Director: Vignesh Kumulai
Cast: Sundharathamal, Arumugam
The story of grown-up children feeling burdened by ageing parents has been told innumerable times since Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and its more influential Japanese remake in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Dozens of Indian films, most famously Baghban (2003), have milked the theme of elder abuse for maximum melodramatic effect. Premiering at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), Vignesh Kumulai’s Karparaa presents an extreme rarefaction of the premise that swaps moralism for stoic reflection.
At the centre of the film is an elderly couple in rural Tamil Nadu. Both husband (Arumugam) and wife (Sundharathamal) are bedridden and live separately under the care of different children and relatives. Karparaa doesn’t elucidate their relations; instead, it presents vignettes from their everyday life seemingly gathered over a year. We see their guardians attend to them reluctantly: grandsons who wash them like cattle, daughters-in-law who are weary of cooking for them, young ones who would rather be busy with their smartphones on lazy afternoons than take them to the toilet.
We notice the casual cruelty of children aggrieved by unwanted caregiving responsibility. But director Vignesh relegates most of this harshness to the film’s margins to focus on the world around the couple. Vast stretches of Karparaa are devoted to recording the daily activities of the village: men and women tending to cows, feeding chicken, winnowing rice, building canals, harvesting groundnuts, spraying pesticides or taking afternoon naps. These documentary sequences serve to both illustrate the situation of the couple, locked out of any productive labour and therefore becoming a ‘liability,’ and to evoke a sense of life moving on, indifferent to their plight.
The filmmaker reinforces this cosmic perspective through close attention to the cycles of nature. Leisurely paced, Karparaa is structured as much by alternating day-and-night sequences as by the changing seasons. Images of animals nurturing their young ones abound—a touch of sentimentalism in an otherwise austere work—most notably a calf butting its head against its mother’s udder. The camera lingers on old, gnarled trees, on the brink of being uprooted, that come to resemble and represent the couple. Repeated appearance of these elements of nature suggests generational cycles, a sign that the next generation will endure the same fate, as will the one after that.
Vignesh was the cinematographer on PS Vinothraj’s breakout feature Pebbles (2021), winner of the top prize at IFFR 2021. The muscular, sunburnt cinematography of that work makes way for a subtler approach to colour and movement in Karparaa. Perhaps the most startling aspect of Vignesh’s film is its unflinching examination of frail, aged human bodies in extreme close-ups—a taboo in cinema where such images are associated with abjection and disgust. The manner in which the camera pores over wrinkled skin, silver hair, ocular secretions, toothless jaws chewing betel leaves, unwashed mouths—recalling the street portraiture of Khalik Allah—transforms these faces into landscapes in their own right, fusing human bodies with nature at large.
It is equally noteworthy that, unlike the recalcitrant parents of Make Way for Tomorrow and its successors, the couple in Karparaa lacks the physical agency to respond to their predicament. Having withdrawn into themselves due to old age, they hardly talk, react or resist. They become purely external beings, biding their time, waiting for the inevitable. We are made witness to their fading consciousness, to the sordid spectacle of dignity dying a quiet death. Midway, the film breaks this inexorability with a voice-over by the man reminiscing about the past and expressing disappointment at the iniquities of his sons. The couple neither meets nor expresses a desire to. And yet, as the film arrives at its shattering final minutes, we wonder what they are feeling, thinking even when we know we’ll never know.