Police brutality. Everywhere you go, police brutality.
A year ago, Pandi had moved from Tamil Nandu to the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. This was not too uncommon a practice for people living in Tamil Nandu, as there were few job opportunities. That is not to say that life was necessarily easier in Andhra Pradesh. Pandi and three of other Tamil men have found themselves homeless in the city of Guntur, deep within the state. They have been sleeping outside on the grass in Gandhi park and wash up in the public bathroom. And while the languages of Tamil and Telugu are related, it would be a stretch to call them mutually intelligible. And Pandi has barely picked up enough Telugu to make small talk.
It is festival day, so Pandi has to leave early for work and the little provision store, though his friends think that he is going off to check out the girl that he had chatted with the other night. He passes by the night watchman, who tries to shake him down for money, while scolding him for still not learning Telugu.
Pandi does not go to see the girl, but he does take sidetrips on his bicycle to a tea seller and a barbershop before arriving to open up the provision store. And his boss yells at him for being late.
Barely a minute has passed since Pandi opened the store before a group of men approach him asking about directions to Brindavan Colony third street. He notices the Tamil language newspaper in one of the men’s bag and excitedly asks them if they are Tamil. After the man’s initial annoyance at having their Tamil identity exposed so carelessly, he admits to Pandi that indeed they are from Tamil Nadu. The man asks again about Brindavan Colony third street right as Pandi notices the butt of a PISTOL in the bag that had the newspaper. He says he doesn’t know and then asks the men to leave. The man leaves, complaining to the other guys about being assigned to work with an idiot who would have a Tamil newspaper and a pistol visible to the world. But another man in the group notes that his Telegu was not that convincing anyways.
An autorickshaw arrives. One of the passengers gets out and asks Pandi for his name. Pandi gives it and the man grabs him by his shirt. Pandi struggles and they are about to fight when one of Pandi’s friends, Murugan, calls to him from the autorickshaw. The man is a cop and he had already arrested him and Kumar in the park. Not that Pandi could know that as the man was not in uniform and did not identify himself as a cop through any other means before starting to manhandle Pandi. But whatever. He gets into the autorickshaw. What is going on? They others don’t know either.
They arrive at the police station and the cop threatens to seize the autorickshaw when the driver requests his fare. They are taken inside, frisked…and then beaten with canes by three officers. Kumar tries to run and gets a bucket to the face, knocking him out. The beating stops, as the cops wonder what might happen if he dies. Pandi and Murugan crawl to Kumar, shaking him to wake him up. The beating briefly resumes, but stops when the tea arrives. The three men hide under the stairway overnight.
We are ten minutes into this movie.
The Inspector arrives in the morning, having returned from a pilgrimage, he gives a bag of food to a rookie officer named Sindhu, telling her to distribute the sacrament to everyone in the station. They pass by the three prisoners under the stairs and the Inspector tells Sindhu to give them the sacrament as well. Murugan tells the Inspector that the others had been beating them bad without even telling them why. The Inspector turns to one of the officers and asks why the prisoners…are still dressed. He orders them to be stripped and beaten mercilessly. And then he resumes his walk upstairs. After getting stripped to their underwear and beaten again, Pandi and his friends get thrown in a dark room with some Telugu prisoners.
The Inspector is on the phone with a superior, telling him to close the case as soon as possible. It will be difficult, he says, but he has Tamil boys in his custody and can close the case. He will, however, need to account for the stolen goods, so he asks for some money from the builder friend of the person on the other line.
The three men still have no idea why they were arrested, let alone brutalized. Well…Pandi may have an inkling of an idea. Flashback to before the arrest and he is at the store, pretending that he did not totally lock eyes with a girl passing by in the back of a fancy car. She works as a housemaid in a nearby the shop, and comes running to her balcony every time Pandi and his friends walk by and he rings the bell on his bicycle.
She had come to the shop the night before the arrest to use the phone. She had trouble using it and he tried to help her, but was a little too forward and scared her off. Murugan scolds Pandi for being a pervert in a foreign state, but Pandi insists that it was not like that. Pandi, Kumar, and newcomer named Afsal saw her later on. Pandi finally really had a conversation with her. Her name was Shanthi and she was looking for a job, as the owners of the house refuse to let her go back to her hometown to visit her mother. And when the boss’s wife goes off to travel, that leaves Shanthi alone with the boss. Shanthi starts to cry. Pandi tried to assure her that he will find a job for her, and invited her to come by the store when she can. They went their separate ways.
Afsal noted that they spoke for so long that it seemed like they spoke the same language. Pandi understood enough, that her boss had been abusing her. Kumar pointed out that her boss is a cop and they will all get in trouble if something happens. Pandi called out to Shanthi not to worry; that he is here no matter what. Kumar told him to stop shouting in Tamil in such a public setting.
Back in the present, Kumar and Murugan scold Pandi for shouting, but Pandi is just relieved that Afsal did not get in trouble. One of the Telugu prisoners asks to go to the bathroom, so an officer opens the door and all of the prisoners walk single file outside, with the officer hitting random ones with a cane. With the sounds of schoolchildren playing nearby, some prisoners go to the bathrooms while others pour water on themselves to clean up. It is there that the three Tamil prisoners see Afsal; he was captured after all, and also badly beaten.
The cops arrested him the night before while he was walking back from the cinema. There was a police blockade on his way back and one of the officers approached him. After asking for Afsal’s name, the officer asked if he was in Al Qaeda or ISIS. When Afsal said no and told him that he is from Tamil Nadu, the officer assumed that he is from the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, since all Tamils are LTTE. The officer told the others to take him in, saying that he might lead them to the Tamil robbers, nevermind that Afsal had arrived in Guntur only a few days earlier. They made him tell them where he lived, which is most likely how they knew to pick up Murugan and Kumar in Gandhi Park. Well, at least they know that this is no longer because Pandi yelled to a Telugu girl in public. That’s something, but they still do not have the full story. Now Afsal can be the target of Murugan’s wrath.
While the prisoners are walking back from the bathroom, the Inspector tells the Tamil men to stay. He asks them if they accept. Accept what? Well, asking what they are supposed to accept gets them more beatings. Sindhu is visibly disturbed by this, but a senior officer tells her that all is fair to close a case and that she will get used to it. Eventually, Murugan gets fed up and demands to know what they have to accept, which I am guessing means confess in this context. The Inspector responds by stepping on his face, breaking his teeth.
Accompanied by Pandi, Murugan is let outside to wash his mouth. Pandi sees Sindhu washing her face nearby. As she is leaving, Pandi tells her that she left her cell phone. She all but admits to leaving it there on purpose and says that she will return in two minute. As soon as she is out of sight, Pandi grabs the phone, runs to the bathroom, and calls his boss.
Pandi’s boss arrives. The cops tell him that Pandi and his friends had burgled a senior officer’s house, taking over 10 million rupees. This is all news to Pandi when his boss relays this through the small dungeon window. Pandi says that he works at the shop from 5:00 in the morning until midnight, so he would have no opportunity to do something like this. His boss responds that if he has done something wrong, then he should just accept it. Pandi insists that he is innocent, but his boss says that the cops won’t buy that.
Pandi’s boss talks with one of the senior officers some more. Yes, they were accused of a robbery in Brindavan Colony, but Pandi is a good kid. The officer says that he will talk to the Inspector. Then he tells Pandi’s boss to buy stationary supplies and food for everyone.
Lunchtime. The Tamil prisoners eat in front of the senior officer, who tells them that the beatings will stop when they accept. Muragan insists that they did not do anything, but the officer points out that Afsal had already confessed to the crime. Afsal says that he did so only because they beat him so badly and he retracts his confession. The officer says that the Inspector won’t buy that. He repeats that the beatings will stop if they all just accept, but Pandi refuses. After a bit of back and forth, the officer attacks him. After he leaves in a huff, another officer comes around and makes them clean up the food that got scattered around.
Dinner time at the dungeon. Pandi does not take his share. He notices that, even with all of the beatings and the humiliation, the cops give them food every day no matter what. Maybe they will take them seriously if they go on a hunger strike. But what if the cops simply let them starve to death. Pandi says that it is better to die fighting than to get beaten to death.
This decision does not go well with the cops, the Inspector, or his superiors. If they are willing to suffer to avoid confessing, than this will take much longer. And if they die before confessing, then this case will never be solved. This may be a petty crime, but pressure is mounting for them to close this case. No one in power actually cares whether the prisoners are guilty or not, but they are the ones who have been gotten. And if these four innocent men have to break until they falsely confess, well, then they will break.
So, now what?
Police prejudice. Police corruption. Police cruelty. Police violence. This movie could have been a biting satire with a few tweaks. But it has no patience for goofing around for some cathartic chuckle. Loosely based on M. Chandrakumar’s novel Lock Up, which was based upon his own imprisonment in the 1980s, Interrogation is a furious film with few frills.
The police force in this film is shown to be beholden to the powerful, with no regard to the powerless. They have no interest in solving cases, just closing them as soon as possible. If the wrong people get punished, at least they should look right enough. The officers are absolutely willing to commit crimes and cover up crimes. And, for sure, not all cops are totally bad. But the good cops can do only so much; they are the good apples in a rotten bunch. The police on the whole are not necessarily cruel, just callous; cruelty to them is the quickest and simplest way to get the populace to do what they want. Violence is a weapon of first resort. It is a part of the job, just like anything else. The violence in the movie is not gory or gritty, nor is it gratuitous beyond it being in-universe gratuitous. It is simply awful; a means to break the spirit.
The movie sort of touches on tensions in south-eastern India. I tried looking up the relationship between Tamil-speakers and Telugu-speakers. After all, are they not related languages? Well, yes, but the significance of that relation is subject to dispute. The issue is fraught, violently politicized, and way above my head. So, let’s just say that the relationship is uneasy. Pandi and his fellow residents of Gandhi Park have little say in the controversy; they just get caught in the middle. Things must be extremely dire in Tamil Nadu for them to run away deep into the heart of hostile territory, where they cannot even afford a place to live.
Pandi and his friends live a sad and near hopeless existence. But they maintain some sliver of hope, as naïve as that may be. When they are arrested, they seem so shocked at the level of brutality and hostility that the cops aimed at them, that they meekly wonder what they could have done that got them arrested in the first place. That they could be deliberately falsely arrested did not occur to them until much later, when the pain and humiliation become too much.
I get the impression that it was not the case in the book, but the movie does have a rather unconventional story structure. No, I am not talking about the flashbacks that could have just as well been put earlier in the movie. It is more how the protagonists suddenly get sidelined and it becomes unclear for a while whether they will take center stage again. I found it to be rather strange when I first saw it, as I had no idea where the story was going. Upon second watch, it seems that the movie was expanding on its theme beyond this one particular anecdote. In addition, there are loose threads that possibly hint that the seemingly unrelated storylines were more connected than mere coincidence. And, as a bonus, the plot shift goes into territory that…let’s say…has indirect parallels with a specific real-life-thing that is going on right now cough cough cough.
Did I pick this film due to recent events? Yes and no. I would have gotten to this movie at some point, but the subject matter is just as urgent now as it was in 2015 or in 1983. And if you have the stomach for it, I highly recommend it.
WTF ASIA 118: Robokon (Japan: 2015, approx. 118 minutes)
WTF ASIA 119: Taipei Story (Taiwan: 1985, approx. 120 minutes)