Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and many more renowned film-makers have tread into different genres, stories and themes, but their aim was always to capture human emotions (they were masters in doing it) in bleak and strikingly different situations. Film-maker Bala often dwells into that category (even though there were duds like "Avan Ivan"). He may not be that great a director like those cinematic masters, but with a movie like "Paradesi" (The Vagabond), he might climb to that legendary list in a decade or two. Bala, always has a bewitching thirst for undiscovered turfs, where he could portray the pain inflicted upon inferior human beings by their superiors. So, this time the National Award winner has set the milieu around the pre-independence era in a tea plantation.
The movie is based upon Paul Harris Daniels' novel "Red Tea." The novel was also translated in Malayalam and in Tamil under the title " Eriyum Panikadu." The movie opens in 1939 in Salur village, near Sivagangai district. The camera takes a short detour through the village huts, as the people are gearing up to celebrate a wedding. The protagonist Atharvaa plays the role of a town crier and goes around inviting the villagers and acquaints us to various characters of the jovial village. Drastic climate and the harsh famine presses the people of Salur village to migrate and work in a tea plantation around Munnar.
The people are actually conned by a man called "Kankani" (a pitiless middle-man), who promises them decent wages and livelihood. Atharvaa, in order to prove his mettle and to marry the village belle, Angamma (the whole village is against their marriage) decides to take the hellish trip. The villagers move like a large snake in dry lands for 48 days to arrive at the mist-covered perdition. The crux of the story stars from there, where the carefree villagers are forced into slavery (by a heartless group of people) with no traces of freedom or hope.
When it comes to the films of Bala, you don't see acting, you only see a transformation of an actor into a particular character. So, in that way "Paradesi" is a career defining role for Atharvaa. Like Vikram, Suriya and Arya, Atharva delivers a stellar performance and with his big expressive eyes, he certainly brings out all kinds of emotions. Vedhika as the village prankster has usual traits of a Bala's heroine and she is there to give some relief to the bleak proceedings. On the contrary, Dhansika as the abandoned woman in tea plantation, gives the most measured and subtle performance. All the other nefarious characters (Kankani, his British Boss and the missionaries) looks genuine and creates a lasting impression.
Cinematographer Chezhiyan provides the perfect framework for the director's vision. The opening shot, where the camera goes in a roundabout way is absolutely dazzling and the final shot, where the camera circles around the tea plantation from a top angle, resembles an elegy. The washed out hue looks perfect for that slice of time period. Nanjil Nadan's dialogues (like his best novels and short stories) lends wit as well as veracity to the time period. GV Prakash's music for the songs and BGM seamlessly blends with the movie. The songs may not be chart-busters, but the poignant lyrics from Vairamuthu, especially in Sengaade and Senneer Thaana, effectively expresses the anguish of the characters. The editing supports the flow of the movie without any manipulation. Production design is prodigious, which brings a stark realistic feel to the story.
Director Bala -- the man who inspired Anurag Kashyap to go back to his roots -- has once again delivered various personas with aplomb. Few days back, the Paradesi team released a teaser, (where Bala enacts a scene) which created a furore on social-networking sites. That might be just a publicity gimmick, but in the movie, Bala has lambasted and showcased all the wicked personalities (both the imperialistic rulers, Indian Supervisors and the missionaries). All these people have different masks, but their purpose are the same: to transform them into slaves. Bala's "Nanda" and Pithamagan" has the protagonist-antagonist angle to its story. It served as a plot point to give a revenge-seeking drama. But, in "Paradesi", the triumph of good over bad is cleverly neglected. The usual climax, where the hero bashes all the villains, might endure as an insult to all those poor humans. Apart from few minor glitches (like the repeated cries and some songs), there is no huge flaw in the movie.
"Paradesi" can also be taken as an parable to the plight of farmers and villagers in today's India. All those lost souls remain as an warning sign that we shouldn't once again impart ourselves in the hands of corporate greed -- (the mutant form of imperialism). "Paradesi" may not be the escapist entertainment, but it is worth watching for Bala's bold and unique vision.
Anurag Kashyap talks about Bala