An undercurrent of sadness is inevitable when a film navigates the battles of villagers at the farthest reach of a system. In Pa Virumaandi's Ka Pae Ranasingam, starring Aishwarya Rajesh and Vijay Sethupathi, the sadness starts trickling the moment the opening credits roll. The elegiac 'Paravaigala' plays over shots of barren lands and of women and children in tears. Tears well up throughout the movie, character after character breaking down until the climax, when the protagonist pours out an uncontrollable violent wail, the likes of which I haven't seen played with such authenticity.
The protagonist is played by a superb Aishwarya, who fills frame after frame with the frustration and weariness of a lone wife fighting against an apathetic system. In many ways, the movie is similar to Raju Murugan's Joker, which was anchored by the performance of Guru Somasundaram, playing a lone husband fighting an apathetic system. In both films, the protagonists are in search of closure from their spouses, one lifeless, the other comatose. Both protagonists have a run-in with authority at the highest levels. The emotional highs in both films are relegated to flashbacks, relying on the free flowing chemistry between the lead couple. But, where Joker dove into its political commentary head first, Ka Pae Ranasingam lets it circulate as undercurrents.
If it feels like I've inundated you with water metaphors, I am just taking cue from the movie that uses water to symbolise its politics. The pre-release teaser makes an overt proclamation that water will drive the future of politics. Water is almost a character in the film and makes its strongest showing by not showing up. In recurring shots of the village where most of the film is set, we get rows of empty pots, and birds' eye views of the barren landscape. The lack of water also drives many of the overt political actions in the film.
But beneath all that, it is the subtext of political power as conveyed through water that is as clever as it is cinematic. Vijay Sethupathi plays a dowser who has an innate ability to locate underground water. But that's not his only superpower. He can marshall public support, often at will. Between spearheading protests for villages and whipping electoral support for his friend, he earns his living by helping farmers find water sources. There are two powerful shots of Vijay Sethupathi in the film, one in the midst of a sea of people, and another in the middle of… a sea.
With Vijay Sethupathi playing a salt-of-the-earth character, the film's ideological leanings can be no secret. Right from his introduction scene, he preaches the gospel of equal rights and holding on to the power over one's life and livelihood. As to who owns, or who steals that power, the answer is conveyed largely through subtext. A mini lecture on karuvelam (Mesquite Tree Gum/Prosopis Juliflora) plants in the village that suck a lot of groundwater, makes a point that these plants arrived from foreign shores. Later on, when the karuvelam forest is burned down, an IAS officer is indifferent to the act of destruction. According to him, ridding the village of the (foreign) plant is "naatukku nalladhu dhaan" (good for the country).
Foreign plants aren't the only entities shown stealing water. A running thread in the movie is about a solar electricity corporation that consumes inordinate amounts of groundwater. If you're looking for a clearer political subtext in this thread, look no further than the name of the corporation, and what (or who) it rhymes with.
The symbolism of who really has political power in the country is fully realised in the concluding 40-minute stretch of the movie, and this is conveyed through a sequence of water visuals. A group of villagers gathers around with empty pots only to see water trickling down from the pipes. Frustrated with an unhelpful system in the village, Aishwarya Rajesh's character visits Chennai, and her first sight is of a stream of water leaking out of a pipe. Her subsequent wait for a solution from the Chief Minister's office turns out to be wasteful. What follows is the first real sight of a body of water in the film, a river flowing alongside the motorcade of a central minister. The tryst between Rajesh's character and the central minister, which happens on a bridge, leads her to the nation's capital and a final stretch with the man who has the power to solve her problem. Indeed, the indication is that he has all the power, as he gives her a solution just as he sanctions the release of a large dam.
The real kicker is how the movie answers the question of who really wields power in the country. In a remarkable bait-and-switch, the man who controls the system is all set to open the dam, but yields that act to this villager standing on top of the dam, who does so by the press of a button!