There’s a school of thought which does not subscribe to realistic films made by filmmakers like Bala. The grouse being that people like Bala tend to play on our emotions and often showcase poverty and suffering (giving these films the tag of poverty porn) to an extent that it gets beyond control. Well everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion as on the other side I’ve also seen so many people who swear by the very same films. I would like to focus on Bala for this post since the focus here is on this week’s big release, Paradesi which is not only directed but also produced by him. Incidentally, Paradesi is the 6th film directed by Bala in his career and the 1st of them of to be produced by him. The only other film which he produced so far has been Maayavi (which was directed by D.P.Singapuli) and even that was way back in 2005.
After Naan Kadavul which proved to be a tough film to get made considering the time taken, the area it explored and all the controversy surrounding it, Avan Ivan came across as a big departure from Bala’s earlier films. While all his films have had some interesting humorous moments, none of them till Avan Ivan were the regular run of the mill entertainers. In case of Avan Ivan while the setting continued to be rustic and the characters interesting it’s also clear that Bala deliberately went clearly mainstream with the film, probably in a bid to unwind from the tough task of filming Naan Kadavul. So when Paradesi was announced I must admit that I wasn’t too surprised with the choice of subject, it looked like he was itching to get back to his zone.
Adapted from Eriyum Panikadu, a Tamil translation of the 1969 novel Red Tea by Paul Harris Daniel which deals with the author’s encounters with enslaved tea plantation workers in the Madras Presidency in colonial India, Bala is reported to have found the whole subject fascinating enough to adapt it into a movie. Written by Nanjilnadan, Paradesi is set in the erstwhile Madras Presidency in the late 1930’s and focuses on a village where Rasa (Adharvaa) is a footloose and fancy free youth but also someone the whole village makes fun of and takes for granted. Angamma (Vedhicka in a surprisingly de-glamorous role) is a village belle who enjoys making fun of Rasa and does reveal her feelings eventually to him, which he reciprocates. When news of their affair is revealed Angamma’s mother is unhappy as she does not think highly about Rasa.
Hurt by the developments and eager to earn money, Rasa goes to a neighbouring village to work and meets a supervisor i.e Kangani (Jerry) of a tea estate. The Kangani goes back with Rasa to his village and offers work (to the villagers) at the British tea estates in a faraway hillside. Swayed by the promise of a lot of money and other facilities, Rasa and many other villagers undertake a long and arduous journey to the tea estate, only to realize that they have been conned by the Kangani. The British plantation in charge does not care for the workers and is only interested in his own comfort. The Kangani and his men literally rule the plantation with a lot of force. Rasa gets friendly with Maragadham (Dhansika) and her daughter, the wife and child of the only person to have escaped from that prison of sorts. Rasa is elated when he gets a letter from his grandmother and learns that Angamma is now pregnant. But he is also worried all the more for Angamma and his grandmother and now longs to get back home all the more. But life at the tea estate has something else in store for him.
First things first, the film gets the milieu, the period and the look of the characters very wonderfully correct. And for this Bala and the people responsible for each of the various departments and their teams need to be appreciated. One of the better things about the film’s marketing has been the use of stills and posters which depict the period and in fact even resemble the photographs taken during that period. This tells us that Bala has been particular about getting the ‘look’ as realistic as possible. Be it the art direction (C.S.Balachander), the costumes (Poornima Ramaswamy who has won the National Award for the same), or the makeup, all these elements have worked effectively to ensure authenticity is taken care of.
Paradesi is embellished with Bala’s elements be it an unconventional protagonist who deep within has a noble heart, colourful characters, dark and sombre mood, characters being totally black with no tinge of grey, comic/light moment which appears all of a sudden and appears to have been inserted deliberately and more such elements. But then that’s Bala for you, his films have followed a pattern and he has never shied away from confirming it. At the same time he has always managed to have each film stand out on its own without actually looking similar to any other film. In some ways Bala seems to have turned a circle with Paradesi with respect to the way the film ends. In films like Nandha, Pithamagan, Naan Kadavul and the recent Avan Ivan the ending is more conventional and like a formal closure to the whole plot while over here in Paradesi (and to an extent in Sethu) Bala seems to have kept it a little more unconventional and open ended, in fact it might even appear abrupt. But more than a day after watching the film I can’t help but wonder if there could have been a better ending to the film and that’s a positive for the film.
The cinematography by Chezhiyan is outstanding and is one of the primary reasons for making the film look and turn out so effective. Be it the use of top-angle shots (like in the climax) or in ensuring that the film has a sort of washed out look which works well to establish the period and the locations, Chezhiyan’s work is impressive indeed. At a run time of just over 2 hours (124 mins) the film zips through with its tale and in spite of being a slightly heavy tale, remains in the grips thanks to Kishore T.E’s editing. The music by G.V.Prakash Kumar (with lyrics by Vairamuthu) may not be of the outright popular variety but they definitely are in sync with the nature and flow of the film. The songs have variety, be it the soothing ‘Avatha Paiyya’ (Yasin, Vandana Srinivasan), the haunting ‘Senneer Thana’ (Gangai Amaran, Priya Himesh) and ‘Sengaade’ (Madhu Balakrishnan) or Bala’s dig at showcasing attempts at religious conversion through ‘Thannai Thaane’ (‘Gaana’ Bala), all of them suit their purpose.
In terms of the actors and their performances Paradesi is a slightly risky attempt as none of the actors are big names, but probably that’s what Bala wanted as otherwise there would have been the burden of too much of expectations to handle as well. Adharvaa the son of the late actor Murali in just his 3rd film puts in a sparkling performance as Rasa aka Ottu Perukki and is the lifeline of the film. The character does not have too much to speak and in a lot of places the eyes convey all the emotions, a good casting decision indeed. Dhansika seems to have carried off from where she left off in Aravan, another period film in which she appeared recently and is effective as Maragadham. Vedhicka is surprisingly good, be it in the scenes earlier on when she bullies Rasa or even later when she is pining for her love. The other smaller characters, most of them performed by relatively unknown people, all do justice and lend the film that extra touch of reality.
Ultimately at the end of it all, Paradesi is a film which haunts you or disturbs you in an unusual manner much after the film is over. For all the objections to the film or certain elements in the film I would say that this is just a re-look at a certain section of people, the so called marginal people during a particular time frame, done in Bala’s characteristic style. Is this a great film? No. I wouldn’t say that, but it’s a certainly a good film which makes you think and ponder over many aspects long enough after watching it. So go ahead and indulge in this cinematic experience called ‘Paradesi’.