Tamil filmmaker Bala’s new movie Paradesi (The Vagabond) treads old ground. We are in the late thirties in a dirt-poor and drought-affected village that, despite the circumstances, hasn’t lost its sense of humour. The villagers hide the news of an elder’s death from his acolyte Rasa (Adharvaa) because they don’t want a wedding, and the feast that follows, to stop midway.

We are in a familiar world of pungent and biting humour, expressed in rustic Tamil. Rasa too is a familiar Bala type—an outsider-insider whose innocence will soon be pummelled to bits. The story, based on Paul Harris Daniel’s 1969 novel Red Tea, spans the number of years it takes to uproot a village and enslave its residents on a tea plantation. Rasa drums for a living and earns scraps and ridicule in return, but he does catch the eye of Angamma (Vedhicka). A bit like in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, the happiness is short-lived. Nature’s colours change from washed-out greys and browns to deceptively lush greens as Rasa and the rest of the village make an arduous journey from the village to a tea plantation where their labour is exploited for a pittance. (The crisp cinematography is by Chezhiyan).

Although Paradesi is as bleak as Bala’s older movies, there’s a tonal shift from miserablist epics like Pithamagan and Naan Kadavul. Paradesi encases its characters in helplessness rather than outrage. Bala’s cinema has its fair share of cathartic blood-letting—his characters suffer to breaking point and then no more—but Paradesi’s tone is one of submissiveness. However, the agony of the indentured labourers doesn’t go unheard. They moan their fate loudly, beat their chests violently, wail in despair, and tear their hair in despair. The arthouse movies of the seventies and eighties depicted impoverished Indians as silent noble souls who swallowed their suffering. During Paradesi’s most heightened moments, it appears as though Bala is single-handedly trying to undo that cinematic legacy. He has also momentarily pared down his interest in the underclass. Paradesi clocks a crisp 120 minutes– not enough to replicate the richness of Pithamagan and Avan Ivan, and not enough to accommodate new ideas on age-old forms of exploitation.