Director: Priya Krishnaswamy
Cast: R Raju, P Samanaraja, Sugumar Shanmugam, SuPa Muthukumar, Jayalakshmi
Various things can ease you into a movie. Sometimes, it's the reassurance an actor brings. Sometimes, it's a bit of staging. In Priya Krishnaswamy's Baaram, which won the 2018 National Award for Best Tamil Film, it was a line uttered by an old man's sister: Kaavalkaaran vaayila peepee irundhaa kallan bayappaduvaana? It's one of those quirks of language that make you smile, and also tell you that something feels authentic. If you remember the way the Gandhimathi character speaks in Mann Vaasanai, you'll know what I'm talking about. It's more than a line. It's the smell of the soil.
Baaram opens with these smells of the soil. Followed by a handheld camera, the old man — his name is Karuppasamy, and he is played by R Raju— ambles about in a folk fair, soaking in the sights and bargaining for a flute. The seller says 50 rupees, the old man says 10. On and on it goes. The shots are free-floating, yet immersive — and they set a docu-fiction tone for the rest of the film. (The cinematographer is Jayanth Sethu Mathavan.) The story revolves around Karuppasamy, who works the night shift as a watchman in a residential colony, often with only a dog for company.
But he isn't alone. There is his sister (Jayalakshmi), of course — she knows he is a man of routine, and even the slightest delay makes her glance at the clock. There's his nephew Veera (Sugumar Shanmugam), who is very attached to him, and asks: Why are you still working as a watchman? Maybe it's just the routine that makes him go on. What would he do otherwise? Then there's Veera's brother Murugan (Samanaraja). These people almost make up for the fact that Karuppasamy's son Senthil (SuPa Muthukumar) is an outlier, leading his own life, with his wife and little girl. He doesn't seem too happy that this family he isn't close with is taking care of his father, but there's no alternative. Else, the responsibility might fall on him.
And it does, one day, when Karuppasamy meets with an accident. This is a beautiful stretch, aided by the film's docu-fiction feel. It made me wonder what I would do if I witnessed such a thing, as a passer-by on the road. I also wondered what I would do if I lived in the residential colony where Karuppasamy worked and some kind men deposited him — after the accident — in front of my house. Would I have bothered to chat with him and find out where he went once his shift got over? Would I, therefore, have known whom to call?
These existential questions don't come lightly. They are woven into the film's fabric. Karuppasamy needs an operation, which means money, which means Senthil has to step in. It's his father, after all, and even if he doesn't want to take care of him, he doesn't want the "humiliation" of being known as the son who did not take care of his father. Will he do the right thing? Or given his tight-fisted nature, will he opt for the ghastly practice of thalaikoothal, which is essentially a kind of euthanasia masquerading as "tradition"? (We recently saw a lighter extrapolation of this subject in Madhumita's KD Engira Karuppudurai.)
There are pitiful scenes in Senthil's house where his little daughter realises her grandfather is an unwelcome visitor — she probably wants to go to him, but is also afraid of her mother. But otherwise, the director keeps her distance. Like a diligent reporter, she is interested in (1) how thalaikoothal is organised, and (2) what you'd do if you knew someone was killed in this manner. The biggest structural problem in Baaram is the flashback, which should have come as a big reveal. Maybe the director wanted to avoid sensationalism, but the alternative is a plodding sense of predictability. Alert viewers would have already guessed what really happened.
I wished for a few more shades in Senthil — he is one-note. I wished Veera had held a few surprises, too, though it's very clear why he would turn a crusader against thalaikoothal. He did, after all, want to quit his job as a bus conductor and join the union. But the film, written by the director and Rakav Mirdath, leaves us with the indelible reality of a way of life that has continued for centuries. Logic. Humaneness. The dignity of the elderly. The question of death versus suffering. All these issues make themselves felt during this drama, but the biggest "truth" of all may be the realisation that it's going to take more than good intentions (or a well-intentioned filmmaker) to challenge something as deeply entrenched as tradition.