It is oft-said that no two people watch the same movie (even though they ‘see’ the same movie, they ‘experience’ different movies). To me, a movie is an experience that goes beyond the 2-3 hours that I spend watching it. A Mani Ratnam movie never fails to create this experience – the impact of watching the film lasting much longer than the duration of the film, as one tries to unravel the layers built into that final package, making sense of dialogues, fitting scenes into the neat little theories that we have already made for Mani Ratnam (mirrors, trains, rains, his trademark romance, sharp dialogues), being in awe of the technical superiority of the whole film, and more and more these days, what is new that Mani Ratnam is attempting (the switching between the past and present in Alaipayuthey, the completely offbeat editing style of Raavan(an), what is left unsaid, and so on).
The opening sequence, shot in grey and the fonts that looked like they were dripping with blood and ending with VC being captured as a prisoner of war, created a dramatic start to the movie. Contrasting that was the casual conversation that followed between VC and Girija that ended in an unexpected edge-of-life moment in all senses. A brilliant start to the gripping first half – tightly packed with plenty of songs and the chemistry building up between the two in lots of ‘Mani Ratnamesque’ moments – Leela going in search of VC to his ‘camp’ reminiscent of Karthik going in search of Shakti to her ‘camp’. ‘Naa ippo duty la irukken’ pops up here verbatim – a dialogue that we heard in Alaipayuthey too from a doctor when she gets a call from her lover 🙂
As in all of Mani’s movies, the supporting characters steal the show here too with a few scenes – Leela’s friend and Elias (RJ Balaji plays the part perfectly). Mani Ratnam uses both of them to understand and ponder over what’s going on in Leela’s mind and, of course, providing us his trademark comic relief with just a couple of ‘natural’ dialogues. The dialogues in the last scene between the two too are crisply written.
A R Rahman outperforms himself yet again with the songs and the background music. It is sheer magic to experience the music unfold throughout the movie. In this movie too, he utilises one of his oft-used and effective techniques of using the song in a slightly different form as a background score, carrying over the emotions and the lingering moments (a reflection, really, of how nothing truly leaves us – we continue to carry the emotions from the past and they surely express themselves in different ways – as strengthening of a bond, as the doubts that creep in when faced with a decision to make; how music never leaves us – the much subtler carrier of emotions than words and thoughts and action): ‘Vaan’ at the beginning, ‘Tango’ instrumental reinterpretation in a scene that follows the song and AR Rahman’s humming at those moments when VC is the most vulnerable, including that last scene.
There are lot of ManiRatnamesque moments throughout the movie. One such is the conversation between Karthi and another officer over a beer about comparing the war with Pakistan to Mahabharata, which also portrays clearly VC’s attitude to everything in life. Mani relishes in showing the beautiful little joys of life that we derive from art – humming while going about one’s work around the house, just gathering of a group of friends where singing, dancing happens naturally (and it’s not just a group of friends here but a group of officers strongly bound together away from home and who face war day in and day out), reciting Bharatiyar poetry. All this made me reminiscent of that brilliant single shot of Vedic chanting, Carnatic music lessons and Bharatanatyam lessons happening at the river bank at the break of dawn in Thalapathy.
Mani has talked about the evolution of the urban women in our society with time: from Divya (Mouna Ragam) to Shakti (Alaipayuthey) to Tara (OK Kanmani) who were more and more empowered to make their choices. Here, we can see the evolution in the way some of his other characters think as well. In 2004, Aayitha Ezhuthu was a new age and ahead-of-its-time story even for that time, with Michael reacting with surprise and not shock or shame when Esha says that she may be pregnant. Mani tracks the further evolution of that attitude in this film. There is a casual offhandedness about a pregnant bride and VC saying that he will marry only after the birth of his first child (which may actually come true, if Leela ever agrees to marry him).
The core of the film is Leela and VC’s intense relationship. This is the first film of both Karthi and Aditi that I watched and was blown away by both their performances, especially Karthi’s. He can be the charming wooer and it’s no surprise that Leela falls for him, especially given her ‘fandom’ from her school days after hearing about VC through her brother. The initial scenes of their getting together are crafted beautifully. The songs accentuate every emotion. Mani is no stranger to weaving his story with songs and those short dialogues within the songs (Yaaro Yaarodi, Yakkai Thiri/Fanaa). ‘Tango’ does that perfectly yet again. Formal dancing in the Armed Forces, it seems, is a remnant of the British culture that is there even today. After one of their first tussles, his coming to her home and wooing her back with Nallai Allai was beautifully picturised. It actually didn’t seem out of place at that point since we had already been introduced to his influences of Bharatiyar and Tamizh and interest in music. This scene was immediately followed by him bragging to his friends about getting her back – another glimpse of how things would continue to evolve throughout the course of their relationship.
The whole relationship is complex, intense, passionate, exposing both their vulnerabilities and strongheadedness. He doesn’t really seem to care about anyone but himself, but he does care about her at some level – it was too buried amidst everything else for it to come through. He was a work in progress at the beginning of the film and he still seemed to be so at the end. On the other hand, Leela struggles with herself throughout the movie unable to be without him and unable to be with him. The discovery that she is pregnant (another brilliant piece of acting by Karthi when he shows with just the change in the expression in his eyes that he discovers that she is pregnant) and his answer to her Yes or No question finally seemed to force her to take the step of separating herself from him. Even at the end, Leela introduces VC as Varun and not Appa to their child (she does name her Rohini as he had wanted for their imaginary twins (Rohan and Rohini)). Does this mean that she doesn’t entirely believe that he has changed? That it was just another episode in their alternatingly passionately loving and suffocating relationship? That she had outgrown him in those three years, that she was already prepared when she decided to have her child that she doesn’t ‘need’ him? I felt the transformation in her rather than in him in that last scene although she tells him that the child is his ‘poruppu’. A very classy and understated performance by Aditi.
Though the scenes that show VC at work and even during his first flight with Leela gave a glimpse, I felt that it did not help us understand more about the officers in the Armed forces and what they go through in their job. There was a lot of buildup about this in the promotion of the movie before the release, but that didn’t quite come through. Just enough was maybe retained to understand why Karthi was an extreme character. And that, I think, made the whole sequence of events leading from their capture to escape even weaker. There was no suspense in their escape and it seemed to happen matter-of-factly. This was the weakest part of the film.
Kaatru Veliyidai, in short, was an assault on the senses in all possible ways – the highs of the music throughout (the soul-stirring humming by Rahman in key scenes including the last one, which stays with you long after (another ‘impact’ of the film)), breathtaking visuals that are weaved into the story and don’t stand out just because they were shot in scenic locations, a complete transportation to the look, sound, feel of being amidst snow-capped mountains, the intense chemistry between the two, the emotional highs and lows, and the frustratingly simple sequence of events leading to their escape from Pakistan.
I would rather watch a Mani Ratnam film any day, however flawed it may be, than watching a film by someone else. Mani always celebrates the joy of life, and in this film, he goes a layer beneath and the joy, though present, is more elusive, as we also tend to experience in the stark reality of life.
P.S. At Escape (Express Avenue, Chennai), where I watched this movie, at least two scenes were not shown (they seem to have been shown in other places/theatres): death of Leela’s grandfather and the dinner table confrontation between VC and Leela’s parents. Wonder if this was a last-minute cut to the film to fit it into 140 minutes, as some news articles report. Would have felt more complete watching these important scenes which seemed to have shown VC in his worst element.