Swathi Kolai Vazhakku, Talvar and the ethics of making films on real-life murder cases
By Ila Ananya
“The untimely death of my daughter at her prime age completely shut the doors for us to lead a peaceful life as ordinary citizens, and we couldn’t digest the incident till date,” K Santhanagopalakrishnan wrote in a letter to the police when he heard about director Ramesh Selvan’s upcoming movie, Swathi Kolai Vazhakku (Swathi Murder Case).
He was appealing that the production and release of the unexpected film on his daughter’s brutal murder at Nungambakkam railway station in June 2016 be stopped, since Selvan had never approached his family for permission to make the film. “We are unable to gauge the intention of producing such a movie, as the facts can be twisted, particularly about my daughter,” The News Minute reports him as writing, adding that his family’s slow move towards normalcy had been thrown off course with the release of Swathi Kolai Vazhakku’s trailer.
With this letter, Santhanagopalakrishnan reopened an important debate. Essentially, he seemed to be asking, can movies based on true crimes ever be ethical? What is the point of true crime movies?
Swathi Kolai Vazhakku is by no means the first. Whether it’s Sarah Koenig’s wildly popular podcast Serial (on the murder of Hae Min Lee), or Meghna Gulzar’s Talvar (on the Aarushi Talwar-Hemraj murders), they have played straight into a deep curiosity about crime, those who do it and those who are the victims of it. These TV shows and movies have brought us closer to the people involved in the crime than we can ever be — their lure is that we’ll be shown a spectacle and/or truth that even closely followed news reports have never been able to tell us.
As consumers of true crime in its many forms we devour it with varying degrees of squeamishness and enjoyment. Only occasionally do we wonder uncomfortably about ethics, and the reason why we want to know all the violent details of a case is because they excite us.
It’s no wonder then that Swathi’s father is angry and upset. His letter made it clear that his family was worried about Selvan’s movie because they didn’t know how Swathi would be represented. It was the same worry that surfaced in the first week after Swathi’s death in 2016: her family and friends appealed to the media time and again that she was of a “good character”, that she was quiet, and didn’t speak to men. Swathi Kolai Vazhakku had now gone a step forward, problematically claiming to portray the ‘truth’ that would reveal previously unknown details of a murder.
Scarlett Keeling’s mother had found herself caught up in a similar controversy when she heard that the movie Anjunaa Beach (2014) was on the rape and murder of her daughter in Goa in 2008, prompting her to demand to see it before it was released. It seemed that more than judgmental news reports, the fear was that a movie, which turned real people into characters, was sure to take on a life of its own, changing how people were remembered.
Even while sympathising with the loved ones of victims, few would defend their (completely normal) desire to not have these movies made at all. They are after all in the thick of it. This is not to say these movies, shows and podcasts are as objective as directors are quick to claim they are. (Or another tactic as in the case of Ram Gopal Varma who said that his film Not a Love Story is only inspired by the Neeraj Grover murder and not a true depiction.) Some, like Sarah Koenig on Serial, say blatantly that they don’t believe that the state’s story on the teenaged Hae Min Lee’s murder is the real story. Decades after the fact, they were clear that they wanted to prove that her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed didn’t do what he had been imprisoned for.
Other films, like Talvar (2015), have been criticised for trying to push a similar kind of difficult idea — that Aarushi Talwar’s parents, who had been convicted for their daughter’s murder, were not the real killers. Talvar didn’t do this as obviously as Serial. Instead, it told the story from various perspectives, but gave off the unshakeable sense that these perspectives were there to peddle the director’s own reading of the case. Director Meghna Gulzar had, however, said in interviews, “My biggest takeaway from this case is that there is no finality. Even when there were theories floating around, they were always kacchi pakki si [half-baked].”
How directors choose to depict violence is an important marker of how they have thought through the ‘truth vs cheap thrills’ play off every true crime production. Swathi Kolai Vazhakku’s trailer, for instance, plays straight into this. It begins with a policeman walking down an empty platform at Nungambakkam railway station in Chennai at night. He’s broad-shouldered and tall, macho in his unusually tight white shirt, and walking down the platform as though he owns it. “In every policeman’s life comes that one important case, but this case is important to the whole of Tamil Nadu,” he says seriously. He has the air of a brooding cop, ruthless, but only for his job, the man whom we can ‘trust’ to bring justice.
Soon after, we see an extremely fair Swathi (enough of a silent marker for those who followed the seamy caste politics that marked the debates around the murder) being followed by the plain and unprepossessing Ramkumar, and suddenly she is lying in a pool of blood on the platform. Then our macho cop reappears, this time in a police uniform as tight as his white shirt. There are multiple cop chases, and suddenly Ramkumar is on his knees, while the police threaten him by slowly slitting his throat. It’s an astonishing moment for a movie, not to mention a trailer. Are we supposed to hate Ramkumar so much by this point that what we are supposed to cheer on the macho police as they nearly murder someone? True crime carries a burden of complicated ethical issues, but it doesn’t take the wisdom of the ages to say no need to a scene like this.
Perhaps Swathi’s father was also worried that all of these possible issues with a film on his daughter’s murder would simply pile up, making the stories bigger than the real people they were once about. Public reactions to each of these movies and podcasts are often wild, making people believe they are detectives themselves. After Serial aired, for instance, people took to posting conspiracy theories online after they’d gone over private diary entries of the woman who had died, just like the Aarushi Talwar murder became the hot topic for discussion at every dinner table in 2008. Or that Brahmin matrimonial sites would once more use his daughter’s murder to teach cautionary tales such as ‘boys from other castes are keen to woo girls of higher genetics’.
Surprisingly, Swathi Kolai Vazhakku’s director Selvan has chosen to make his film retaining the original names of the victim and accused, shooting it in all the places where the crime originally took place (Ram Gopal Varma didn’t retain names in Not a Love Story but did get flak for shooting it in the same building where the murder happened). In an interview with Scroll.in, Selvan said that his motivation was apparently “not to make money” but to “understand the entire case”, and “ensure that such a crime doesn’t happen again.” From just the trailer, there’s no sense of how Swathi Kolai Vazhakku can do that, especially since it seems to forget that Swathi’s is a real story. In the end of this movie, it is highly unlikely we will know anything about Swathi and Ramkumar.
Perhaps, we will never know what Ramkumar was thinking but this movie looks highly unlikely to help us get anywhere near the truth.
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