Dostoyevsky and Hitchcock meet up in this stylish Tamil thriller. M. Manikandan returns to the London Indian Film Festival after his hit Crow’s Egg (2015), telling the story of Ravi, a hard-working young man who is turning blind. He lives in a murky and rancid condominium in India, similar to a shanty town, where he constantly watches a young female neighbour receiving male guests. One day he decides to knock into her door only to find out that she’s been mysteriously murdered. He suspects of two men and sees an opportunity for making some money by blackmailing them. It all seems ok because after all he needs money for a “noble cause”: an eye transplant.
Crime is Punishment is a fitting example of current state of Indian cinematography. India is the world’s most prolific film market, but few films have global appeal. There is a big internal market, that reflects domestic reality and tastes. Quoting two big influences in literature and cinema could be a formula to reach American and European audiences. If only Manikandan avoided the moral principles Dostoyevsky and Hitchcock followed, and portrayed Indian society as it is, in other words, deeply corrupted, then he would have created a subversive film. It is not the case. Crime is Punishment instead conveys a strong sense of morality – which may disappoint global audiences used to more subversive messages.
In Dostoyevsky’s novel, the author condemns Raskolnikov’s actions. Raskolnikov sees the system of 1860s Czarist regime in its totality. He understands both aspects of the Marxist dialectic and uses his personal beliefs and values in this regard. The Russian character wants to promote change by assisting the marginalised and confronting the powerful and wealthy individuals that threaten his family or his sense of decency. But by the end of the novel, he is not a mere and cruel murderer; he is instead a victim into his honesty and morality. He cannot subvert the order because his consciousness doesn’t allow him.
Hitchcock’s films also explore the terrible potential that the abuse of power has to destroy human life. Authority figures in Hitchcock’s films, such as police officers and doctors, that also appear in Crime is Punishment, are seen either as sinister or ridiculous. In Vertigo (1958) the authority figures are concerned with the perils of seductive pleasures. In this Indian picture, police discovers Ravi’s sight problems and does not question whether he is keen or not to identify the murderer. The doctors, in turn, accept bribes in order to put Ravi at the top of waiting list for the eye transplant.
Hitchcock’s influence on this film is revealed in some other aspects too: the soundtrack that changes the minute Ravi gets suspicious of his neighbour’s lover. In fact this sudden change is strange, as there is no previous hint that the film is a thriller. The second aspect is the way the cinematographer shows Ravi’s sight problems. He sees partially as if his sight was reduced into a small circle, which is pretty much similar to Jeff’s (James Stewart) view behind his lenses in his flat (in Rear Window, 1954).
There is a interesting twist at the end of the movie, which reveals Ravi’s real motivation. He is not intrigued by the crime, as Jeff was; he is only worried of his own health condition. The disclosure is a reflection of Ravi’s cynical behaviour, as well as a punishment for his lack of morality. It follows the Hinduism law of karma, which is represented in the film by the dragon. A friend of Ravi gives him a dragon made of glass – in India, dragons often have a religious connotation.
Crime is Punishment was exhibited in the London Indian Film Festival, which ended yesterday. You can watch the film trailer below: