Karparaa Movie Review (2023)

Vignesh Kumulai

Vignesh Kumulai's 'Karparaa' is a quiet stunner, an unsentimental look at an aged couple at the mercy of the young

Karparaa Movie Review

Karparaa Movie Cast & Crew

Production : Vignesh Kumulai
Director : Vignesh Kumulai

Vignesh Kumulai was one of the cinematographers of Pebbles (Koozhangal), which won the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam. His first film as director, Karparaa, premiered at the same festival this year, and it's a quiet stunner set in a quiet village in Tamil Nadu. (Vignesh is also the film's writer, cinematographer and editor.) The "story" is about a very old couple at the doorstep of death. For practical reasons, the old woman and the old man are being cared for by different children. But Vignesh does not judge these children. Instead of an emotional narrative like Yasujirō Ozu's Tokyo Story, he uses a distant observational style with a series of vignettes. The style echoes a stretch of dialogue from Ozu's, which was also about aged parents and too-busy children. "But children do drift away from their parents… They have to look after their own lives."

But first, let's look at the old woman. Her face is the film's opening image. Vignesh gives us a close-up that captures the wrinkles, the puckered mouth, the cotton-ball puffs of white hair, the large empty holes in the ear that once must have held heavy, drooping earrings, and most importantly, the slowness of her motion. It takes an eternity to sit up after a nap, and the creaks from her cot become the "background score" for this stage of life. (There's no music in the film.) Meanwhile, the old man makes an entry, crawling across the frame. None of the characters have screen names, and they come across as a bunch of sons and daughters-in-law and grown-up grandchildren. This is not a film about cruel people, who have little time for their aged parents. This is a film about busy people who – unlike in Tokyo Story – still carve out some time from their daily routine to give the old woman a bath or wash the old man's behind. 

Yes, there is the inevitable bit of grumbling. For instance, we hear a daughter-in-law say that her sons spend all their time taking care of the old man. But it comes across more like venting than malice. She's in the kitchen when she says this, which means she is busy making food. Others are busy, too –  de-shelling groundnuts or doing construction work or just staring at their smartphones. Even when a scene borders on cruelty, it is redeemed with humanity. The old woman wants to relieve herself, and her grandson – at first – doesn't seem inclined to help her. But eventually, he does – grudgingly. The longest stretch of dialogue tells a story about ungrateful sons. Maybe that's another point of view. The closest the film comes to showing that kind of sentimentality is with its images of calves and pups suckling at their mothers' teats. I read it as a simple fact: it is the duty of the older generation to care for their young. The reverse is not always true.

Karparaa abounds with images of nature and technology, the old and the new. At one point, a view of the sky is interrupted by telephone lines. At another point, the skyline is broken by a leafless Tim Burton-esque tree that seems to be as old as the couple in the story, as a man on a bike passes by. A table fan tells us that the day is hot. Later, we get rains. Even the bodies of the old people are bare, like nature. We see the old woman's drooping breast. We see the old man's genitals as he is being washed. There's no sensationalism. It's like seeing a naked child: old age, after all, is a return to the helplessness of childhood. Just like someone tosses rice to chickens early on, the old couple is kept fed. This is a film that shows how the old are at the mercy of the young. At least, in this case, the young exist with a sense of duty. The bum may not be washed lovingly. But at least, it is washed.

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Baradwaj Rangan

National Award-winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan, former deputy editor of The Hindu and senior editor of Film Companion, has carved a niche for himself over the years as a powerful voice in cinema, especially the Tamil film industry, with his reviews of films. While he was pursuing his chemical engineering degree, he was fascinated with the writing and analysis of world cinema by American critics. Baradwaj completed his Master’s degree in Advertising and Public Relations through scholarship. His first review was for the Hindi film Dum, published on January 30, 2003, in the Madras Plus supplement of The Economic Times. He then started critiquing Tamil films in 2014 and did a review on the film Subramaniapuram, while also debuting as a writer in the unreleased rom-com Kadhal 2 Kalyanam. Furthermore, Baradwaj has authored two books - Conversations with Mani Ratnam, 2012, and A Journey Through Indian Cinema, 2014. In 2017, he joined Film Companion South and continued to show his prowess in critiquing for the next five years garnering a wide viewership and a fan following of his own before announcing to be a part of Galatta Media in March 2022.