Forget the Oscars, M Chandrakumar, 54, better known as Auto Chandran, says he never imagined that anyone would make a movie out of his novel Lock Up, inspired by his experience in police custody in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur as a teenager. “Even after we won a few awards and sold around 5,000 copies, hardly anyone admired Lock Up. But after it was made into the movie Visaranai (Interrogation), I have become a celebrity,” he says at his home in Coimbatore.
Today, the man behind the Tamil docu-drama on four migrant workers in police custody, is getting ready for the Oscars. Or, is he? “I have no clue, it will be decided by the film’s director Vetrimaran,” says Chandran.
This dramatic turn of events is a bit like the story he wrote — and his life before that, when he ran away from home in Coimbatore after a quarrel with his parents. “I was working in Guntur at a hotel when I was picked up by police along with a few other gypsies. They suspected us of involvement in a theft,” he says. Chandran says he was detained in a 10×10 room, tortured for over two weeks for a crime he never committed and imprisoned for five and-a-half months in a Guntur jail.
He says he was picked up in March 1983. “I was in custody for the next 15 days. They tortured us continuously, demanding we confess. None of us had done it, so we didn’t. But finally, they took us to separate lock-up rooms and tortured us. We were told the others had confessed, and we finally had to confess. Two people who confessed were served parotta and tea; the director changed it to biriyani in the film,” Chandran says.
Six hours of torture they endured became two minutes on screen. “Vetrimaran could understand the pain I wrote about,” he said.
“I returned to Coimbatore in 1984, after police custody and imprisonment, and then wandered through south India. I visited Guntur twice, in 1992 and 2014. But I couldn’t trace those three other youths who were in custody along with me. But I will visit Guntur again and again because that place has memories of some people I respect a lot, a place that played a major role in changing my life. Those tree saplings at the Guntur Gandhi Park have now become huge trees. I went to see all of that,” he says.
Apart from Lock Up and Lock Up-2, which recalls his months in Guntur prison, Chandran has authored other books in Tamil, including Boomiyai Kolaikalam Aakkum America (America Turns Earth into a Hell), a collection of essays on imperialism and history of terrorism; Kovaiyil Jeeva (Jeeva in Coimbatore on Communist leader P Jeevanandam; Eriyum Pattatharasi on atrocities against Dalits; and, Azhagu Thodattuma (Shall I Touch Beauty?), on women from all walks of life and their struggles.
Lock Up, which was published in 2006 by Pathivugal Pathippagam, won the ‘Best Document of Human Rights’ award in June 2006 from a collective headed by late Justice V R Krishna Iyer.
National award-winning Visaranai, produced by Tamil actor Dhanush’s Wunderbar Films, premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 2015 and was released in theatres in February 2016.
Vetrimaran is known for the offbeat and realistic portrayal of rural Tamil life, with his Aadukalam winning a national award for Dhanush.
So how much has life changed for Chandran after his novel become a movie that won many international awards? “No change,” he says.
He still drives the autorickshaw that he owns, apart from a small house in Coimbatore. He says he earns around Rs 600-800 a day while proof-reading and editing his writings by the roadside when there are no customers.
His daughter, Jeeva Chandrakumar, a postgraduate in photography, does freelance assignments, and his wife, Subbalakshmi, is at home, “admiring our struggles and long life”.
“I didn’t write this book hoping that it would make me a celebrity, I never thought that it will take me to the Venice festival where some among the audience apologised to me for all that suffering, some were in tears. But at a time when we increasingly see a lot of custodial deaths and extra-judicial killings, I thank Vetrimaran for picking up my story. Books and movies should speak the life of people,” Chandran says.
And then it’s time. Time for him to reach the local auto stand before the evening turns dark.