Verdict - Paradesi is undeniably a haunting piece of work, but its impact will vary from person to person.
In a tiny village located in the outskirts of the 1930s Madras lives a naive town fool named Rasa (Atharva) who is taken for granted by everyone in the hamlet. He lives on the charity of the few willing fellow villagers to fill his stomach. When a mysterious rich man arrives with prospect of employment, half the men and a few women and children in the village sign up to work for an year. As they leave their village and loved ones behind in hope for a better tomorrow, little do they know that a harrowing future awaits them.
Paradesi is only Bala's sixth film but we all have a fair idea what to expect from him. Bala makes tragedies like it's nobody's business. Sethu still remains my favorite but Naan Kadavul's ending had this indescribable effect on me. If you walk in to Paradesi expecting the usual trademark Bala pain and suffering, beware for you were warned. Just the thought of the amount of agony the movie thrusts on its characters sends a chill down my spine. This is torture porn raised to the power of cocaine. In this film, Bala is like a Dementor of sorts, sucking every last bit of happiness out of us.
Just like our body responds to a bleeding bruise by initiating hemostasis, I think the mind too flicks a switch somewhere deep down inside us to protect our sanity when it is subject to extreme stress. After being exposed to the film's emotional pounding and walking through the corridors of despair for 53 days, a significant part of me stopped responding. I grew completely numb and couldn't make myself react to the carnage unraveling on screen. I have learnt one thing about myself from experience; I have a fairly normal threshold for witnessing cinematic suffering. But there's only as much I could take without some periodic breathing space. When death of major characters appears like just another page in a never-ending book, there's some problem with the movie. I'm a very easy weeper. At movies, I cry at the drop of a hat. But Paradesi and most of Bala's films are loud, where everyone on screen is crying their eyes out. I don't think I have ever wept watching others weep. That's not how it works for me and, I believe, even for others. You slit our throats with subtlety or you don't.
Said to have been based on true incidents which took place in pre-independence India of the 1930s, just the idea of this story is enough to rip my heart out. The tea-plantation slavery is so meticulously planned by the perpetrators that it becomes a labyrinth one could never walk out of. Every time the film dangles a tiny piece of hope before the suffering slaves, it immediately thrusts something far bigger and further deepens their torment. I could see what Bala was going for and it should have worked and chances are you responded well to the film, but I sadly did not. I guess it is a subjective thing.
There are certain major problems as well. The religious angle near the end is handled very amateurishly. It kills the film's grim mood and doesn't even fully realize its intentions. Large scale forceful conversion to Christianity probably was a significant thing during that era but the placement of the said event is completely wrong in the film. If it was placed there to lend some much needed respite, it doesn't even manage to give us that. That entire portion is just plain unnecessary. I have no good things to say about the stereotyping of English plantation owners. It's things like these that will make sure the West will never take our brand of cinema seriously.
The craft in Paradesi is one of our finest technical achievements. The attention to detail and the impeccable period recreation will make your sit in awe. The sepia-ish visuals lend the film a tragically nostalgic tone about a long lost era. While the closing moment has an earth-shattering dramatic weight and is something which I didn't see coming, the impact was lost on me. Paradesi is an haunting piece of work which, if it works, should leave you with a heavy heart.