Consider this list:
Vetrimaaran’s Visaranai, India’s official entry to the Oscars in 2016
Suriya-starrer, Jai Bhim
Taanakkaran, directed by Tamizh
Franklin Jacob’s Writer presented by Pa Ranjith
Maari Selvaraj’s Karnan starring Dhanush
Featuring Soori and Vijay Sethupathi, Viduthalai (Freedom) joins this short list of some of the most important cop dramas in the Tamil film industry that vehemently raise a voice against the glorification of police brutality on screens.
Adapted from the short story titled ‘Thunaivan', written by B Jeyamohan, Viduthalai is not from the usual flamboyant cop universe where the protagonist is a stylish police officer who goes about killing goons as if he were a player in PUBG. And no, the film does not add mass background music simply to amp up the swagger of the hero's murders.
Set in the 1980s, the film opens with a tragic train accident in a hilly terrain of southern Tamil Nadu. The police suspect the bomb blast was executed by Makkal Padai, a separatist group which claims to oppose the government as the measures taken for development of the region comes at the cost of destruction and depletion of natural resources and the ecosystem.
But were the Makkal Padai really behind the horrific train attack that killed several civilians? Who is the mastermind operating this outfit? Why do some villagers support the group that is termed a terror organisation? A naïve cop, Kumaresan (Soori) who joins the police department tasked with hunting down the kingpin, tries to give us the answers.
The film gets more realistic and rustic as it proceeds with its narration. Using the word 'terrifying’ to describe the brutality on screen would be too mild a word. Viduthalai screams of pain and helplessness under the abuse of power.
Viduthalai is a socio-political commentary that delves deeper into the systemic oppression present in the police forces. It talks about how those at the tail end of the hierarchy are forced to kill their passion to serve the people – which should ideally be the objective for any police officer on duty – just to survive and stay in their jobs.
Soori is excellent with his convincing performance as an innocent, honest, and humane cop. He does take the liberty to show off his comedic timing to spur sporadic laughter without deviating much from the serious plot.
It was interesting to see Gautham Vasudev Menon, a filmmaker whose police-themed films were appreciated but were also criticised for glorifying police encounter killings, star in a cop role that pretty much does the same. However, the gaze was quite the opposite when positioned in the Vetrimaaran universe.
The supporting actors, including Bhavani Sre, Chetan, and Rajiv Menon, deliver great performances. The songs by Ilaiyaraaja, specifically the one in Dhanush’s voice, are soothing to our ears.
Viduthalai succeeds in pulverising the audience’s hearts every time it plays 'Aararirao', a word used in Tamil lullabies, infused in an 'Oppari', a folk song tune used at funerals.
The film has graphic displays of custodial torture that may border on torture porn; however, with the ultimate messaging of the film intact, it is quite evident that the director has his heart in the right place.
Another doubt along similar lines: Why would Vetrimaaran, who is known for his anti-caste films, introduce a cop named ‘Menon’, a caste marker used predominantly in Kerala? I didn't find a major significance to its reference in this film. Was it really necessary? Again, given Vetrimaaran's track record of consistently delivering progressive films, I trust that's an unintentional reference.
Moreover, if you watch Viduthalai as a native Tamil speaker, the mediocre lip sync lets you disconnect from the film once in a while.
Vetrimaaran makes a clear announcement at the start of the film that it is a fictitious work. Ironically, though, one could not miss noticing that the film resembles several events of police brutality that have happened in Tamil history. Was the announcement intentionally ironic? Maybe, maybe not but Viduthalai Part 1 ends with a leadup to a sequel. And that's exciting.
Just like the film has two parts, the crux of Viduthalai universe, in my opinion, can be divided into two parts too. One, not everyone who is accused and killed in police encounters necessarily is the real criminal, and two, not all police officers are brutal and inhuman. What does Viduthalai Part-2 have in store? Let's wait and watch.
But for now, you can catch Viduthalai Part-1 in cinemas.