There are few better positions from which to observe the exercise of authority than the lowest rung. Tamil director Vetri Maraan’s terrific new film Vidhuthalai Part 1 (Liberation), set in 1987 but ricocheting through the present and even the future, provides a bottom-up view of power through the experiences of a low-ranking police driver.

Kumaresh (Soori) is the newest recruit in a police unit that has been set up to nab the shadowy rebel leader Perumal (Vijay Sethupathi). Stuck at the border of a forest for months, poorly equipped, making do with basic rations (the gourd known as chouchou is a staple), and always in danger of being attacked by Perumal’s followers, the police unit initially invites sympathy.

The 150-minute movie begins with a bravura extended single-take depiction of a train that has been blasted off its track. This is the very day that Soori, gingerly picking his way among the bodies, concern and conscientiousness writ large on his face, begins work as a driver, cook and general dogsbody.

The rebels are protesting against a proposed mining project in the region. The police don’t have a single photograph of Perumal, who flits in and out of view but whose reputation, and essence, loom large over events.

There is another behind-the-scenes presence in Vidhuthalai Part 1, based on a story by the writer Jeyamohan (a second part will be released over the next few months). The state, represented by the wily Chief Secretary Subramaniyan (Rajiv Menon), doubles down despite incidents of custodial torture, killings by trigger-happy policemen and the disappearance of suspects. High-ranking officer Sunil Menon (Gautham Menon) is sent to ensure that “Operation Ghosthunt” is executed successfully.

Viduthalai Part 1 (2023).

Vetri Maaran, who has written the film with Jeyamohan, keeps a densely plotted narrative moving along while never ignoring the political circumstances behind Perumal’s militancy. The director of Visaranai, Vada Chennai and Asuran is no stranger to addressing debates on caste, deeply embedded inequity and injustice through popular storytelling devices.

Kumaresh’s charming courtship of village resident Tamizharasi (Bhavani Sre) unfolds amidst soulful tunes by Ilaiyaraaja, Battle of Algiers-style chases, and disturbing instances of police excess that leave Visaranai behind in terms of their shock value. Some of these scenes are needlessly graphic, especially in showing the trauma of the women.

The stuff that goes on in this remote outpost, far away from the eyes of the media and with the state’s sanction, is presented with a boldness and cogency missing from popular portrayals of militant movements. Except for a few moments of crowd-pleasing heroism, the film has an unwavering ripped-off-the-headlines quality that is conveyed through documentary-style realism and cinematographer R Velraj’s unshowy visuals.

Vetri Maaran dexterously flips the notion that there are two sides to every story by watching Perumal’s war on the government through Kumaresh’s troubled eyes. This marvellous creation, beautifully played by Soori, struggles to earn his place in the police unit while also answering to his conscience. The cast includes Chetan as Kumaresh’s odious boss, who is an all-too-perfect product of a system that has dehumanised its constituents.