India (2018) Dir. Priya Krishnaswamy

I’m assuming that you dear reader would care for an elderly family member as much as you could in their time of need, whether it was loneliness, illness or some other health setback. Care homes are usually a last resort but at the same time, nobody wants to prolong their suffering, and this sometimes calls for extreme action.

Widowed night watchman K. Karuppasamy (R. Raju), lives in a small town in Tamil Nadu with his sister Menmozhi (Jayalakshmi) and his three nephews – Veera (Sugumar Shanmugam), Mani (Bremnath V.), and Murugan (P. Samanaraja). One morning when walking home, Karuppasamy is in a traffic accident and suffers a fractured hip, requiring an operation which needs the permission of his son Senthil (SuPa Muthukumar).  

Senthil says he doesn’t have the money and even when offered a free operation, he says it is too much hassle to get the necessary paperwork. Despite Veera offering to cover the expenses, Senthil takes Karuppasamy back to his village, claiming a local healer will treat him. A few days later, Senthil tells the family Karuppasamy has died in his sleep, but a hysterical mourner at the funeral suggests it wasn’t a natural death.

Baaram translates into English as “The Burden”, an upfront title given the plot but for her second feature, Priya Krishnaswamy needed to make people take notice. Something of an unavoidable spoiler under the circumstances, Baaram deals with a divisive practice prevalent in Tamil India known as Thalaikoothal, a euthanasia mercy killing performed by family members on their ailing elderly.

Empirically polarising, Thalaikoothal is viewed by some as a positive way to release the suffering from their pain, or to free the families from the burden of seeing them suffer. It can be done through a variety of methods – a cold head bath, ingesting poisons through food or tender coconut milk to induce organ failure, or lethal injection. Despite being illegal, a tacit social acceptance towards it exists for the above reasons, sometimes even requested by patients themselves.

As a result, many won’t make formal complaints, forming the basis for Krishnaswamy’s stance as a concerned objector, though she does allow both opinions to be shared. Shot Dogme style, with a hand held camera, and a non-professional cast, the very first shot is Veera glaring into the camera, followed by a quick montage of pair of discarded shoes, a flute, and a used syringe on the ground. A bold and gravid opening tells us nothing but serves as an ominous portent for what is to come.

The scene then jumps to Karuppasamy wandering through a busy street market and bartering over the price of a flute. Unbeknownst to us, we are also introduced to the key players in Karuppasamy’s death, a subtle way of showing us how even the most normal looking people can hide a dark secret. The village Karuppasamy resides in doesn’t look to be that prosperous since he and his family all live in a rather cramped and shoddy looking house, yet the three brothers incongruously all have mobile phones.

Karuppasamy may look older than his 64 years but he still has a lot of spirit in him, cruelly taken by the accident which occurs off screen. From here, he is shunted back and forth on the back of a truck, writhing in agony as the local doctors or hospitals are too busy or underfunded to treat him. The operation is unavoidable and Karuppasamy’s are desperate for him to have it, but son Senthil is enthusiastic.

No backstory is forthcoming, aside from a late piece of exposition in which Veera recalls Karuppasamy gave Senthil his own house when he got married, leaving us to assume either Senthil is an ungrateful toad, or maybe his shrew of a wife drove them apart. She isn’t shy in refusing to cook or clean Karuppasamy since she has too much to do (Senthil won’t do it as India is stringent in assigning such male/female roles).

One thing about this film that is a little problematic is its pacing. Everything discussed above happens within the first 40 minutes, but the film only runs for 87-minutes. This doesn’t give more time to the meat of the story – Veera’s investigation into his uncle’s death and the subsequent research into Thalaikoothal – which is where things are truly fascinating and carries the bulk of the drama.

Conflicting opinions as to whether children sending their parents on their way is an act of love, or a terrible thing to foist upon them are aired in a pseudo-interview montage, but the most terrifying revelation is the pervasive “well, everybody does it” attitude. Not wishing to generalise or stereotype them, but coming from this particular Diaspora, the nonchalance of these people is made to feel wholly cultural.

Veera’s outrage at the police’s inert response to his complaint forces him turn to the media and things start to happen but Krishnaswamy decides to go the downbeat route for the denouement in the interest of balance. This allows the film to end with a final shot of a seething Veera, a symbolic tableau representing the elliptical nature of life and the struggle to bring about change in a society that operates for its own interests.

Painting the characters with broad strokes of black and white is another aspect to this film which will have some feel Krishnaswamy is bring too didactic with her viewpoint. In the case of Senthil, he seems too cold and emotionally detached from the idea of not treating his own father; conversely, Veera comes across as a self-righteous rather than a sympathetic crusader for justice.

However, Baaram stands up as an enlightening film about a controversial act with no definitive right or wrong status. We can’t moralise about it in the west as campaigners seek to make euthanasia legal for those who want it, but Krishnaswamy does make a compelling argument for this illicit version to be questioned and debated openly. A ballsy piece of filmmaking.

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