I had planned on running a few errands after the screening but there was something really unpleasant about walking out of Bala’s Paradesi and into the strip mall parking lot. The garish green decorations and leprechaun cut-outs decorating the drug store did nothing to assuage the feeling.
Today is St. Patrick’s Day - traditionally a day for the Irish diaspora to come together and celebrate their community; more recently, an excuse for white Americans of any ethnic background to drink green-dyed beer and whiskey until they vomit in the streets.
Éirinn go Brách. How soon we forget.
But my grandmother Eileen, a fine Irish-American woman, remembered. She knew why there was a large Irish diaspora and she hated the English for it until the day she died.
Ah, the English. Turning Ireland into a plantation and the Irish into their serfs. Exporting food back home as Irish people starved in the streets. Possibly the most hated race, globally. Except where people hate the Americans more. Or the Germans. Or the Israelis. Or the Japanese. Or the Russians. Or the Chinese. Or the French. Or...
Colonization is a bitch.
And so are the demands of the gaping maw of consumer demand at home.
Bala’s Paradesi is based on the novel “Red Tea” (1969) by one Dr. P.H. Daniel, who worked as the Chief Medical Officer on an Assam tea plantation from 1941 to 1965. Young Rasa (the strapping, handsome Adharvaa) needs work. There is none in his village and until he has a wage, he cannot get married to Angamma (a lively Vedhicka). Rasa goes off in search of a wage and finds more than he bargained for - a slave trader (though that’s not what he calls himself). Rasa - and much of his village - end up enslaved on a tea plantation.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, since I doubt anybody has actually read “Red Tea,” which seems to be a difficult novel to track down. But being a Bala film, watching Paradesi is like getting a kick to the gut. Paradesi is brutal but it’s also the most accessible to average viewers of Bala’s work that I’ve seen so far. The common Bala elements (at least in common with the films I’ve seen from him) are there - earthy humor, a hero who borders on holy fool, the fascination with music and religious ecstasy, and the aching desire for compassion - but they are less overt, the spikiness sanded down, the colors muted.
In fact, the entire film has a muted, sanded-down feeling to it. I don’t mean this as a criticism but just as a comment. Although there is an overarching narrative with the relationship of Rasa and Angamma, it acts as a framework, over which Bala knits the warp and weft of village life (in the first half) and plantation life (in the second.)
Since most people reading this won’t have had a chance to see the film yet, I’ll limit my discussion to three somewhat related points.
First of all, massive kudos need to go to the junior artistes! This cannot have been an easy film to work on. They had to march for miles, covered in dirt. They had to pick tea leaves with bloody feet. They had to suffer for Bala’s vision. I hope they are all very proud of being part of such a wonderful piece of art and I want to thank them for their hard work.
Secondly, the marching. One of the most incredible sequences in the film is the march from the village to the tea plantation. Slowly, over the course of the song, the villagers are transformed visually from a collection of people and faces that we just spent an hour getting to know to a mass of animals. Bala uses what seem to me like wildlife photography techniques. Instead of close-ups of anguished faces, he chooses to frame the villagers as a flock of birds in a river or a herd of cattle being driven to slaughter.
Thirdly, the spiritual. I won’t spoil you for where and what the song is but at one point there is a frenzied spiritual song picturization. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. But then again, I don’t think I’ve seen a film about slavery that wasn’t about White Men Who Want To Free The Slaves (Black people need not be featured. e.g. Lincoln.) The ecstatic reaction of the coolies at having their spiritual needs met was overpowering; and made me wish the unchained frenzy could have been turned against the masters. But religious men aren’t necessarily interested in the problems of this life.
There was so much I loved about this film, from Vedhicka’s boisterous performance to Rasa’s hunchbacked, foul mouthed granny but what I loved the most was the unapologetically anti-corporate tone. The utter lack of soft drink product placement and logo t-shirts. The actresses with their dusty feet and non-designer, village-best saris. The fact that the British, with their talk of “profits are up” while coolies toil without hope in the fields, are the complete villains of the piece.
It made this lefty, liberal socialist’s heart ache. And rethink some planned purchases.
The world is flat.
Isn’t it great?