) were being served with chutney and water. The chattering of the audience induced an atmosphere of intrigue, as the kind-faced man who had greeted everyone, stepped down to the front of the auditorium.

“This film is brutal,” he said, “I just want you all to keep that in mind while you’re watching.”

The Interrogation or Visaranai, directed by Vetrimaaran, premiered at the 72nd Venice Film Festival in September 2015, and took home the Amnesty International Italia Award. In February 2016, it premiered in India, and proved to be both a commercial and political success. On Nov. 18, the film was shown at Carnegie Mellon University’s very own International Film Festival, sponsored by the Asian Studies Center, The Tamil Nadu Foundation, and Pittsburgh Humanities Festival, and promoted by Amnesty International and the Indian Graduate Students Association.

The film is based off of a book titled Lock Up, written by M. Chandrakumar. The true story follows four young men who travel from Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh in search of work, and find themselves becoming victims of what Vetrimaaran calls “the system.” The film explores themes of oppression, corruption, and injustice through the lens of police brutality and wrongful arrest in India. Stunning visuals and an incredibly unique creative process earned the film the honor of being the official Indian submission for the Best Foreign Language Film for the upcoming 89th Academy Awards. Vetrimaaran is now touring the nation, promoting the film and speaking to its brilliance.

What makes this film particularly unique is the way it was filmed. “We didn’t really have a script prepared,” Vetrimaaran chuckled. Before each shot, the director had a synopsis and general outline of the scene on hand and nothing more. “Filming this movie was an organic process,” he explained.

To further add to the atmosphere of the film, none of the actors knew their characters fate until the end of the film. “I wanted to film chronologically, and so the lead actor, Dinesh, said he wanted to learn the plot chronologically.” As a result, when the actors entered a courtroom, or prison scene, they never knew if they were going to make it out or survive.

In terms of the story and content, the film is difficult to stomach. Many scenes are packed with beating and screaming, and the film doesn’t hold back in terms of jarring visuals. “I made it a point to keep all of the deaths off-screen,” Vetrimaaran said, “and I also do my best not to glorify the violence. I’m trying to send a message, not encourage indulgence.” As would be expected, filming such scenes took their toll on the actors and film crew. Vetrimaaran spoke of actors embracing each other in tears after filming certain sequences, and reflecting on the hardships of the real victims of police brutality in between shots. Dinesh, the lead actor who played the character Pandi, was particularly shaken, and felt privileged to be able to step away from the violence, while others couldn’t.

What makes the film particularly impactful is the purity of the main characters, and the contrasting ruthlessness of the policemen. There were a few redeeming characters who sought to aid the four men, but more often than not we saw betrayal and deceit reigning over mercy and compassion. Vetrimaaran even removed a tentative dream sequence where the boys were to kill the policemen, to further their image of purity. Pandi, holding a gun to an officer at the end of the film, even says when prompted to shoot, “But to kill to live, sir?”

Since its release, the film has sparked conversations around India, about “the system,” and about the effect it has on minority groups around the nation. The Chief Justice of Tamil Nadu has screened the film for magistrates to demonstrate issues with law enforcement, and the National Police Academy has invited Vetrimaaran to screen the film for its trainees.

The moderator for the Q&A session that was held after the movie emphasized that through the conflicted policemen and women in the film, the audience is encouraged to “cling to their own humanity,” and recall that we know such incidences happen every day, and that it is our duty to bring about social change.

“I wish to have a better place for a common man to live in, that’s what makes this all worth it, Vetrimaaran sighed, “but, I don’t think that day will ever come. If it does, I’ll be a happy man. Change is inevitable, but all films can really do is push people to want that change.”