With the Academy Awards only a few short months away, this is a busy season for Los Angeles Academy members looking to whittle down thousands of choices in every category to just the few we see on the telecast. This year, that job is even more challenging in the Best Foreign Language Film category, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has received a record 85 official submissions from countries around the world, many for the first time.
One country with an incredibily rich cinematic history, but a terribly disappointing one at the Oscars, is India. Only three Indian films have ever made the Oscar short list - Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay! (1988), and Lagaan (2001) - and none have won. However, this year director Vetri Maaran's Interrogation hopes to change that trend against some pretty intimidating odds, fighting a strong cultural bias against Indian films which frequently brands entries from the country as brash, musical melodrama.
Interrogation is none of those things. It is the true story of four Tamil migrant workers who are arrested and framed for a burglary they didn't commit. They endure painful and humiliating torture at the hands of the police, and eventually forced servitude just when they think they are free. It is a vicious endictment of Indian police brutality that has grown more universal as 2016 has placed police in other countries, especially the U.S., under a microscope for increasingly visible and questionable decision-making and violence.
I talked with Vetri Maaran on the eve of Interrogation's final U.S. screening at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood about the way his film has come to surprise and connect with American viewers over the last few months.
[Note: This is a part of the second interview of Maaran after our previous talk wasn't recorded properly, so several items we address are repeats of that prior chat. I've tried to note these instances where possible.]
Why did you choose to make INTERROGATION? How did you come to this film?
I was looking for a film that would liberate me, in terms of letting me be free to do what I wanted to do by reducing the budget and the locale and everything else. I wanted to try to make a film that was effectively easy to make - and as I was making this film I realized this wasn't the case – when my friend gave me this book (Lock Up by M Chandrakumar) to read. It was a book that he wanted to make into a film. He gave me this book and asked me to read it, he said “read the book and if you connect with it, you make the film”.
I read the book and realized that it was quite interesting for two reasons, one is the kind of voice that the film had, the issue that it was addressing, and the other was the way it was happening. He had written it in such a way that this film would be more about experience than the structure of a regular script. In between certain actions you get information, small, minute pieces of information that culminated into a larger dramatic moment. It was like a flower blooming, one petal after another. That was quite interesting for me.
Then I called the writer and spoke to him and he said “when we were trapped in that cell, our cries for justice were never heard beyond those four walls and now if you make the film, we will be consoled”. He said he was very angry at the system for not letting them be heard, and if I made the film now, Chandrakumar would be consoled knowing that their voices would be heard worldwide. Beyond the interest and excitement for me, these words that he said really meant so much to me and I realized that it had to be done. I felt it was my responsibility to make it.
You can definitely feel that passion in the film. It connected with a lot of people who may not have had the kind of vicious experience that these characters have, but have had some sort of interaction with corruption. How do you feel that this film connects with them?
I feel that this film connects, in one way or another, with the larger audience. Half of us – in India – have experienced these things on a first hand basis. Those people are the ones who are able to connect with this film. Those who don't have those experiences, hear or read about it and it is something that they have ignored for a long time.
When a film is presented like this, in this way, with the intensity it has, they feel a kind of guilt of not having done anything to change it. That guilt turned into a responsibility when seeing this film to make sure that it is received well in the mainstream. I think that's what works, everybody said good things about the film because they new that this is a film that is dealing with facts. There is no fabrication, it's just true.
With the submission of Chaitanya Tamhane's COURT last year, and now INTERROGATION this year, it seems as though the country is starting to talk about these issues of corruption that have been ignored for a long time. Do you think the country is ready to do something about it?
Yes, Court is a very fine film. It deals with delayed justice in the legal system and Interrogation deals with the police system, both are different faces of the same creature.
It's very encouraging to see these kinds of films being allowed to represent our country. This really makes me feel that we live in a democratic system where a filmmaker's voice is respected and he is allowed to express himself. He might have a different social and political standing than the government, but the government allows him to express himself. I think that is something good that is happening.
As you’ve been showing this film, specifically to non-Indian audiences, what have you noticed about the reactions to the visceral violence in those screenings?
See, the first thing when we watched the film especially here in screenings, the first twenty minutes is the toughest because it is so much of pain and it is shocking. It is really shocking for an American viewer, or a European viewer for that matter. They just want to get away from seeing this violence. But, just as I mentioned about what goes on in a person’s mind when he sees real suffering, when he watches real suffering, do they go help or run away from it.
Whatever they do, they are concerned about knowing what happened to that person. If you don’t help and you just run away from that spot, back of your mind you’ll be wondering what happened to that person. “Is he okay? Is he alive? Has he survived that mishap?” This keeps running in the mind, that way it happens. Even though it is disturbing, even though it’s bad, even though it is unbearable for the viewer, back of their mind they want to know that these boys are safe.
That, I feel, makes them watch through the film. They understand what is said. It is not just the physical violence that is portrayed, there is more to it. When the violence is discussed, I want to share one thing about the kind of violence that is there, there is no - I am not a person to indulge in portraying violence, or glorifying violence, or taking pleasure in showing violence on screen. That is not my thing.
My duty as a filmmaker and a person who is concerned about human rights violations is to document the violence, the police procedural violence that goes in, not just in India, but the whole world. Wherever it is, the degrees might vary, in India it is this way, in the Middle East it might be different, in Europe it might be different, in U.S. it might be different. The degrees might vary, but the police brutality, the police procedural violence is prevalent worldwide.
So, as a person who is concerned about human rights violations, I thought that I need to document this and present it to the viewer, irrespective of the country or race. I just wanted to present this to the viewer. I feel that when you watch the film you will realize that it touches you, it moves you, because this is a big grief we all want, as the filmmakers, wanted to share with the world about this particular thing.
And I think everybody is ready to receive it, because the screenings we are having, the first thing that comes is, “We are moved. Is it really happening there? We really want to do something.” It is bothering them and they are concerned about it. In that way we are able to strike the right chord. That’s what I feel.
Why do you think that INTERROGATION should continue making its way into the public consciousness? Why is this so relevant now that you think people need to come see the film?
To start with, we have dealt with truth, not just fact, truth. It is not confined to one particular ethnic group, it’s relevant to the world. Especially today, in this context it is relevant more worldwide. As I mentioned earlier, this is an earnest effort from our side to share a grief, a grief not from my country, but from the world. We somehow happened to be in a place to make this film.
This is something that we want to share with the world, that makes the film worthy of a watch. It’s a earnest attempt, there is no... we are not trying to embellish this, we are not trying to glorify anything, we just documented certain facts. Of course, we have dealt with it in a dramatic way, but it’s the truth, and I always feel that art has to discuss truth in its own way and own space. So, in that way we are here, sharing a grief and a truth, so that makes the film more relevant and it appeals to the empathy of the viewer.
I completely agree, and the film is now available to watch, right?
Yes, it’s on Netflix worldwide.
I hope that more people are able to take the time to experience the film.
Experience is a good word for this film.
Thank you very much for talking with us, and best of luck!
Vetri Maaran's Interrogation is screening for free at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood tomorrow, December 8 at 7:30. Follow the link below to reserve your last chance to see the film in a U.S. cinema in 2016.