It is a cliche in Tamil cinema to start a film with a festival sequence but when director Priya Krishnaswamy does it in Baaram, it doesn’t look very familiar. This could be because of the matter-of-fact treatment. There is a conspicuous absence of the celebratory tone that Tamil mainstream films tend to have in such instances. Here, the festival is chaotic — just like it would be in real-life. That realism permeates the entire film, and is perhaps both the boon and bane of Baaram.
The first few scenes seamlessly establish the predicament of the protagonist Karuppasamy (R Raju). He is desperate to buy a flute for his granddaughter but doesn’t have enough money for it. Watch him fail at negotiating the price with the abusive seller — it is profoundly sad. But he is no quitter. Later, he gets a loan of Rs 50 from his nephew Veera (Sugumar Shanmugam) with whom he has a special bond. When Veera asks him to quit his job as a watchman, he refuses it. He says, “Naan vittil poochie illa. Minmini poochi.” We gather that the old security guard is an independent man. But what happens when he turns invalid after a mishap and becomes a ‘burden’ to his son and his family?
Even as she sets up her protagonist, Priya wonderfully adds other characters and details into the mix: A long ongoing feud between Karuppasamy’s nephews and his son is told in passing, Karuppasamy’s sister Menmoli’s (Jayalakshmi) character traits are brilliantly brought out, and there is mention about the left-leaning political ideologies of the old man and Veera. All these happen smoothly rather than being fed to the audience, and that’s why Baaram, despite its humble production design, surpasses mainstream Tamil cinema in terms of storytelling.
Yet, there are moments where Priya takes an easy way out that feels contrived. A scene of a politician hindering the investigation of Karuppasamy’s murder stubs out. It looks forced. So too does the flashback portion, without which the film could have done just fine. But the bigger problem with Baaram is its changeover from being a family drama to a docudrama. As Veera goes about investigating not just about his uncle’s murder but the whole tradition of Thalaikoothal, Baaram, which could have been a moving personal tale, becomes an overarching documentary on the issue. The emotion we invested in Karuppasamy gets scattered. Maybe that’s why when his picture occupies the entire screen, it doesn’t create a lump in your throat as it is supposed to.
What I found intriguing about the film is its title — Baaram — because the director deliberately stops herself from pronouncing whether the tradition of senicide is right or wrong. But the treatment makes her opposing stance quite clear. The painful depiction of the struggles of Karuppasamy and the monsterisation of his son Senthil (SuPa Muthukumar) say it all. Yet, the film comes across as just a documentation of events rather than a commentary on it. This could be because of the docudrama approach Priya takes towards the end of the film. Though there is anger in Veera to avenge the murder of his uncle, he acts it out patiently listening to the ‘other side’ of the story. We learn, along with Veera, about the horrific ways the elderly are killed as a tradition and why everyone seems to be complicit in it. However, Baaram doesn’t leave you devastated. It only tries to put a mirror in front of society demanding a self-assessment.
Producer: Priya Krishnaswamy, Ardra Swaroop