“Paradesi”… Tea and no sympathy

In Naan Kadavul, Bala told us that life was hell, and yet, there was hope for redemption – a self-proclaimed god (even if not quite God) could come by and slice your throat and liberate your soul from further suffering. (By this director’s yardstick, this was a thumpingly upbeat ending, the purgatorial parallel to lovers locking lips at the end of a romcom.) In Paradesi, his mood isn’t as hopeful. He still tells us that life is hell – and this film does function as a companion piece to Naan Kadavul, featuring a similar scenario of unfortunates being rounded up for dreadful labour – but just as you think there’s a chance of escaping this hell, there’s a different hell around the corner, and in the corner beyond that, and the one beyond that. It’s a vicious vortex, and it’s no surprise that the film ends with a song set to the tune of Ye theeruga nanu, Bhadrachala Ramadasa’s mournful plea to the Lord. Even if we cry out to kadavul, is He listening?

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Paradesi, which is inspired by events depicted in the novel Red Tea (about impoverished villagers duped into bonded labour on tea estates), opens in a village named Salur, in 1939 — and it incorporates everything we have come to associate with this filmmaker. The subhuman, even animalistic, hero who seems to have evolved in a cave at the outskirts of civilisation. The loosu ponnu heroine (played by Vedhika, who’s mercifully plunged into tragedy soon enough; I could never bear those characters Laila played in Bala’s earlier films). Individuals who are torn from one family and who form new families with similarly stranded people. The casual conflation of the serious and the lighthearted, as in a wedding sequence that plays over a death, or another scene where a heated catfight is intercut with lovers flirting through gestures. And, of course, brutal violence, portrayed with scrupulous attention to the specifics.

Then there’s the humour. Bala is so often described as “dark” and “disturbing” and with other qualifiers of this ilk that we forget sometimes how funny he can be, in that twisted and macabre way of his. Rasa (an expressive Adharvaa Murali) trades insults freely with his hunchbacked grandmother, and he ribs an uncle about the latter’s unmentionables, caught peeking out of his veshti. And once the story shifts to the tea estate, we meet a Britisher (he lip-syncs his Tamil lines better than most of our heroines) who loves to bed Indian women, whom he then rechristens with English-sounding names. And how can we not laugh when the Christian doctor and his wife (he’s brown, she’s white; naturally, at first, she’s assumed to be the doctor) who’ve come to treat the plague that’s infected these labourers also turn out to be shameless proselytisers. They subsequently break into a song-and-dance – what better way to reach the masses? – in a fourth-wall breaking item number that can only be called gospel-dappankuthu.

But even with all these Bala-isms, there’s something about Paradesi that makes us feel it’s his truest film yet – for, despite these sprinklings of humour, there’s no real lightness, not much crowd-pleasing calculation. Bala’s earlier films were shrouded in darkness, but his gift for colourful dialogue and characterisation functioned as the sweetener around the bitter pill. Amidst all the tribulations in Naan Kadavul, we’d still cut away to a police station where lookalikes of Tamil film stars are forced to perform pieces, after which a female impersonator is revealed to be a bald man. Paradesi has very little of this. I recall a translator in the tea estate who communicates through pidgin English and mime – he’s a riot in that single scene. But almost all other characters (including the labourer played by Dhansika) are subdued and solemn. And while there’s something to be admired in this purity of purpose, this also makes the film seem like one long stretch of the same shade, an illusion that’s furthered by the ashen cinematography.

This is perhaps easier explained with the example of Schindler’s List, a film that springs to mind the minute the new arrivals at the tea estate are given a physical examination. Paradesi, like Schindler’s List, is the depiction of the systematic brutalisation of a section of innocent people, but the Hollywood film showcased these sufferings through the doings of its hero, while this film has no use for a redeemer – and we are left with nothing but the suffering, no parallel stories, no subplots, nothing. It’s just one bad thing after another, and while this sameness can be rationalised – “the unrelenting bleakness of the movie is but a reflection of the unrelenting bleakness in these people’s lives” – it doesn’t make for a very gripping narrative. (Though a case could be made that Bala’s narratives have never been gripping in the conventional sense, that they’ve always been loose clotheslines on which Great Moments have been pinned.)

This sense of sameness is everywhere – in the captions on screen (48 days later… 18 months later… 4 years later…), and even in the nominal hero. Rasa is treated badly by the people in his village, and he’s treated badly at the tea estate. He’s beaten up there, and he’s beaten up here. He has to scrounge around for food there, and it’s no different here. He works like a mule there, and he works like a mule here. Of course, he wasn’t a slave in his village – but given that the things that happen to him before and after his enslavement aren’t all that varied in tone (they vary only in texture), we become numb to his suffering after a point. The flash of transformation, I suppose, comes through the irony that this man, this announcer who used to pound on his drum and rouse the village to convey tidings, has now no way to convey his plight to anyone. But is this enough in a mainstream movie?

For, finally, this is a mainstream movie. There is a love angle (not very convincing, but at least we get the lovely duet, Avatha paiya). And as counterpoint to this duet, there are three dirges (Sengaade, Senneer thaana, Yaathe kaala koothe) – at least two too many – that play over scenes of suffering. There is aural melodrama (an overbearing score that strives to amp up the tragedies tenfold). There is visual melodrama, as in the frame where the palm of a dying man rises slowly and dramatically from the bottom of the screen. And there are villains in the form of sneering, unfeeling whites, who laugh about the news that their employees are being felled by the plague. These traditional commercial-film elements are an odd fit in a film that’s attempting to be something wholly different. Paradesi is an important lesson on a forgotten chapter of history, but as cinema, Bala’s truest isn’t up there with Bala’s best.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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43 thoughts on ““Paradesi”… Tea and no sympathy

  1. Superb review, I too felt the same, his best films either left us with hope or with characters to cherish, this just made us cringe.


  2. BR, I liked the movie. However, Bala’s best narrations, IMHO, are Pithamagan, Naan Kadavul, Sethu ( in this order). In regard to cliches, It is his style of narration. Nice climax. Never felt the film was unrelentingly bleak. i go with that rationalization, that was offered.


  3. I actually see it the other way… There are two things: if a person (A) enslaves another person (B), then B can seek for hope, sympathy and all that. But the more fundamental question to think about is why the hell did A enslave B. What authority does he have to do so ? I think Bala tried to look the later aspect in this film.


  4. Agree that this was not Bala’s best, but I still think this has been the best Tamil movie of the year so far and was miles ahead of the underwhelming Kadal or Viswaroopam.

    Bala may have his faults, one wonders if he is versatile enough to delve into another genre, but unlike the likes of Mani Ratnam or even Kamal Haasan, I think he has so much more to offer to Tamil cinema.


  5. Interesting take(not seen it yet). I got the same-thing-again-and-again feeling seeing the trailer where there are atleast 2 sequences – one showing all the actors in tears one after the other and another where they all pass out due to exhaustion. Interesting choice of lead actors though, I thought. Any “big potential” observations?


  6. joel: “the more fundamental question to think about is why the hell did A enslave B. What authority does he have to do so ?” Actually I didn’t get this from the film at all. This particular interrogation on the part of the director — can you say which scene(s) led you to this reading? Thanks.

    oneWithTheH: Big potential? From the cast? I think the hero was interesting. He has an unusual face, expressive eyes, an authoritative voice. Both the films I’ve seen him in — this one, and the awful “Muppozhudhum Un Karpanaigal” — had him in an OTT mode. Will be interested to see if he has other shades in him.


  7. Most of the reviews has appreciated this movie and BR review is not up to the mark. Do not see what you expect from Director Bala. Just review what is in this particular movie.


  8. bala maynot be the best storyteller but his films have more impact than maniratnam’s…..MR is over-rated and he is miles behind bala …..paradesi is definitely one of the best tamil film released this year….


  9. BR, I think your Schindler’s List comparison is brilliant and perfectly valid. The same thought and the same film popped into my head while I was watching Paradesi. (In fact, I’d been thinking about that film a lot seeing as it just celebrated its 20th Anniversary a couple of weeks back.)

    The Spielberg masterpiece has been derided among certain historian circles for providing a “hopeful” depiction of the Holocaust. But the reality is that nobody would’ve seen a three hour motion picture which only depicted the tragedy and horrors of the Holocaust. We all know that the Holocaust was the biggest crime against humanity. There is nothing to be gained from watching a film about that. What Spielberg gave us was a look at the tragedy and horrors of the Holocaust commingled with the heroic efforts of one man to save them from their dreadful fates. The biggest problem with Paradesi, as you have rightly pointed out, was the absence of this equalizer.

    Also, I was reminded of a quote I heard somewhere, “It is the hope that kills you.” In Paradesi, Bala was probably looking at the hope that kills the tea plantation workers, but he might have as well been talking about the audience. It is the hope of some sliver of hope, some silver lining in these people’s lives which ultimately kills us. When they showed “4 years later,” I made a mental calculation that it should be around 1947 and was “hoping” that Bala ended the film on a positive note. But no, there is no scope for any light in this man’s film. It may be true, this may have been exactly what happened to all these workers, but nobody wants to see a two-hour motion picture of that when we know they’re the facts.

    Having said that, I still think Paradesi was OK, and at no point was it totally unwatchable. And I’d rather watch Bala misfiring any day over atrocities like Alex Pandian and Kanna Laddu Thinna Aasaiya. But I sorely want the Bala of Sethu and Pithamagan back.


  10. Balaji Sivaraman: “at no point was it totally unwatchable.” – of course. But I don’t know if I’d say a film — any film, not just this one — is good because it’s better than KLTA.

    Prabhu: Oh crap, you caught my act of plagiarism!


  11. Taking a film after inspiring from novel or taking the plot from the novel is not a “cup of tea” for Tamil directors, especially in main stream films. I felt disappointed about the no-closure in the film, at least in the end-credits Bala would have told ( epilogue ) about the future of the plantation workers, because a prologue was given.


  12. After pithamagan, I loved this film, Naan Kaduval didnt work for me at all. The things that didnt work for me is loosu ponnu depiction of the heroine and choosing fairer heroines and applying dark make up,the heroine friend was looking more natural than the heroine. High time they stop this black make up, its so artificial


  13. “I think the hero was interesting. He has an unusual face, expressive eyes, an authoritative voice.”

    you do know that he is late Murali’s son right? Murali was close to Bala and it was Bala’s decision to partly pay tribute by giving his friend’s son a potentially award-winning role. Which is another thing Bala is obsessed with BTW, besides his fascination for freaks and misery, that his actors should somehow get an award and the screenplay should provide them with enough over-the-top award pandering moments. In the last film he tried to get an award for Vishal but I guess it didn’t work out.


  14. Bala should have made a movie like Schindler’s list. What is this doing his own thing business? Idiot!


  15. I agree with above commenters – a movie like this *must* *necessarily* show hope and “positivity”. There is only one way to make such movies. Idiot Bala thinks he can break away from that convention.


  16. Wrt to the National awards,they have been announced today

    ,Paradesi gets one for Costume design.

    VE 18/9 gets two for Make up and Tamil film of the year.

    VR gets 2 for Choreography and Production design.

    Other top awards go to Marathi,Hindi and Malayalam cinema.

    Pls do a piece on the award list this year


  17. vazhakku enn given best tamil film (Among neer paravai, naduvula konjam, attakathi, naan e (though telugu one was given))….any comments??

    BTW really looking forward to thanga meengal. Hope to see ur review on that. Here’s a request even before the movie has released :p


  18. I guess the season for fringe groups protesting films and the removal of scenes is officially over. Cos I am clueless how a section can be offended by a film like Kadal but let a satire from Paradesi pass. Perhaps they haven’t realized it’s a satire.


  19. Notice that some of the posters above are unnecessarily dragging in Mani Ratnams name into this. What has mani Ratnam got to do with the film?


  20. @baradwaj : Saar, unga photo-le peanuts lendhu edho character maadhiri irukkinga-na kalaaikalaam-nnu paarththa, cartoon-aaye pottutinga DP-a ? :D Super super. Whose work ?


  21. I feel that the doctor-evangelist scenes removed the seriousness of the movie. It also shows a lack of proper research. For example it was not clear what brand of christianity ( like Catholicism, Protestianism, Pentecoste etc. ) the two were endorsing. Although conversion is/was a reality, from living memory, the way the duo were attempting to convert les miserables was not believable. Further, the British characters did not have a British accent and also evident was the poor acting of these characters. Bala does not seem to have done his homework on this part. Otherwise, the movie would have been a master piece for me.


  22. Bala: What is DP?

    Allwin Jesudasan: That scene, IMO, was *meant* to alleviate the seriousness of the movie. I saw it as comedy, and it’s very much in keeping with Bala’s comic sense. It’s not meant to be taken too seriously, what with her wig falling off and with that short guy with his tongue hanging out.


  23. Well, for me the highlight of Bala’s genre of comedy is how it nicely fits in the overall story unlike variations of Senthil-Gaundamani genre where the comedy has no or little connection with the story. The short guy going after the white lady was contextual and it fit alright. But tongue hanging out is over the top as its not a practice among any ‘brand’ of Christianity to bless on the tongue (as depicted in the movie). I guess each viewer expects different things from the director. For me, the conversion angle had a great potential to point out how even people who come to help, have their own personal agenda. It could have been shown in a more nuanced comical or serious way. I am just a bit disappointed at the lack of more research.


  24. nice review… but your opening para sounds two stars while the rest of the content tends to give a 3 and half… hope u know most of the viewers decide to commit on a review based on the opening para… thanks for listening.


  25. Bala’s movies tells us one thing that there are people suffering around us. All of us — who all blind folded ourselves with nonexistant true humaneness in our society. So open your eyes to lend your help in some way for the people suffering in our society. These are movies like hammer on our cold hearts. watching idiots(vijay) movies will give us false hope only. Please use the impact this movie made on you for better action.


  26. For all the raves this film has been getting, I haven’t seen people get too worked up about either praising this film or attacking it. People seem to say something generic like “Oh it’s great,” and then there’s nothing, no passionately specific like “this was awesome” and “that was terrific.” Not just on this blog but when I talk to people too.

    Anyone else get that feeling?


  27. @bragan- The reason is this movie **has earned sympathy**, that’s the reason no one is attacking or praising it (more ).


  28. BR : In my opinion (there you go – now I can say anything, just about) the bleakness comes in only midway into the movie and is not all pervasive as some of the statements seem to suggest. If the movie had been done in reverse (with an improbable escape sequence at the interval) it would not have felt as bleak, right? And the ending in particular seemed rather apt and it seemed like Bala wanted to say this is something which is happening even now. So, remove the historical context, and set it in the 2000s and the story would still be true, is what he seems to suggest.

    And one lesson that can be learnt from Bala is how to deglamorize your heroine (exception being Pooja in Naan Kadavul). While other directors seem to opt for faces/make up which make the characters look a lot less filmy, they also tend to over do it to an extent which can be a turn off. I disagree with Magi on the fact that the make up is jarring in this movie.

    *Spoiler Alert*

    The giggles from the women when they realize that Raasa has fathered a child without being wedded to the mother and Dhansika’s (I forget the screen name) reaction to it seemed interesting. Is he trying to suggest that women (maybe then) understood these issues better and did not over react to it? That they were more forward thinking? Or is it just added comic relief? Not sure what to make of it.

    *End of Alert*

    By the way, when you say Bala’s best, which movie(s) are you referring to?


  29. Kutty: I thought that was more like what she said later, that who knew this guy could have done something like this? And it played like a bit of comic relief in the midst of all the heaviness.

    As for Bala’s best, I wasn’t referring to any one film, but to the kind of effect he achieves when he’s firing on all cylinders. But in general, in terms of a fully coherent storyline, empathetic characters, and so forth, I think “Sethu” is still his strongest film — though I’m very fond of “Naan Kadavil” and “Avan Ivan” too.


  30. Havent seen this film..

    Just wanted to pipe in , In 20 years time , Naan Kadavul will be regarded as a towering achievement and a classic. Love that film.


  31. I dont know how to say this. may be i am insensitive, but the fact is the pain portrayed didnt affect me. I mean, i can still have tea without guilt…


  32. Hi BRangan, i could easily the biggest fan(atic) of Bala…just back from the night show at Kamala, Vadapalani…and as usual jumped in to read your review. Know little on film-making to talk from that perspective…

    my post on FB as reproduced below –

    Paradesi – Harsh exposure for paid ’employees’ like me. Reality check. Felt royally screwed.
    Bala had to HAD TO beat his own standards (Naan Kadavul). What a tough journey it ought to have been for him and his crew.
    Overall, I better stop cribbing and slip into work quietly.

    The movie that has disturbd me so much after ‘Angadi theru’.

    spoiler alert: final scene when he gets to see his kid – and suddenly when he realizes the kid is trapped for life – what a most saddening scene…i hated the RR approach when Dhansika dies…honestly the soga scenes dint need RR at all…they were so impactful on their own.


  33. Every one, who applauded the Bala’s film, Paradesi should know, that Christianity is not propagated by ‘ Dance & Drinks’.

    If the films is based on ‘ Red Tea’ novel, no where it is mentioned that Christianity is propaged in such way in the novel, and the writer of the novel himself is a Christian.

    Mohan D.


  34. The film didn’t work for me at all. For one, I couldn’t understand how a man who lives on leftovers like Raasa does could be built like a Spanish bull. He didn’t look the part of an outcast living on people’s occasional mercy. The heroine was annoying to say the least. I also thought the film relied more on songs than strong scripting to carry it to finish. Like someone else has pointed out here, we are never told what was the common occupation of those villagers. Their economic background is vital to understanding just why so many of them were willing to leave the village and that is never addressed! It was just a series of songs on the laborers miseries – what would have worked for me is some intelligent depiction of what was going on without the aid of those sad songs. It would have helped if the British characters were seen as characters and not caricatures. They didn’t achieve comedy or menace, in my opinion. I didn’t find the white woman and the Indian/Christian Doctor couple funny either – again, they were just too caricaturish to be believable. And their actions and impact is explained away in a song too!! Overall, I felt the movie was some kind of musical minus the pleasures of one.


  35. Excellent review. I think the key to understanding Bala’s film(s) is to understand his worldview: he is an atheist. Human suffering is a focal point for atheists as, to them, it offers proof that there is no God. How could a benevolent God exist when there is all this suffering, misery & disease? The alternative viewpoint, namely that suffering exists in the temporal world because it serves some divine purpose, is something either beyond their contemplation. Their focus on human pain keeps them from seeing a Creator and the orderly universe around them. Do not look for hope & salvation in Bala’s movie (unless he changes his worldview). At the same time, we should watch his movies because he is the best on offer in the Tamil movie industry.


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