A Bala film might not mean much to people who don’t follow Tamil cinema, but it soon will. The director of intense dramas like Sethu and Pithamagan, who is all the rage in his home state, is set to go national and, if he has his way, international. Apart from a regular release in the south, Bala’s new movie Paradesi will be distributed in the north with English subtitles by Anurag Kashyap Films Pvt. Ltd.
Kashyap is a vocal fan of Bala—he is one of three Tamil film-makers thanked in the opening credits of Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. Bala and his team will be making a bid to get Paradesi selected for the prestigious Competition section at the Cannes Film Festival in May. If selected, the movie will introduce the world to a peculiar strand of epic tragedy from a director who has been trawling the lower depths of the human experience from the word go.
Paradesi, a pre-independence drama about exploited tea plantation workers in south India, is Bala’s sixth project and, according to the director, “the most satisfying film” of a career that started with Sethu in 1999. That movie achieved cult status because of the struggle Bala faced to release it and the huzzahs it attracted after finally reaching audiences. The story of a college student who loses his heart to a woman and then his mental balance wasn’t new, but the freshness lay in the bleakness of Bala’s vision, which had no place for an audience-friendly happy ending. “It’s not the stories which inspire me, it’s the characters,” Bala says. “When I visit a wedding, my eyes are not on the bride and the groom. Instead, I observe the priest who chants the prayers or the musicians. When I visit a funeral, I observe most the dead body and those who fake their tears.”
Sethu, which was successfully remade in Hindi as Tere Naam in 2003, signalled early on Bala’s interest in sadness, madness and human degradation, all themes he has returned to in his subsequent films. Bala, 46, has built a reputation for emotionally wrenching movies that usually end in spectacularly staged violence.
Tamil cinema inaugurated a new phase in the rural realist idiom, starting in the late 1990s with such films as Sethu, Ameer Sultan’s Paruthiveeran, M. Sasikumar’s Subramaniapuram and Vetrimaaran’s Aadukalam. Bala is set apart from his peers by the degree of suffering endured by his usually male protagonists, which ends in insanity-fuelled bouts of bestiality and death. Nandha (2001) is about a child who kills his father and fails to assimilate into society after his release from prison. Pithamagan’s orphaned graveyard keeper, who is possibly autistic and communicates through animal-like grunts, gives a shudder-worthy response to the killing of the only person who cared for him and tried to humanize him. “I always think of the end of life,” Bala says. “That’s where I think the sadness of my subject lies.”
Bala pushes his interest in damaged goods to an extreme in Naan Kadavul (2009). Two sets of fringe characters compete for shock value—the Aghori ascetics who have renounced the world and seek direct communion with the god Shiva, and armies of beggars with various types of physical and mental deformities. If Naan Kadaval is often unwatchable, it’s because the director has deemed it so.
Even Avan Ivan (2011), Bala’s rambunctious comedy about two half-brothers, can’t escape the spectre of misery. The entertaining alcohol-aided shenanigans of the siblings, one a thief and the other a squint-eyed folk artiste, make way for blind rage when their former landlord, whom they affectionately call “Highness”, meets a gory demise.
Going by his choice of stories, Bala might be described as an agent provocateur who picks up controversial and taboo subjects that test the boundaries of censorship only because nobody else is doing so, but there’s a larger design at work. The film-maker, who apprenticed under Tamil director Balu Mahendra, is deeply interested in people making do on the fringes of society. Like photojournalist Diane Arbus and her gallery of freaks and deviants, Bala’s cinema features an assortment of outsiders who live on the edges of the formal economy and have created a self-contained subterranean universe with its own moral order and set of rules. His emotionally fraught misfits usually carry deep psychological scars, exacerbated by a hardscrabble existence that has no end in sight. They are drawn from an exploited, often criminal underclass from rural and small-town Tamil Nadu rather than from the state’s more prosperous urban centres. Everything is a bit more heightened than usual in Bala’s movies—the speech patterns and body language of the characters, their responses to their situations, and their vigilante reactions to injustice.
“People who fly in aircraft and move in cars don’t attract me,” Bala says. “The so-called marginals are people who go through hunger and poverty, but they are truthful and emotional.”
Bala’s new movie further mines his interest in the great unwashed. Paradesi, a pejorative Tamil word for foreigner or wastrel, is adapted from a book like some of his other films. Paradesi is drawn from Eriyum Panikadu, the Tamil translation of Red Tea, a 1969 novel by Paul Harris Daniel based on the writer’s encounters with enslaved tea plantation workers in the Madras Presidency in colonial India. “Humans are the only known animals on earth who hunt fellow humans and make them slaves,” Bala says. “That’s what inspired me to do this film.” Paradesi stars Aadharva, a relatively new face in Tamil cinema whose career is likely to be transformed by the movie, just as Sethu made its lead actor, Vikram, a star, and Nandha, Pithamagan, Naan Kadavul and Avan Ivan gave artistic credibility to mainstream heroes like Suriya, Arya and Vishal.
“Cinema is a profitable business if it’s done with passion,” Bala observes. “The film-maker and the investor should be passionate enough to deliver a good product. If I had a good investor, I could produce at least four quality films a year under my banner and I can direct one.” Whatever its subject, the treatment is likely to involve rivers of sweat, tears—the very least we have come to expect from “a Bala film”.