As is my wont I called up a producer friend in Chennai to enquire about Bala’s ‘Paradesi’. “Well, critics like you will go gaga over it,” said the moneybag. I could imagine the smirk on his face. Now this is something I always wonder about. Just because I have the opportunity to pen my opinion does not mean I view films differently. I don’t imagine or scour for metaphors the director probably never intended. I may not approve of mindless entertainment but that doesn’t mean I’ve imbibed an emotional anaesthetic. “Why should we pay to view stranger’s sufferings? Don’t we have enough of our own?” is the common chorus among filmgoers. I remember a cousin asking me to recommend a film she wanted to watch with her husband just after their wedding. I recommended ‘Mahanadhi’ and after all these years she’s yet to forgive me. It may sound strange but I like ‘Mahanadhi’ as much as I love ‘Michael Madana Kamarajan’ both of which I watch repeatedly. I don’t pay and sneak into the darkness of a theatre to escape from drudgery or to exorcise personal ghosts. Cinema is like life. You want to keep laughing, but sometimes you’re forced to cry.

Bala is an intriguing filmmaker. He was Balu Mahendra’s understudy but is not influenced by him. Not for him backlit shots of the lead pair strolling in Ooty, though I feel the climax in ‘Sethu’ is somewhat similar to the one in ‘Moonram Pirai’. There’s no ambiguity amongst filmgoers as far as Bala’s films are concerned. They either like or hate them. Similar will be the fate of ‘Paradesi’. It’s a typical mainstream film made aesthetically but with not even a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel as far as the protagonist is concerned. The village vagabond, an orphan ridiculed by everyone save his grandma and uncle falls for a beauteous belle. The girl’s mother ticks him off for not earning a penny. He works his back off cutting wood. A slave supplier, impressed visits the village, flashes a trunk full of currency and lures them to their doom. They trudge for days only to find that they have to toil under abominable conditions. The British are depraved and Indians deprived. The white boss is either drunk or is sating his lust for dusky beauties, willing or otherwise unmindful of their marital status. As far as the villagers are concerned its sheer torture and treachery. There is no escape since their spending is manipulated to be much more than their earnings.

‘Paradesi’ is not run-of-the-mill purely because of its gritty, unwavering narration and the fact that there is no uprising or heroics. The film has songs but no fights. The terrain changes from a dusty hamlet to lush tea estates in Munnar but the hero’s travails don’t. It’s an emotional and physical freefall for him. The film is an abyss of melancholy.

If you don’t mind the negative emotions, as a film it’s hard to find fault. The sets and attire are authentic. There’s some dark, typical Bala humour that’s amusing. Bala is uncompromising in his vision even though he’s produced the film himself. The acting is amazing especially Atharvaa whose eyes speak volumes. Bala has a penchant for choosing and bringing out the best from fringe characters. Watch the actors who play the hero’s grandmother and uncle. The cinematography is brilliant. G.V. Prakash’s music is good, but you miss Ilayaraja simply for his innate ability to enhance emotions. ‘Paradesi’ is set in sordid surroundings and the ending could numb you. There may not be hope for the protagonist but there’s hope for good, meaningful cinema.

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Keywords: ParadesiBala