Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

Minor spoilers ahead…

The Prelude

Twenty four hours to go before I would get to see ‘A Mani Ratnam Film’. The latest Mani Ratnam film. The excitement. The anticipation of smiling to myself (it would have been turning and smiling at my sister or father if I was watching the movie with them!) when he does his magic. The curiosity to discover the new element he has tried to incorporate in his latest work. The level of excitement that is proportional to my current distance from Madras, at which every little feeling about home gets magnified. And to me, Madras is synonymous not just with family and friends and school and college, but with Mani Ratnam, A R Rahman, Sanjay Subrahmanyan and so much more. As I begin this next phase of life that brings with it its own challenges and things to look forward to, I feel grateful that I get a chance to see Mani’s magic again, thanks to his continuing passion to create and to the Sri Lankan Tamil community in Europe who help release Tamil movies in this cold cold land far far away from home. The first trailer, the songs and my countless re-watchings of all his old and new interviews have all provided enough buildup. I didn’t even watch the second trailer. I simply can’t wait to watch the film now. It’s going to be a challenging twenty-four hours trying to do stuff other than dreaming of watching the film!

I finally set out to watch the movie alone with the anticipation of smiling to myself. And then I happened to come across a classmate from school whom I had last met 15 years ago. And destiny it was that we had the seats next to each other and his wife proved to be as Mani Ratnam-crazy as me (which is probably the reason that they had also booked tickets as soon as the bookings opened and asked for the best seats in the theatre – the last row middle ones). So I did not smile to myself, but kept smiling at her!

The Film

Gangster movies keep coming out regularly from film industries across the world. There is just so much scope for action, which Mani Ratnam thinks is tailor-made for movies on the big screen. The last gangster movie that I enjoyed watching was Vikram Vedha. We had Mani Ratnam doing Nayagan years ago, but after watching Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, that one now feels more like a movie about a Varadaraja Mudaliar-like character and what that character thinks and why he acts and emotes the way he does rather than a ‘gangster film’. In Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, Mani takes every gangster plot tried and tested and turns it upside down. Just when you think you are getting a hang of the characters or what the film is about, he surprises you. Again and again. The first half was so so gripping that it flew by like a breeze. Or like a bullet. Every character spoke in a way that was not expected. In the initial few scenes, it seemed to have been laid out what the motive of every character was. Yet, the suspense would not die until the very end.

The casting was simply perfect and what a set of great performances irrespective of the screen time (which was very well-balanced as was said during the audio launch – one of the very few things anybody involved with the movie was willing to say. The buildup and PR for the film has been simply amazing, building the intrigue to the right level). Though I generally find STR difficult to watch, his dialogue delivery style and mannerisms actually fitted this particular role. Arvind Swami that we are used to in Mani Ratnam films is quite different here. An intense performance from him and Jyothika. Vijay Sethupathi is growing on me. His casual dialogue delivery takes the cake and when he launches on his ‘story’ towards the end, it was reminiscent of Vikram Vedha. It was good to have some fresh faces in the form of Aishwarya (I haven’t watched any of her films) and Dayana. Jyothika does a great job playing the strong yet vulnerable character. Jayasudha is a veteran and that one scene where the bandage on her head is being removed is enough. Prakash Raj is such a convincing actor in any role. One of the few bits of the Mani Ratnam-esque human relationship scenes that we see are between Jayasudha and Prakash Raj after they are back from the hospital. Didn’t know what to expect from Arun Vijay, but he did well in the weakest character of all. Aditi Rao’s ‘fussing around’ when STR is in her house is quite funny and looked very ‘natural’ on Aditi. One character I couldn’t buy into was Siva Ananth playing the uncle role. I simply couldn’t get out of my mind him playing Adi’s brother in OKK and the Telugu officer in Kaatru Veliyidai. The makeup wasn’t convincing enough to fit him in this role maybe.

Mani Ratnam checklist. Classy cinematography (is the climax location really Cudappah? That place was breathtaking, with the ‘semmaN’ enhancing the Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. Couple of brilliant long shots – with mirrors in the beginning and Ethi in search of Varadan in Rasool’s house). Check. Music interweaved into the film. Check. Great performances. Check. Trademark subtle humour. Check.

What I missed and something that is so synonymous with Mani Ratnam’s movies is his handling of human relationships. There’s so much emotional investment that usually happens into his characters that they stay with you long after the film. That opportunity is not there in this film and the stars of this film are really the plot and the action. Just when you start to think that in the second half where it threatens to get slightly emotional, which would have been out of place in this film, there is more action and some more. In this respect, this movie is more like a Thiruda Thiruda, where it’s not so much the human relationships but the plot and the action which are key. After predominantly making relationship films recently, it was a surprise to see Mani making this kind of an action-oriented movie again. And what a pleasant surprise it was.

Mani Ratnam wanted to make Aayitha Ezhuthu without songs but succumbed to having songs when Rahman gave him such outstanding music. This movie is the closest it can get to a Mani Ratnam movie without songs. All songs could be heard only in bits and pieces as background score throughout the movie (with a couple of extra pieces that have not been released). Yet, I didn’t feel the lack of songs and every bit of music enhanced the movie. Who would have thought that Bhoomi Bhoomi would have been first used during that moment in the film before the intermission. Sevanthu Pochu Nenje keeps ringing now in my ears long after the titles finished rolling. It now feels like the theme of the film, along with Bhoomi Bhoomi.

This is an almost-perfect film in this genre where the unpredictable plot twists and misleading hints keep one guessing and a rewatching is required to follow the full sequence after getting to know the ending. Add to it the slick editing that Mani and Sreekar have perfected over the last few films. It was such a tight film. There was almost no extra emotion, extra dialogues, extra music or extra dwelling on anything. There was indeed much violence and, therefore, it’s not a ‘pleasant’ film to watch.

Right now, I am simply in awe of Mani Ratnam creating yet another masterpiece. If his screenwriting and filmmaking abilities can give us this new benchmark for a gangster film, I just wonder what the result would be if he dabbles in other genres as well. Moreover, it looks like this movie may appeal to more people than most of his recent films. That’s a happy feeling and worth celebrating!

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