As film-maker Bala is adding on to his filmography, he is proportionately turning further away from any sort of commercial trappings and making his movies true-to-self and then to the craft. In other words, while the true-to-self and true-to-craft are perfectly fine and valid as independents, the journey while bridging the gap between these two points is not completely free of hurdles for this bold film-maker. Pardesi, then, is an apt representation of this journey while still managing to leave a strong impact on the audience. If Nan Kadavul has been the bitterest pill to swallow in terms of life’s ‘realism’, Pardesi is milder in terms of human misery but harsher in terms of the visceral cinematically.
***Mild plot-spoilers begin***
The film begins with scenes of revelry in a marriage ceremony of inhabitants of Salur village. The pre-interval part is mostly dedicated to a display of village life that is wanting in finance but rich in contentment and enduring life. It focuses mainly on the courtship between Rasa (Adharvaa) and Angamma (Vedika). Satan then comes in the form of a tea-plantation manager (who in turn works for the British) who sells a dream of wealth—actually pittance— to the villagers who readily trust the manager and thumb-print on eternal slavery in the form of job-offers. Since the work is only for a period of one year, most of them leave their kith and kin behind dreaming of coming back with decent money after back-breaking work. They are actually led into a cesspool of exploitation and slavery from which there is no return. Post-interval, the movie focuses on the travails of these folks who yearn to return to their native but cannot due to the wily ways of the British and the manager in ensuring they stay back – by force, by violence, or by way of fraudulently reversing their back-wages.
***Mild plot-spoilers end***
Now one of Bala’s ‘forte’— if one might call it that— is he picks up stories that are always tangential to the circle of ‘evolved’ human society but still erupting from that part of society itself. This leitmotif in itself is so strong and so ‘other’ and shocking to the ‘progressive’ section of society that Bala’s job is partially-done in the form of viewer expectation and subsequent conditioning in expecting a certain kind of cinema. After this point, a lesser film-maker can just be decent or be below-average. But Bala does manage to rise after this point in his films – however flawed but still impressive. There are many fine points in the movie where the film-maker excels. The first shot of a character wearing a coat or a sweater is seen only after the natives traverse for a period of 48 days and arrive at the plantation. The doctor, the hench-men, and everybody down or up the chain till the British officer are now—in manner and in spirit—internalized into the western way of life: or at least they think they are. That is what colonizers everywhere on this earth did/do. The subordinate is actually made to feel a part of the ‘evolved’ society – which is pure euphemism to the colonist but a virtual reality to the colonized. Even during the journey to the tea-estate, there is a scene where the laborers are seen drinking water from a dirty stream and there is an immediate cut to the manager drinking from a vessel.
In the scenes of revelry back in the village, Bala makes it clear that this is an ‘uncouth’ village society – people eat with their hands and mouths full, do not wash or bathe properly, and are always high on emotions – specifically rage— that are conveyed through slapping, dragging people by the hair, kicking, or breast-beating. The first English word that one sees in the film is that of a hospital sign-board at the plantation. However, beneath this veneer of ‘civilization’, everything is as exploitative, as animalistic as it gets. It is purely basal human nature in well-knitted and weather-sensitive clothes. Women, children, old folks, everybody is made to toil in the worst of conditions with leeches sticking on to their legs; the only remedy being applying stinging tobacco. The British officer is a lustful old drunk who sexually exploits the woman-laborers and beats the hell out of the manager whenever any laborer revolts or rejects his advances; and this beating and humiliation is carried down the chain to the lowest ‘organism’ existing on that land. Now this is a highly visceral and in-your-face film and the tone of the movie is in pitch with the character-graph of the exploiters and the exploited. Everything is high-pitched (except for some subtle scenes of playfulness between the lead couple) and proportional to the heights of cruelty reached by the exploiters.
As a viewer, one cannot escape the sense that on whatever part of the globe—whether the blood-diamonds of Africa or the sweatshops of Thailand—exploitation takes place, the final equation of oppression and its internalization consists of many static and similar parts that can be interchanged. We saw this dynamic explored by Tarantino in his own bizarre way in ‘Django Unchained’ through the characters of Leo and Samuel Jackson. Samuel unable to accept the fact he is being asked to prepare a bed for the ‘nigger’ is the same as the women at the plantation that are unable to accept that the British officer’s roving eyes are now looking to devour new women-laborers – thereby possibly robbing them of their perceived ‘uniqueness’ in the eyes of the officer. (Interestingly, the ‘superiority’ complex based on societal standings is prevalent even in the ‘primitive’ setting and life-style of the villagers: Angamma’s mother refuses to get her daughter married to Rasa thanks to his lower strata in the village hierarchy.)
One interesting display is that of the –mild plot spoilers—proselytizing effort taken on by the Indian Christian convert and his wife. Brought to the estate in order to cure an epidemic, they forget that they are there for the purpose of medicinal treatment and not as evangelical agents. Their proselytizing efforts and techniques almost take on the format of a Christian pantomime! Is this an intentional cinematic technique employed by the director or just the way the director sees it? As a joke? Farce? They are essentially jokers—both in spirit and in form; the husband rotund and dark-skinned, the wife fair and frail English-woman—that are dead serious on converting the entire labor population to Christianity. In God’s name, they exploit the laborers’ helplessness and by the time the workers latch on to the bread thrown around by the couple, they have little spirit left in them to question or care whether the bread is from Satan or the Savior.
The cinematography is first-rate and there are clear palette distinctions striking to the eye when the scenery shifts from parched dry-lands of Salur to the greenery of Munnar. The final shot of Rasa lamenting on a mound his misery and his wretched birth is a marvelous one of 360 swoop enveloping the whole population of labor-slaves thus bathing each and every laborer and the land he/she is standing on with the emotional droplets of Rasa’s suffering. The music and lyrics are filled with pathos. Unfortunately, as is the case with any alien-language for a viewer, the sub-titles fail to convey the spirit in its purest form.
Performances are fine, with Adharva leading as the man-child. It is literally a very physical and moving performance. Vedika and Dhansika are in fine-form as the lover/wife and the support-structure for Adharva respectively. There is a big sore-thumb in the way the British are picturized. It is way too caricaturish and belongs to Manmohan Desai’s ‘Mard’ frame of film-making. Even Ashutosh Gowariker managed to lend some human credence to the Britishers in ‘Lagaan.’ A scene where the wife of a British officer goes on about how Gandhi is working hard for India’s freedom is an almost you-tubish amateur attempt.
In the end, one has to separate the idealism in a film-maker from the ensuing film-craft. The idealism in this film-maker is on the money while the film-craft comparatively does not stand completely parallel to it. To what extent this skew rattles the viewer, is completely in the viewer’s own realm of cinema and life’s experiences. One thing every viewer can be sure of is that there will be a change in the way one looks at the 10 year old boy/girl picking up one’s left-over plates in Udipi hotels or the dhabas or the kid working on cleaning your vehicle in the garage shop. If the kid spills food or oil over your clothes, you might think and stop for a wee-bit whether this ‘human’ error calls for a slap or restraint. It is this 2 second difference that this film of 2 hours succeeds in underlining.
P.S.: I am Tamil illiterate and hence in high probability have missed many sub-texts that one can be privy to with knowledge of the language and through that the cultural landscape
I am just a film enthusiast working as a software consultant in the US. My interests also span across social commentaries and political debates. I have worked as an associate editor on international educational (social justice related) journals/books from the US during my course of stay. Here is an instance:
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