Two films and one theme — enslavement. Here’s how one director makes it cathartic for the audience while another makes it a suffering
Two films. Two different auteurs. Two different periods. Two painful histories bound by a common theme — enslavement.
Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the Django films, Django Unchained and Bala’s Paradesi, both playing in theatres around the country are as different as cheese and chappal. What’s interesting is how they can’t be further apart in terms of tone, treatment, sensibility and attitude despite having so much in common.
Both films have pure evil, fascist, racist plantation owners who take pleasure in unleashing torture and pain on their slaves. Especially on slaves who try to escape. They work their men to death and use the women for comfort. Both films tell us the story through the eyes of a slave hero. Both films are about these heroes trying to save their women from enslavement. And both films are about the economics and business aspects of the slave trade that override all socio-political systems and structures. In both films, the cruellest man is not the oppressor but one of the natives who aids the oppressors.
Where they differ the most is in ambition.
An art called craft
While Bala’s happy telling a sad story “as it happened”, exaggerating purely to exploit it for melodrama under the pretext of realism, Quentin Tarantino shows his mastery over the craft of cinema by packing so much meaning and subtext into what just seems like a masala film at the surface level. To put it simply, while Bala has made a B movie that is pretending to be art house fare, Tarantino has ended up making a revisionist period art film that pretends to be grind house fare.
Tarantino largely holds back the violence (barring a few gunshots here and there) and fills up the frames with heart-pounding tension that’s just waiting to explode with nothing but pure conversation until the bloody last act.
Bala sticks to what he knows best — showing happy poor lives predictably spiralling down a one-way street, into a world of suffering and pain. He’s done this to death, literally, a few times. Yet, he’s content with the basics: show pain, make people cry (though he needs to be reminded of that classic quote ‘drama is not when the actors cry. Drama is when the audience cries’).
Paradesi takes half the film to introduce us to the people (we reach the plantation that the film is set in post-interval), exaggerating with dishonesty that makes you roll your eyes when you are informed by super-imposed text that the poor villagers walked to the distant plantation for 48 days leading to the death of one of them.
Since we are talking about realism and history, tea grows in the Nilgiris that is right at the centre of the State. Even if they walked only five km an hour (through motorable roads as we see a bullock cart carrying the oppressor leading the way) and walked not more than 12 hours a day, in 48 days, they would have covered about 2,900 km and almost reached Kashmir or Pakistan depending on which part of the State they walked from! I am exaggerating, of course, but you get the picture.
Right into the story
Django Unchained dives right into the story as Django meets a bounty hunter who liberates him into the man he becomes in the course of the film! In Scene 1. And a super-imposed text abruptly takes us to Mississippi at the end of the first act, to get on with the storytelling.
While screenwriters around the world have evolved to diving straight into the story, trusting the audience to be smart enough to discover character by the way they respond to situations, our filmmakers still take half the length of the film to get into the story because they are busy setting up characters. Why? Because in Paradesi, the sad plight of the poor is the story. The story in one word: suffering.
Django… has almost the same content too. In fact, the slaves in Django… are in a far more cruel world where they fight each other to death. Yet, Tarantino decides that the story he wants to tell is of liberation, not suffering. Why? Because, he wants to provide catharsis to the audience, a balm on the scars of America’s painful history through a tongue-in-cheek rewrite, that shows us all the suffering but with the purpose of employing artistic licence and playing God as a form of release and revenge. As a form of wish fulfilment and fantasy. Inglourious Basterds did exactly the same. While …Basterds made Hitler look like a clown, here the Ku Klux Klan is made the butt of all jokes. Tarantino shows his contempt for the villains by making them look like idiots. This is how he wants us to remember them.
Bala wants you to remember each blow. So he just replaces the oppressors of the past with himself. He makes his cast drink water like animals from the lake, he kicks them around, relishes in showing you the suffering with the sole intention of depressing his audience. He wants to open up the wounds, he wants to provoke you and make you feel bad about every sip of tea you will.
Tarantino loves being the wild dark horse, always surprising you with his disdain for realism, unwilling to go down the trodden path and willing to do anything including blowing him up into flames any preconceived notions you have of him or his image. While most filmmakers decide to go non-linear to be different, here’s a man who goes linear because he’s bored of being different.
If you want to carry the load, go for the pony. You want to ride? Take the horse, cowboy.