Mani Ratnam. Just the mention of that name evokes so many emotions, montages of scenes from his films that are etched in our mind, and the music that goes with them. In that montage, his last couple of films don’t quite make the cut. Yet, when it comes to a Mani Ratnam film release, there’s the anticipation. Anticipation that he might blow our socks off like he has done in the past.
And then, there’s trepidation. Trepidation that he might deliver another Kadal. That he might create another skittish film like Raavan. That he might present another simplistic tale of patriotism. With Kaatru Veliyidai out today, we’ve got to admit that we’re not really charged up as much as we’d hoped we’d be. Blame it on the trailer, but it’s got us a little wary. We’re not keen to write off the film even before we’ve seen it. Maybe it all adds up. Maybe it will blow our socks off. As we’ve got our fingers crossed, we wonder why it is that we feel trepidation when a movie of his is about to release. It is a relatively new feeling. So when and what triggered it? Here, we try to trace it.
It probably started with Roja. Sure, it was well-received. It’s still a great movie to watch. However, it has a few problems. We are prone to sweep that under the carpet and focus instead on its fantastic songs, incredible cinematography, and the key characters Rishi and Roja portrayed so earnestly by Madhoo and Arvind Swamy.
But no matter how much we try, we can’t ignore that the story is problematic. It’s central character is an indefatigable patriot who asks no questions. Who doesn’t wonder why things are the way they are. Militancy is not an answer. Nothing justifies the loss of lives. But it’s the juxtaposition of Hindu and Muslim in the film that is so black and white.
There is simply no dialogue between the two. Rishi, in the movie, insists that the brutal evictions of Hindu Kashmiri Pundits is wrong. He got that right. And then, he goes on to say that the issue in Kashmir is something that must be sorted out with talks and not guns. But when the militant, Liaqat, queries him on the loss of innocent Muslim lives in Kashmir, Rishi has no answer neither does he want to discuss it.
We love it when Mani Ratnam focuses on relationships. He’s one of the best when it comes to nuanced love stories. Need we even mention Mouna Ragam, Pallavi Anupallavi, and Alaipayuthey. Recently, he came close to recreating that magic with OK Kanmani. By no means novel, it’s still an engaging watch. But sometimes the love story gets lost in a plot that’s bigger than two people. Think Dil Se.
The reason why we still return to Mouna Ragam, Alaipayuthey and even Nayagan, is for its nano focus on its characters - their loves, their fears, their tears. It’s raw and beautiful and we get to see that because there’s no grand set, no artifice. This is probably why we didn’t quite take to Raavan even though it has a bold and striking plot.
Kadal can quite simply be summarised as ‘one hot mess!’ What was with the moralising?! Coming from a man who portrayed moral ambiguity with empathy - in Agninatchathiram where Vijaykumar's character shuttles between his two families, and Nayagan, where Velunayakar insists that you mustn’t judge a deed that helps and feeds the needy - it was quite a surprise. What made it worse is the infantilisation of the heroine. Visually brilliant, the film lacks heart.
But no matter what our perception of his films, we cannot foist our fears on an artist, a director. We as viewers are entitled to expectations, but he needn’t toe its line every time. We can lob our critique at his films, but we must desist from outrage. Here’s hoping Mani Ratnam’s latest ticks all the boxes. If not, one can always hope his next one will.
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