Cast: Atharva, Dhanshika, Vedhika; Music: GV Prakash; Direction: Bala

Bala’s films have come to be associated with words like macabre, gore, dark, and, yes, even hell. Yet, his films try to stay dangerously close to realism. Does it mean that reality is hell? Is that the reason we want to watch feel-good, make-believe potboilers that our industry so tirelessly churns out?

Pity is we have been numbed by the dance-stunt routines of Tamil film industry where the heroes bash up fifty bad guys, where a heroine’s performance is measured by how fat her midriff and how tiny her skirt is. In this circumstance, it is difficult to process a Bala film. We wonder at the absence of a plausible plot. We don’t understand the sudden, often missing, climax. The men and women in his films look at least a shade worse than us. And worse, they don’t break into a dance with twenty people behind them, with matching clothes. We eagerly wait to see if any moment in his films that will put us in some comfort zone.

They never arrive. On the contrary, the images we see shock us. They assault us. (I used the same word to describe the effect I had with Velayudham. However, the difference should be evident to the discernible reader.) Yes, Bala shows us hell, and the kind of hell that lives within our society, that lives next to us, among us, and it is not a happy experience. We, surprisingly, willingly submit ourselves to this assault; immerse ourselves in the world he creates. We feel no pity, because we don’t know. Perhaps it is because our pity can’t change anything.

Paradesi takes his macabre world to the next level. It is to the past, about 65 years previously, in the form of coolies from rural TamilNadu taken as bonded labour to work in various tea estates being built by the British. There it creates the most believable pre-Independence rural Tamil Nadu ever seen in Tamil films and shows us the harsh reality of southern India at that time, the insensitivity of colonialism, disempowerment of rural poor, exploitative cronies of the British, and the failure of agrarian economy. The apologists of colonialism sing odes to postal and railway system. Maria Misra’s book, ‘Vishnu’s Crowded Temple’ discusses the plight of the rural poor during the colonial era. This famine: 10 million people. That epidemic: 15 million people, and so on. The death is rarely in hundreds. Considering Misra, the History lecturer at the University of Oxford, the death of the natives must have been treated like that of the vermin’s. That’s what happens in Paradesi: people dying are left on the roads, cremated in clusters, and are dumped on the outskirts so as not to disturb a marriage. Death is both a cause for appalling grief as well as liberating relief.

My wife remarked that, since it’s a Bala film, we don’t expect any redemption, escape, or some saviour to release them from their suffering. We only toy around with a few worst outcomes and wonder which one would befall on that unfortunate lot. There is no release from the hell. There are only layers of suffering.

How he makes us laugh in the midst of all this is another wonder. Bala’s sense of humour, black, bleak and atrocious though it is, plays throughout the film; often inducing laughter yet making you feel guilty at having laughed at their plight. The hilarity lasts till the very end where we see a thoroughly caricatured doctor cum missionary arrive at the tea estate to ‘redeem’ the coolies of their suffering. We should wait and see whether this would hurt the ‘sentiments’ of the Christian population.

The Hindu called it Bala’s truest film yet. It could have been his best had it not for GV Prakash. The music makes the film look like the family melodramas of the 50s, heightening the tempo, overdubbing on the dialogues, drumming up the sensation, and, in general, irritating you to the core. Some of the powerful scenes are spoiled by old-fashioned music tracks that ‘direct’ you to feel sad and ‘dictate’ you to cry. The film would have worked great without a single string of music. If it must, Ilaiayraja is perhaps the only one suited to handle this kind of topic. But it is understandable that Bala wanted to work with Vairamuthu and as a consequence he cannot go to Ilaiyaraja. Vairamuthu’s presence has enriched the songs with his soulful lyrics. Truly, some of the song words tug at your heart strings. But the price paid for this in the form of horrendous BGM is too high.

Other than this, the casting is perfect. Atharva is spectacular in the lead role of Rasa, and, sure enough, having landed in Bala’s film, he can now look forward to a fruitful career ahead. Dhanshika is stunning as Maragadam and it would be a pity if she goes in the way of other not so successful heroines of Bala. She maintains the stiff intensity required for her role and her mellowing down towards Rasa never gives an indication of any romantic overture. Vedhika as Angamma provides a much needed, albeit brief, relief from the intense heat of the film by providing enough light-hearted moments to carry us through the film.

Another admirable aspect we come to associate with Bala is how much care he accords to smallest of the characters. They may have just a few minutes of screen time, but they crackle with life and energy. Who is that loving and bitching hunch-backed grandmother of Rasa, that nostalgic playboy periappa, Angamma’s tyrannical mother, the guilt-ridden compounder, the lampooning missionary and ruthless Kangaani? Each character light up the screen, making the predictable screenplay immensely watchable; proving to us once again that Bala is a true cinematic master.

The only relief for the weak-hearted is that the gore element, usually associated with him, is almost completely missing in this. However, Paradesi is dark, macabre and, yes, hell. Yet it was heartening to see rapturous applause, hooting and excited whistling when Bala’s name came up on the title cards. Which other filmmaker has shown you hell and succeeded in receiving applause from you?