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?
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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