by Srikanth Srinivasan
A man in a sleeveless vest is bleeding from his eyebrow, arms raised. A hand from outside the frame grabs him by the hair and turns his face upward towards the light. A towering figure appears between the man’s face and his raised left arm, putting its arms around the man and pressing his chest with a baton. The camera pulls back to reveal the setting; the room is sparsely furnished. The hand belongs to a constable in uniform, the tall figure is a police officer (Pradeep Shakti) and the man receiving the blows is Velu (Kamal Haasan, an actor who loves to get hurt even when he is the aggressor). The inspector is wearing an undershirt too, one with sleeves, which serves a practical purpose (hitting someone is an arduous, sweat-inducing task) as well as a symbolic one (he is acting only partially in his official role). He has picked up Velu for defying him and, with the zooming camera now outside the room, he strikes his victim from behind with all his might.
A saga of Velu’s evolving relationship with law and its enforcers, Nayagan (1987) contains possibly the earliest representation of custodial torture in Tamil cinema. As such, it would set the standard mise en scène for similar scenes that were to follow: characters in partial undress, taunting dialogue, top lighting, the camera placed near the actor’s face as the hitting takes place in the background. The soundtrack is sparse, consisting only of the policeman’s exhortations, the clinking of the handcuffs, the quick claps of the baton striking Velu and the whistle of a passing train, a traumatic memory associated with a young Velu’s panic-stricken escape to Bombay following the murder of his father by the police. Velu can never go home again.
The subject of this essay is custodial violence in Tamil cinema, films produced in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where over a hundred custodial deaths were recorded in the past two decades without a single conviction. Custodial violence represented as custodial violence. In other words, the films mentioned here have the viewer ostensibly identify with the character undergoing the ordeal rather than the one causing it. This is to rule out an ocean of Dirty Harry-type “cop movies” where custodial aggression is framed as gestures of instant justice.
And though there’s an interesting historical account to be written about the transition of policemen, once respectable if minor characters, into villains in Tamil cinema, this is not the place for it. Nor is the aim to provide an exhaustive inventory of scenes of custodial violence in Tamil films. The essay only seeks to look at certain salient representations of the phenomenon, to discern certain recurring figures of style, to trace out an outline of its formal evolution. Legal particulars are obscured for the sake of simplicity: characters may be held without a chargesheet, be under interrogation, in remand or even in jail.
While operating within the loose bounds of realism, Tamil cinema has demonstrated a surprisingly fair variety in the depiction of custodial violence. Take the instruments of torture, for instance. Most films stick to the lathi, the long bamboo pole that police all across India carry. But detainees on screen have also been treated to a belt (Thalapathy), pliers (Narasimma, Nellai Santhippu), tongs, cigarette ash (Samurai), marbles, rubber tubes (Pithamagan), palm stems (Visaaranai), an awl, barbed mace, barbed whip, salt water (Anniyan), chilli powder (Jai Bhim), electric shock (Kandasamy, Narasimma), temperature chambers (Sathuranga Vettai, Anniyan), ice cubes (Kandasamy), ice slabs (Narasimma, Sathuranga Vettai), ice dildos, cockroach rice, ant pants (Kadhalan) and even a rat in a bag (Gentleman).
The rope, in particular, has proven a versatile tool in restraining suspects and contorting their bodies into positions favourable for a good beating. Captives have been hung from a pole like a hunted animal (Pithamagan) or suspended by the wrist (Thalapathy), the legs (Gentleman, Visaaranai, Thalapathy), the biceps (Visaaranai), the thumbs (Jai Bhim) or the neck (Nayagan); they’ve had their hands tied to their legs from the front (Vazhakku Enn 18/9), from the back (Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban), from the back and strung from the ceiling (Jai Bhim). Similar taxonomies can be made for the costumes, actor positions, set design, lighting techniques, use of lenses and, particularly, the sound mix (from the dull thuds of Thalapathy to the crunching bones of Papanasam).
All this bondage, of course, spills over into sexual perversion, and the viewer may not be wrong in seeing a sublimated masochism at work in these scenes. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan shoots the custodial torture in Thalapathy (1991) like an erotic massage, but it is Kadhalan (1994) that presents a Freudian minefield. Prabhu (king of camp Prabhu Deva) is held captive for loving the daughter of a minister. The cop responsible for making him recant is not a dude in underwear, but a short haired, gutka-chewing woman in boots (Kavita Sri). If the reversal of roles isn’t emasculating already, at their first encounter, she inserts a phallic ice dagger in Prabhu’s mouth and then has him sodomized with it.
Director Shankar, who has much in common with Cecil B. DeMille, intercuts these scenes of abuse with shots of Prabhu’s girlfriend Shruti (Nagma) protesting his detention. Shruti chisels her beau’s name with a crowbar on the walls of a decrepit outhouse that resembles the dungeon where Prabhu is held. Just as the howls and the anxiogenic music accompanying Prabhu’s torment segue into a romantic number, the power of love transforms every instrument of torture into a fetish object: Shruti eats a worm in response to Prabhu being fed cockroaches, the ice dagger penetrating Prabhu’s mouth finds an echo in his finger brushing Shruti’s teeth, the hair that Prabhu finds in his food reminds him of the strands of Shruti’s hair caught up in his shirt button. Lust becomes inextricable from pain and disgust. As Prabhu is beaten, he bites on a dislodged hook from Shruti’s blouse; gigantic replicas of this device feature in a preceding song whose lyrics sacralise the lover’s bodily emanations.
Things are as bodily in Visaaranai (2015) too, but in a different sense. Vetrimaaran’s third film ushered in a sea change in the iconography of custodial violence on screen, as stylized conventions make way for greater realism. A bipartite work, Visaaranai derives its effect from the way it plays off its two halves against each other. In the first part, four immigrant labourers from Tamil Nadu are held in a police station in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh and coerced into admitting to a crime they never committed. It is a white-collar criminal, an extremely influential auditor, who is the object of police brutality in the second half. By wedging our perspective with the workers at the outset, Visaaranai leads us to want them to not get mixed up with the auditor, whom they helped arrest — this apathy being an important theme of the film.
The film’s principal torture sequence takes place in a portico outside the station. A bald officer—clad in a khaki shirt and a lungi, an inversion of the Nayagan dress code—instructs the labourers not to shout in pain, for there is a school next door. To break their solidarity, the cop (Ajay Ghosh) tells the ‘leader’ of the group (Attakathi Dinesh) that if he falls down when struck, the others will be beaten. Vetrimaaran films the sequence in a wide angle such that we see the aggressor, the weapon and the victim in the same shot; the blows really land on Dinesh’s bare upper body. This misplaced Bazinianism sets a frightening precedent for actors, but it is bracing in the way it made concrete, for the first time, a violence that was so far largely notional, like Bouguereau’s Flagellation of Christ set against Cimabue’s.
On its appearance, Visaaranai felt new, its unremitting cruelty necessary. That the film has only a limited digression away from its main narrative and setting, that its first instance of police violence comes completely unexpected, draws us inexorably into a Kafkaesque world whose workings we can only grasp as it unfolds. Visaaranai is still a very effective, intelligent work, but also something of a victim of its own success. Many of its novelties have been imbibed and regurgitated by works that followed, its imagery of police brutality made a new gold standard, to a point that Vetrimaaran’s film feels tame and hollowed out in certain respects today.
Comparably disturbing images of police atrocity resurface in Karnan (2021). Cops run riot in a village late in the film, but a more crucial incident takes place at a police station a while earlier. Running close to two and a half minutes, the sequence is a synecdoche, a mini-movie reflective of the entire film. Rather than an individual, it is the whole community that is at the receiving end of a slighted inspector’s wrath. As the officer (Natty) rains blows on a group of elders from the village, who try in vain to take shelter under a table or the stairs, he taunts them over their lofty names, drags them by the neck and has them later thrown on the terrace as though they were bait for birds of prey. In the seventy-one shots that make up this dense and disorienting scene, sophomore helmer Mari Selvaraj manages to insert images of a constable breaking down in the adjacent toilet, a young boy watching the assault in shock, an active police siren and even a dying butterfly.
Along with Vetrimaaran, Mari Selvaraj belongs to a generation of Tamil directors that is concerned with the politics of representation. Not only do these filmmakers recount stories of the oppressed, but in doing so, they are also mindful not to effect other forms of intersectional oppression. Yet their films frequently feel obliged to showcase elaborate humiliations of marginalized figures in order to make a case for their humanity. If they ensure that our sympathies align squarely with the persecuted, the graphic scenes of abuse in these works nevertheless offer the viewer a space to identify with the persecutor. Super Deluxe (2019) features an excruciatingly protracted passage of sexual violence in which a cop forces himself on a transgender woman — a scene whose sleaziness is safely amped up in the knowledge that the actor playing the trans-woman is only a cis-male (Vijay Sethupathi).
This tendency to put disenfranchised characters through trials by degradation reaches a crescendo in the much-discussed Jai Bhim (2021), a talismanic title that made the film unimpeachable in the eyes of its adherents before anyone knew what it was about. Jai Bhim is unusual in that it is not the star of the movie that is brutalized by the police, but a group of helpless Irulas (members of an indigenous ‘tribe’) framed for theft. This difference allows the film to crank up the violence on the suspects without any sort of gesture at resistance. The relentless abuse is intended to unsettle the viewers and precipitate the messianic intervention of lawyer Chandru (Surya), the vehicle of justice, but it also serves to excite the audience with the thrill of a forbidden spectacle: the accused are dragged by the hair, suspended by the thumbs, broken on a bench, covered in chilli paste…
There are, in fact, about ten episodes of police violence in Jai Bhim, unfolding alternatingly inside and outside the station, including raids into the Irula settlement. The most prominent of these involves a sub-inspector (Tamizh) charging at five inmates, one of them a woman, with a lathi. Set in a spare cell illuminated by a shaft of light from the window, the assault lasts all of 54 seconds, contains 41 shots and features 36 blows. (We are far from the 45-second, 4-shot, 6-blow sequence of Nayagan.) It is filmed in three kinds of camera setups: a wide angle from the top to capture the full scene, a low angle to film the blows and the cowering inmates and a reverse shot to show the grimacing policeman. But at the end of this rampage, it is the lawman who has to take a pill to check his blood pressure, a touch borrowed from a similar scene in Anniyan.
Like Karnan, this scene in Jai Bhim incorporates a large number of cuts to maintain a sense of constant unease and confusion, and like Visaaranai, the blows are actually shown landing on the bodies. But unlike these earlier films, many of the hits here are, in fact, presented in continuity in consecutive shots (shot 1: cop swings baton, shot 2: baton lands on body), which means that the number of hits visually perceived feels much higher than what is heard on the soundtrack. The canted camera, the swinging baton, the beams on the ceiling, the window bars, the slanted shaft of light, all produce dynamic diagonals that reinforce the impression of instability and chaos. The sequence is visceral, effective in the repulsiveness it evokes, but it pales in comparison to an antithetical scene later in the film, where other Irulas recount their experience of police harassment in words. These potent oral testimonies only demonstrate how impoverished graphic representations of custodial torture generally are.
When the bloody excesses of Jai Bhim were called out by reviewers, fans were quick to point out that the film is based on reality. That begs the question: whose reality? If modernist cinema has taught us anything, it is that the camera doesn’t just record facts, but transforms them into representation in a medium with its own history and tradition. Not only does the naive appeal to reality betray an ignorance of this alchemy, it also robs the audience of the important work of imagination and empathy.
The aforementioned sequence in Nayagan is not even the most memorable scene of custodial violence in the film. Shortly after Velu’s rude treatment, his foster father is killed in the police station. But this incident is not shown. Prevented from entering the station, Velu only sees the old man’s hanging legs through the cell gate. This disturbing elision is powerful and it is an object cinematic lesson when it comes to the depiction of trauma: tell, don’t show.
Nayagan (“The Hero”, 1987, Mani Ratnam) — Thalapathy (“The Commander”, 1991, Mani Ratnam) — Gentleman (1993, Shankar) — Kadhalan (“The Paramour”, 1994, Shankar) — Narasimma (2001, Thirupathisamy) — Samurai (2002, Balaji Sakthivel) — Ramanaa (2002, A.R. Murugadoss) — Pithamagan (“The Grandsire”, 2003, Bala) — Anniyan (“The Outsider”, 2005, Shankar) — Kandasamy (2009, Susi Ganesan) — Naan Kadavul (“I Am God”, 2009, Bala) — Vazhakku Enn 18/9 (“Case No. 18/9”, 2012, Balaji Sakthivel) — Nellai Santhippu (“Tirunelveli Junction”, 2012, K.B.B. Naveen) — Sathuranga Vettai (“The Chess Hunt”, 2014, H. Vinoth) — Visaaranai (“The Interrogation”, 2015, Vetrimaaran) — Papanasam (2015, Jeethu Joseph) — Super Deluxe (2019, Thiagarajan Kumararaja) — Thadam (“The Trail”, 2019, Magizh Thirumeni) — Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban (“The Police Is Your Friend”, 2020, RDM) — Karnan (2021, Mari Selvaraj) — Jai Bhim (“Hail Bhim”, 2021, T.J. Gnanavel)
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic from Bangalore, India.