Interesting how even though this is Bala’s first time in a period setting, the film still retains his usual ambience.Isolated landscapes, bare feet protagonists and a continuous feed of pathos.
The film, opening to a long tracking shot acquaints us with the late 30s of a hamlet in the then Madras constituency. It is the story of a group from the hamlet of Saluuru centering around Raju (Adharvaa), a sweet, strong and slightly cuckoo fellow about 25. Raju spends his time begging or working for rice to feed himself and his grandmother, the only family he’s got. We are brought in half way through the Raju-Rangamma (Vedhika) bitter sweet relationship. Rangamma is constantly making fun of Raju’s moderate madness, it actually seemed quite cruel after a point.
Half the hamlet takes up an offer to work in a colonized tea plantation to escape the famine at home. The Dalari (Jerry) that recruits them with false promises is that usual evil of a Bala’s film, religious on the face and unforgiving on the inside. What was supposed to be an 18 month deal ends up as indefinite forced slavery for the group coupled with bad living conditions and vicious labour.
The idea of the indefinite span takes its toll on the suffering group, all the more on Raju who can’t wait to see Rangamma and their love child. Stuck at the plantation, he develops a bond with Manikyam (Dhansika), a co-woker and her little girl,who have been abandoned there by a husband who escaped from the inescapable plantation.
There are also glimpses into the lives of The British who own the plantations – womanizing lords and their lives of whiskey and neatly dressed women.
As much as I’m proud that Bala picked this historical atrocity as his subject, I’m greatly irked by his long drawn sequences involving different sorts of suffering and over emphasizing it with poignant music. Not that he hadn’t done that in the past, but, with this one he was really hell bent on the endless pathos and like the excess of anything, it often slips into seeming pretentious. The plot setting seemed to offer a lot of perspectives which could have been used to intensify the stuck nature of the workers, instead the man goes for montage after montage of physical agony.
Of the cast Adharvaa and Bala’s new set of character actors (Jerry for one) make a distinct mark. Vedhika was one of the let downs, she was beautiful, but, she was ruining the preindependence aura for me with her traits of today.
Technically, this is Bala’s most ambitious work. The cinematography, costumes, make up and the debuting art director’s work greatly helped in creating the gone era. Like the painful 48 day march to the plantation, the film had epic portions reminding us of marches and deserts in films like Ben-Hur.
I’m not sure how I feel about this one, but, I’m sure the violent injustice, the epidemics and the first glimpses of catholic conversions endured by these plantation workers will stay with me for a long time, may be that’s what he wanted.
Verdict – For anyone serious enough to bear with one of our darkest auteurs
Rating – N/A