Crime as punishment

Print edition : April 29, 2016

A still from the Tamil film, "Visaaranai". Photo: By Special Arrangement

Mohammed Aamir Khan was picked up in old Delhi in 1998 as a suspect in some low-intensity blasts and kept in jails for 14 years and tortured before his release for lack of evidence.

The "Visaaranai" team at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival on September 10. (From left) Chandrakumar, whose book "Lock-up" in Tamil was made into the film, actor Samuthirakani, director Vetri Maaran, and actor Dinesh Ravi. The film was presented in the Orizzonti selection of the festival. Photo: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP

WE know from contemporary experience as much as from history that crime and punishment may be associative concepts but are not necessarily in a cause and effect relationship. A crime need only be assumed, not proven, to warrant the punishment. From the Inquisition well into the eighteenth century, demonstrative, elaborately graded and what were considered exemplary forms of torture were devised and carried out in full display of the public to extract confessions from the accused. The confession was tantamount to guilt. It did not matter that it was prised from the accused by the infliction of unbearable bodily torture.

The make-believe was that when the body was beleaguered by insufferable pain, the soul or the spirit of the person would reveal the truth. The truth, of course, invariably meant acceptance of guilt, and its logical end was absolution through repentance before certain and ultimate—and at that stage of torture, welcome —death. Confession and contrition were the objective and natural consequence of torture. It was important to save the soul; it mattered little what the body suffered and that it perished in the process. This make-believe, we are further led to believe, may have rubbed off on some of those subject to the torture. We see them depicted in states of ecstasy as they are tortured, as representing the apotheosis of salvation by pain.

The torture was even sugar-coated as a generous opportunity for the accused to prove his or her innocence. If the person was really not guilty of the alleged crime, there was no way any torture would affect him. He would be unscathed, beatifically untouched, by the red-hot iron tongs that tore away chunks of flesh from different parts of his body, by his limbs being coated with sulphur and set on fire, by being stretched on the rack, by being quartered by horses pulling his four limbs in four directions, by being immersed in boiling oil, and by other such ingenious means. So, all in all, it was a Hobson’s choice compounded, and confounded, by metaphysical claptrap.

Enter Dostoevsky, in the post-Enlightenment era, and his Crime and Punishment in the latter part of the nineteenth century, where the crime is something of an aspirational challenge for the protagonist, who has to bring the punishment upon himself, partly as affirmation of accomplishment of that challenge. Raskolnikov is driven to kill the old woman to transgress and exceed his mundane condition, much like, he imagines, Napolean became aware of his destiny and went about his invasions. It was, more than the routine or natural reaction of guilt or penitence of a novitiate homicide, a peculiar casuistry of larger moral cause and effect. The crime and the punishment are in tandem. The punishment, in a sense, vindicates the crime. It is causally linked to the crime. The admission of the crime is logically impelled by the tension between the protagonist’s personal and social entanglements on the one hand and his ambition to exceed his circumstances on the other. It is not forced by intimidation or extorted by infliction of corporal pain.

From that symbiotic relationship of crime and punishment at the religious and psychiatric planes respectively to the secular disjunction between them obtaining now is a giant leap. There is crime and there is punishment, and the two, it would seem, do not necessarily need to have anything to do with one another. The punishment itself is often really the crime. Not the legal punishment after a trial as ruled by a court of law, but the arbitrary punishment of having to spend years in isolation and confinement in extreme conditions, the punishment of custodial beating and torture so that the interrogators can fabricate the evidence required to fix the judicial verdict.

In the wake of 9/11, third-degree torture was euphemised as extraordinary rendition. Detention without trial for lengthy periods in conditions of physical and mental privation was ghettoised in Guantanamo Bay, from where eventually most of the 775 persons held since 2002 have been released because no case could be brought against them. It must now have dawned on the most hawkish elements in the United States security and intelligence apparatus that cases manufactured under duress do not stick and can be uselessly or dangerously misleading. At least the Obama administration seemed to be veering round to this wisdom. And yet in the wake of the terror attack on Brussels, the Republican Presidential aspirant goes right back to publicly bragging about resorting to a lot more than waterboarding.

At least two films, both made in 2007—one, from the accounts one has read, more profound, low-budget and British, and the other as serious and as expensive as Hollywood generally gets and neatly avoiding pinning the blame where it ultimately belongs—take up the theme of the spiriting away of a suspect and his torture via extraordinary rendition. Gavin Hood’s Rendition is a light touch on a dark subject without looking away from the excess, illegality, suffering and injustice entailed in this essentially criminal modus operandi. Jim Threapleton’s Extraordinary Rendition (which I have not seen), shown at the Locarno Festival in 2007 and telecast by BBC, apparently has some shocking and grippingly real scenes of torture, particularly waterboarding, but seems not to have made it into the cinemas, and little, strangely, has been heard of it since.

Here in India, given the number of people shut away in prisons pending trial and the frequency with which instances of torture in prison cells surface in the media, one would think that this regular miscarriage of justice would have merited a conscientious and honest film long before now.

After all, the policeman has played hero, anti-hero, villain, joker and prop variously in various films, and this aspect of how he systematically criminalises the criminal justice system by foisting false cases on innocent citizens and brutalising them in custody—for the lure of money or promotion, or by way of simply following orders from higher-ups in the hierarchy, or to please anonymous political or corporate interests who pull the strings from outside—was crying to be seen and heard by the public.

We have the astounding, living example of a victim of such dastardly abuse of police power in the person of Mohammad Aamir Khan, who was picked up near his house in Old Delhi in 1998, when he was barely 20 years old, as a suspect in some low-intensity blasts, and had to spend the next 14 years in different jails undergoing a variety of brutal torture. He was forced to sign blank sheets of confession to the many cases thrown at him, and was eventually released in 2012 because there was nothing, at the end of it all, to incriminate him. Fourteen years of his youthful life had been lobbed off, and how.

He recounts in his book, Framed as a Terrorist: My 14-year Struggle to Prove my Innocence, published early this year, the kinds of iniquity, insult and torture he was subject to, including beatings, extreme stretching of his legs, electric shocks, and solitary confinement. Those who were torturing him knew or realised soon enough that he was innocent. But it did not matter. The crime, of the blasts, demanded a criminal. It did not matter if they could not catch the real criminal. A sacrificial lamb would do instead. He could be beaten into shape to fit the description of the real criminal whom they did not know or could not find. And no one is held to account for this wanton custodial crime.

Vetri Maaran in his latest film Visaaranai (Interrogation) engages with this vicious side of so-called law enforcement boldly and unflinchingly, and for the first time as incisively as this on this subject for an Indian film. He does it with deft craft and measured empathy. He does it with a mise en scene which holds the mood in rapt and tense control, with chiaroscuro lighting where the dark shades seem to merge into dank shadows harbouring untold miseries. His characterisations are at once vivid yet nuanced, performative yet behaviourally lifelike and organic. The cast he has put together fills the roles assigned to them to the T.

Strangely, though, the malefactors command our attention and grudging awe more compellingly than the innocent victims elicit our sympathy. Not that Dinesh Ravi, Aaadukalam Murugadoss and the two others as the hapless workers caught in the trap are in any way wanting. They are convincingly and immediately real in their very body language of fear and tremulousness. Dinesh, in particular, brings the semblance every now and then of clinging by a thread to his dignity, his rights and hope in a hopeless situation, providing about all the range his role can allow. It is not their fault that at the receiving end of the torture they are reduced to the stock response of screaming in pain and fear. It is in the nature of the situation they are cast into.

The cops, played by Samuthirakani, Ajay Ghosh and E. Ramdoss, are, each of them, quite brilliantly different and distinctive. We think they are familiar, but soon realise there is more we do not know about them than we do. Kishore as the corrupt business agent traverses with understated finesse the range, from the wily, arrogant fixer who knows his way about policedom to himself being caught and strung in the web of the plot being woven by unseen hands from above. Vetri Maaran lets the all-round helplessness before some inscrutable, inexorable power be. Because that, we know without his having to tell us, is the way it is. And will probably continue to be, given our social relations and power structures. This is cinema which is, more than reality, a reality check.

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