In an interview with TNM, Franklin Jacob talks about his politics, defying the hero-mould for a protagonist, the film’s sharp focus on the cost of denying Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Christians, and more.

Director Franklin Jacob (L), 'Writer' poster (R)Director Franklin Jacob (L), 'Writer' poster (R)
Flix Interview Wednesday, January 05, 2022 - 18:11

Franklin Jacob’s directorial debut, Writer, that released on December 24, is running successfully in theatres. Produced by Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions, Little Red Car, Golden Ration Films and Jetty Productions, the movie has been hugely appreciated by critics and larger audiences alike.

Writer, unerringly, sheds light on how the police system criminalises people from Dalit, tribal and/or minority religious communities and goes further to depict the claustrophobic reality of class, caste, rank and gender hierarchies within the police system. The film stars Samuthirakani, Hari Krishnan, Dileepan, GM Sundar and Ineya in important roles.

TNM sat down with the director, Franklin Jacob, to talk about his politics of rage, compassion and hope, defying the hero-mould for a protagonist, the film’s sharp focus on the cost of denying Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Christians and more.

Writer could have just been about police excesses and still been a powerful film. What surprised us all was the compassion you tempered your critique with. What was the reason to bring in the struggles of low-level cops as well?

It was something Dr Ambedkar had said that influenced my decision: “If you can make a person realise that they are enslaved, that is enough”. The intention of the film was to show to the police personnel in lower ranks, how their internal hierarchies are crushing them. I wanted them to see what they do under the weight of hierarchy. 

Also, there is a disconnect between the police system and people. It is supposedly for the people, but contrarily, most of us are scared to approach them. So, the questions that people ask themselves are: “Who are we being told the police are for?” and “Whom do they really serve?” The issues then aren’t between us and an individual cop. It is between us and the system. It’s impossible to critique that system without also exploring what the system does to the police personnel themselves, what they are made to do. I wanted the film to bridge two sides: one of the public perceptions of the police force, the second the perspectives and hierarchies within the police system. For me, as a person fighting towards liberation, it felt critical that I portray all this.

Our collective outrage can often lead us to lose sight of compassion and hope. How integral are these two qualities—both key elements in your film—to our politicisation, in your view?

Humanity has made vast advances scientifically. People are studying black holes and nebulae. The abuses of power, continued atrocities are happening in this very same scientific world. A need to find out who is responsible for this imbalance, the anger against this imbalance is what drives us all. This anger is what fuels the film too. When it comes to hope, to paraphrase Lenin, we have nothing to lose by having hope, but we have a better world to gain. I would say keep walking towards that better world, keep your determination and courage. I believe we will arrive at liberation someday.

I wanted my film to feed hope. It is hope that sows revolutions.

As a filmmaker, when I am registering my critique of a system, I’m obliged to take a 360-degree view of that system. I have to ask what the social status of the people I am criticising is, and ask how society portrays them. That is why Writer depicts the oppression that those within the police force face, the toll on their mental health as well as the violent excesses.

The character of Thangaraj (played by Samuthirakani) isn’t a conventional cinema cop-hero, which sets this film apart. Can you speak about this?

I carried out a lot of research before the film. I met and spoke to many in the police force. What I’ve depicted in Writer are the kind of police personnel I came across. I saw how convinced so many are about their methods. Their lives are so violent. I resolved not to glorify this violence. There are many films that have already come out about the police. Instead, I wanted to go beyond those and give some clarity about their lives. This was the point from which the decision to not register criticism alone, but try to offer some kind of fuller understanding of the problem came from.

One of the most important things I learned from director Pa Ranjith was that I must analyse what I want to convey deeply, and finally take a call as a director. He was insistent that I should be able to defend my position any day. There may be pre-existing formulas for how a protagonist should be, but I decided to defy that. Here, the protagonist isn’t young, he doesn’t have a female lead. Writer shows the kind of police I’ve seen in real life. There was no reason for one of them to become absolutely righteous the moment he entered the film screen. And also, the story didn’t require the character to be flawless. The police system puts many restrictions and demands on the individuals who are in the force. I chose someone who struggles to do some good despite the system to be my protagonist. Finally, when I’m bringing a flawed system into cinema, it was a deliberate choice to not have an infallible protagonist. It’s impossible, in reality, to be that way within the system.

This is the first time I'm seeing a film hint at the crisis faced by Dalit Christians due to lack of Scheduled Caste status. What pushed you to put this in?

Because I’m a victim of that lack. If I’d had access to the reservation that should have been my due, I may have studied a lot more. Why was I denied my birthright? I’m still in the “keezh theru” (Dalit colony), I know how the rest of my village views me, I grew up acutely aware that I am not to interact with the young boys of the “mel theru”, that I cannot marry a woman from there. So if my caste stays with me from the day of my birth, I see reservation as my birthright. I cannot accept that it has been denied to me. Someone to whom this injustice was done is Devakumar (played by Hari Krishnan). Devakumar is my Jesus, born in the “keezh theru”. If this Jesus had not been denied his birthright, he would have been superbly educated. He would have been a stellar student who had his fundamental rights. He would have been alive.

There are many Dalit Christians to this day who have not studied beyond Class 10. There are many who have not been able to rise to higher positions in government jobs. The few who have managed to do so to a degree had to accomplish it with just their Backward Class status. They are not some mere statistic, they are people who have had their rights denied.

Read: Writer review: Scathing indictment of Tamil cinema’s obsession with hero-cop formula

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