“India’s Hindi-language film industry may have grabbed the most attention internationally, but the world is waking up to the fact a totally different film-making universe exists in the south of the country” (Shackleton, 2011, p6). Tamil cinema or Kollywood is another form of popular Indian cinema. It is however less well known to an international market. This may all change this year, with the film Visaaranai (Interrogation) being entered as India’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards.
Visaaranai, the difficult docu-drama focuses on the torture of a group of immigrants by the Indian police. It is a gritty hard-hitting film that has been released to critical acclaim winning the Amnesty International Italia Award at the Venice film festival. It is the first Tamil language film to be selected as India’s Oscar submission since the 2000 film Hey Ram and is one of only nine Tamil films in over sixty years to be chosen as India’s national submission. On top of this, only three films have ever been successfully nominated following their submission: Mother India, Salaam Bombay! and Lagaan, all Hindi language features. So what is the public’s reaction to Visaaranai and what makes it such an important film?
Due to its critical acclaim many believe that not only is Visaaranai in with a chance of a nomination, but might actually have the ability to challenge for the Oscar. Online support for the film has been massively positive across newspaper articles, those inside the film and the Indian public as a whole. On the 23rd of September, the day the announcement was made #Visaaranai was the fifteenth highest trend across India on twitter. This highlights a strong sense of Indian pride about the film being chosen.
One user on Twitter, @SirJiKalStrikes writes “Lets hope #Visaaranai does the whole of India Proud. Fantabulous news for Indian cinema. Jai hind” to highlight one of the many examples of positive reactions towards Visaaranai’s nomination. Further examples that highlight how popular the film is with the Indian people are displayed below, some even adding #Oscars2017, building the hype towards what India hopes to be the film that will finally bring them home the Oscar.
In an article by DNA India titled “Why ‘Visaranai’ is a terrible choice for the Oscars?” the author heavily scrutinised the film and believes it stands no chance. In response members of the public have come to the films defence in the comments section. One commenter Agniva Sengupta especially attacking the magazine and believing the criticism to be unjust.
Others believe the film may have been forgotten if it had not been chosen as the submission for India. As seen on the IMDB Forums for Visaaranai, two of the three comments mentioning how happy they are that the film will get some recognition. It is important to highlight that the majority of these posts were made on the 22nd and 23rd of September as the announcement was made, and prior to this there was no massive online debate surrounding the film on Twitter or on the IMDB forums. The film did however make the headlines in a different way.
An article published on The Times of India on the fifth of February highlights comments made by a high ranking official about the portrayal of the police in the film. IAS officer Sagayam after seeing a preview of the film he was quoted on an advertisement for Visaaranai saying “the unbridled powers given to police is anti-democratic and laws are needed to curtail police excesses during custodial interrogation” (Sivan, 2016). The article states that “this comment, seen as an endorsement of Visaaranai’s theme, has raised hackles in the bureaucracy” (Sivan, 2016) and highlights the controversy raised by mentioning the police in the film and using them to promote a change in real life. This statement is so controversial due to the realistic nature of the film. A review on YouTube by user Sydney Sider anchors this idea. Speaking about the nature of the realism of the film he says “this is so true, it is like you are watching a real life incident” and continues to note “In India, censorship is so bad these days, particularly in South India, the censor has given restrictions that you can’t make a movie showing a policeman getting bribed; which is a commonplace in India. This movie shows how policeman treat common people in India, and it’s absolutely atrocious” (Sider, 2016). The film definitely paints the Indian police force in a negative light, the film featuring multiple forms of police brutality and torture upon the protagonists. It is for this reason that I believe people are so pleased that this particular film has been chosen as India’s Oscar entry. Not simply as a promotion of Tamil language cinema on a global stage, but also due to the nature of the issues it tackles, focusing on mistreatment by the police and managing to do so even in a form of cinema with serious censorship issues. In an interview with director Shyam Benegal by Geeti Sen in regards to censorship he argues “My problem with censorship is that it does not work. The guidelines have not been effective in creating an intelligent system” (Benegal & Sen, 2004, pp 294-295). When questioned to whether censorship should be removed he answers “Frankly, I think so, because in a democracy it has no place.” (Benegal & Sen, 2004, p295). It is therefore clear that censorship is a serious issue noticed by academics, people in the industry and the public alike.
A film like Visaaranai manages to display its message overcoming ideas of censorship and uses graphic brutality to highlight a serious issue within India. It is clear that Indian cinema is continuing to try and promote important political messages within its films, and by submitting Visaaranai to be judged on a global stage India hopes not only to continue to put its varying forms of cinema on the map, but to highlight its issues on a global level. It is obvious that this is only the first step in Visaaranai’s journey that will hopefully for many, myself included, make its way to the 89th Academy Awards.
GEETI, S. & SHYAM, B., 2004. Issues and Censorship in India Cinema. In: India International Centre Quarterly. Vol 31. No 2/3. India International Centre.
JHA, S K., 2016. Why Visaranai is a terrible choice for the Oscars?, DNA: India, 26 September, viewed 7 October 2016., <http://www.dnaindia.com/entertainment/report-why-visaaranai-is-a-terrible-choice-for-the-oscars-2258863>
SHACKELTON, L., 2011. Kollywood’s Time to Shine. In: Screen International. Web. <http://search.proquest.com.ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/docview/897381965/fulltext/483EA0F0ACF14776PQ/1?accountid=12001>
SIVAN, J., 2016. Sagayam take on police creates a stir, cops cry foul, The Times of India, February 5th, viewed 6 October 2016.,<http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/Sagayam-take-on-police-creates-a-stir-cops-cry-foul/articleshow/50861456.cms>
SYDNEY SIDER, 2016, Movie Review for Visaranai, online video, 26 February, YouTube, viewed 6 October 2016, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hmrg13A6BA4>
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Neil McLeod, 2016