Karparaa bears the distinctive stamp of its creator’s original vocation. Cinematographer Vignesh Kumulai’s directorial debut is a rigorously composed, visually haunting chronicle of the eternal circle of life.

Premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2023, Karparaa is among the titles in the International Competition section at the ongoing Mumbai International Film Festival. In 2021, Rotterdam bestowed its top honour on Tamil filmmaker PS Vinothraj’s Koozhangal, a searing drama about an abusive father and his long-suffering son. Kumulai was one of the two cinematographers on Koozhangal. His own film too is an intimate study of the passage of time with a distinctive sense of place.

Kumulai describes the 71-minute Karparaa as a fictional narrative filmed in the style of the observational documentary. He was staying in his village in Tamil Nadu in 2021, during one of the Covid lockdowns, when he began shooting members of his family and his neighbours. Kumulai collected a cascade of carefully framed shots into the story of an elderly couple’s interactions with their family members.

The gnarled woman and hobbled man are heavily dependent on their kin for even the most basic functions. The indifferent behaviour of the family members is cruel at times. Similarly, the scenes of the elders’ bodies exposed to everyone else, including Kumulai’s camera, are harsh. Too weak to make demands, let alone consent to anything, the old man and the woman exist at the mercy of others.

A film about stasis unfolds in a milieu throbbing with other forms of life. Cows and dogs tend to their young. A snake whooshes by. A tortoise cautiously emerges from its shell. The clouds darken with rain. An eternal cycle of birth, death and regeneration is in play.

Karparaa (2023).

“The style of the film wasn’t fixed but evolved,” Kumulai said. His characters, who are played by members of his own family and his neighbours, were largely unselfconscious of the camera, he claimed.

There were no rehearsals, Kumulai stated – rather, he captured the people as they actually live simply by spending time in their midst. The intense close-ups that fill up the screen were intended to evoke the inner lives of his characters, he said.

Kumulai’s keen eye captures details big and small. From the contours of the landscape to the wrinkles on the old woman’s face, between scenes of stillness and bursts of movement, Kumulai seemingly misses nothing. Groundnuts are shelled to prepare a meal; in the distance, JCB machines chomp on the earth to build a canal. The quiet is interrupted only by conversations or a voiceover.

Time grinds on for the three generations shown in Karparaa. Kumulai’s disciplined editing ensures that not a single shot is wasted. The film is austere but lush too – a blend of fiction and documentary that reveals human nature in its glory and cruelty.

Karparaa (2023).