Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Paradesi: Bala's exercise in sado-masochism

"Our sweetest songs are those that tell our saddest thoughts" warbled Shelley in his 'Ode to a skylark'. The genius of Shakespeare reaches its apogee in his tragedies. Music can haunt us with a sad strain. Movies like 'Life is Beautiful' and 'Bicycle Thieves' leaves us with a pang in our heart. Portraying tragedy in a play or music or a movie calls upon the deepest reservoirs of creativity in any artist because  the portrayal can easily slide into a maudlin meaningless assault on the senses. Life abounds in tragedy. War zones with children starving and maimed continues till today. Promising lives cut short by disease and poverty is an all too common truth. So many children die of cancer after an unspeakably horrifying ordeal. How does any art form deal with all that? When does a tragic story become epic? When does a portrayal of tragedy become art and not a documentary? If one can answer with an example of showcasing a work to say this is how it should NOT be then Tamil director Bala's 'Paradesi' is a good example.

Bala gained quite a reputation for gritty movies that revolve around those that languish in the margins of life. His 'Naan Kadavul' with its cast of deformed individuals eking out a life under a slave holder made stomachs churn. Such moviemaking has earned Bala a halo of making 'unflinching' movies that are difficult to watch and for that reason alone praised. Yet his movies are only difficult to watch as much as one cannot stand next to a gutter infested with pigs. Neither has any profundity. If one wanted to make art by showing on screen what we would turn our eyes away from then all that we have to do is give a camcorder to a child and let it loose in some slums and conflict zones in the world, say in Ethiopia.

Seeing me disinterested in the movie my cousin, who loved the movie and who knows my deep love for  studying Holocaust, asked "if this movie was about Holocaust would you not be watching it enraptured". I told him "Exactly. Go watch 'Schindler's List' or 'Pianist' to understand how tragedy is portrayed'. I also added "watch out for Charu's review he would mention those movies". Next day morning my cousin told me "you are great. Charu just now posted a review and he cited 'Schindler's List' and 'Pianist'".

Millions perished in the ovens of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. How does one portray it in a movie and not come across as documentary? Why would 'Pianist' be a work of art but the documentary 'Auschwitz', however expensively and detailed its production might be, remain just a documentary?

Roman Polanski and Spielberg did not show people just being marched to death. There is a reason they both picked stories that had a redemptive element, a sense of hope amidst unspeakable horror, a faith in the triumphant spirit of humanity. A Nazi officer being moved by listening to Chopin, a Nazi war profiteer weeping about the lives he could have saved had he been more frugal in his expenses, give hope in humanity. It is that sense of hope that saves those movies from being dreary. Is that naive? No. That is the proper function of art.

Take 'Sophie's Choice'. Another movie centered on Holocaust and one that ends in heartbreaking tragedy. The heroine had to choose between her babies as to which she will give up to die in Auschwitz. But that is not the choice that the movie pivots on. That choice haunts the heroine and propels her to make one final choice, between her lover and husband. The tragic ending is poignant and one that the story inexorably churns towards. Its like how Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear churn towards their climactic tragic conclusion. And in their conclusion the reader or viewer strangely feels a liberation. Its a liberation in having peered at a profound layered truth that often glides by us unnoticed in the rush of life.

Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoir 'Pianist' is a mediocre book and certainly not to be ranked alongside Elie Wiesel's 'Night' or Viktor Frankl's 'Man's search for meaning' or Primo Levy's 'Survival in Auschwitz'. Yet Polanski turns a mediocre memoir into art with creative re-telling that includes even some fictional moments, one of which, when Szpilman plays an imaginary piano, is very poignant.

Bala is no sensitive artist or a keen student of literature and this shows. He took a book, 'Red Tea', about the travails of bonded laborers in British era tea estates and turns it into a documentary that pretends to be a movie.

The movie has dialogues scripted by Nanjil Nadan, a Sahitya Akademi awardee. Nanjil has a repugnant anal fetish. I've seen his stories abound with remarks about farting or piles. I guess in his mind nativity means speaking of the rear end and its functions. Even with a much respected author by his side Bala slips on characterizations. The movie garnered rave reviews particularly for Nanjil Nadan's dialogues. The dialogues were not exceptional and could have been written by anon with a sharp pen. I'd hazard a guess that Nanjil was not integral to movie making but wrote dialogues for scenes narrated by the director and I'd even guess that Nanjil's dialogues were edited mercilessly by the director.

Many have fondly recalled Nanjil's short story 'Idalaakudi Rasa' being used in the early portrayal of the hero. But that story, particularly the characterization of Rasa, had no context in this movie. Only in Tamil Nadu would reviewers wax eloquent about a misplaced short story out of affection for the author. Nanjil did not enhance his literary credentials a bit by taking part in this movie. Why do Tamil authors crave for cinema fame and attention?

The hero who appears like a retarded bumpkin in the opening scenes later emulates higher cognitive emotions of deep sympathy and even a sense of righteousness. A panoply of characters come and go with cardboard like qualities. A character is either villainous or innocent. A pyramid of exploitation crushes the gullible villagers with the middleman, a hack and few others up the totem pole all under the British estate owner.

The cinematographer was a much spoken about Chezhian. Other than employing a sepia toned lens I am not sure what he accomplished. As the villagers, by the tens, drink water from a pond like animals the camera sweeps across them and a scene with potential for poignancy just glides by. Long shots, sweeping panorama, sepia tone etc do not make up for cinematography. Cinematography is more than just handling a camera and knowing technology. It is not a mean feat that Schindler's List, filmed in black and white, won an Oscar for cinematography.

Music was sheer torture in a movie where music should have been one of the pillars. Again, G.V.Prakash probably knows how to play instruments and bang a few notes but that does not make him a musician. Incidentally the result would be no different even if Ilayaraaja, a has been, had scored the music.

The worst part of the movie was the Christian doctor. The characters was a pathetic caricature of evangelical christians who proselytize tribals. Yes proselytization remains a stigma for many missionaries. But equally undeniable is the role of CHristian missionaries in bringing education and health services to many remote corners. Ironically the book that the movie was based upon was written by a Christian doctor, P.H.Daniel, who toiled amongst the laborers. The doctor in the movie even dances a ridiculous dance with his White wife to celebrate Christmas. As they dance they assume the position that depicts the crucifix and they cavort while throwing bread to the laborers. A clear allusion to the Gospel miracle of feeding 5000. Thankfully Bala, in his perversion, did not pick on Muslims.

The story itself just plods and in fact the central theme of the movie happens only at half point (interval). Until then it is filled with inane jokes of the heroine teasing the bumpkin hero and a very thin portrayal of village life. Bala had used villagers as actors. He hit a bumper prize with the hero's grandmother. Everyone else has no idea of what acting it. There is a reason why professional actors should be used in a movie.

Upon reaching the plantation the movie drops any pretense of being a movie and is sheer documentary of the repressiveness and exploitation. The scene where the Britishers party and talk of Gandhi showcases the cardboard nature of characters and the pathetic quality of the actors. The movie, with a fetish for tragedy, the careens from one contrived tragedy to another. The ordeal finally ends with the hero's wife and newly born child entering the gates of hell. This was supposed to leave the viewer dazed and angry at a world of hopelessness. Yet, most viewers heave a sigh of relief and dart towards getting into their cars to drive back home. There is no lingering sadness just a vicarious pleasure of having slithered out of a gutter.

Vittoria De Sica's much lauded 'Bicycle thieves' too ends on a sad note. A father and son walk away with no hope about tomorrow in war ravaged Italy. What is worse the father had been humiliated as a thief before the eyes of his son. There is poignance in that simple story of a father desperately trying to get a cycle so he could go to his just secured job.

Satyajit Ray's 'Ashani Sanket' is a sensitive portrayal of the Bengal famine, in which millions perished. Ray takes us on a journey to understand the ravages of a famine that wrecked a once prosperous state. He narrates sensitively the breakdown of traditional relations. The famine is both central theme and a backdrop to a changing world.

All that Paradesi indulges in is a kind of sadism in tormenting the viewers and it is masochistic in as much as Bala wallows in making such movies.

Bala released a 'making of Paradesi' trailer prior to movie release. He would painstakingly instruct each and every actor on what postures to assume, how not to stare at a camera, how to engage in conversations and look natural etc. Bala, I am sure, has a great future as an assistant director. 


Anonymous said...

Nice review..
You are true. Bala's movies always leave a bad taste in the mouth after watching. He seems to have a fetish for such movie making..

Anonymous said...

I am sure many had the same opinions as you did but did not know how to put it words the way you did..Great review..

exerji said...

Excellent review. I am glad I didn't see it.