Uncertain Musings on Kadal…
But of course there are spoilers!
In a wonderful moment in Love’s Labour’s Lost Berowne dancing with Rosaline asks “Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?” We never learn the answer. Rosaline responds very ambiguously using the very same formulation. Shakespeare teases us and then leaves us to our devices. Does this pair have a history? We can only speculate. It is a classic example of foregrounding where we are forced to think about what might have transpired outside the bounds of the play’s time and space. Baradwaj Rangan in what is a very rewarding piece on Kadal highlights Ratnam’s narrative ellipses in both the present film and his previous Raavan(an) as evidence of the director’s ongoing evolution and his constant ‘rejiggering’ of mainstream formats and cues. Rangan’s own question, rephrased a bit, might then be: where does Bea wish to escape?
Kadal is a difficult film to interpret. It is deeply connected with Raavan(an) both in terms of its thematic as well as its narrative decisions but there is also a crucial distinction. Raavan(an) offered an ‘essay’ on a mythic canonical tradition. It was an exercise akin to a theatrical staging where episodes from a much more expansive narrative could be re-arranged and re-configured with all the necessary twists. Ratnam could always rely on those longer historical echoes providing enough context at every turn.* The film therefore referenced an archive of cultural memory without every trying to become another simple ‘re-telling’ of the source material. Kadal conversely operates on two deeply enmeshed levels. The literal arc of the story is supplemented with the tone and logic of a parable and ultimately a very pronounced figural dimension. This most earthy of Ratnam’s works constantly traffics with notions of transcendence. Abjection twinned with the beatific is of course a classic Christian conceit but more importantly the religious framework enables Ratnam to fashion this two-toned tale rather deceptively. One where really there is only one character — Thomas — and where the other important ones are more or less archetypes, with or without back-stories. It is Thomas who is suspended between two diametrically opposed choices and it is he who must be rescued by his own Beatrice**; in the final analysis the film is his biography more than anything else. All of this makes the task of understanding Kadal reasonably complicated. The film might be read as a visionary parable stained with streaks of raw naturalism or it might be conceived as a realistic drama punctuated by lyric interludes and in the service of an over-arching (religious) spirituality.
Both Kadal and Raavan(an) are works where a traumatic history informs the present. The older film justifies a great deal of its anti-hero’s actions by revealing this past in a more or less traditionally narrated flashback but one where knowledge of this terrible event re-orders the central dichotomy at the heart of the story. We are always in Raavan’s world but after the flashback we also empathize with him more than with his counterpart. The woman who completes the equation is placed between these two alternatives of supposed good and evil where as she eventually learns the two exchange places. This essential triangle is replicated in Kadal with Thomas becoming the connecting link between Sam and Bergmans or the one who occupies both worlds at different points.*** The Thomas story is of course the essential narrative of the film (with a Sam-Bergmans ‘prologue’) but Bea’s traumatic past is revealed in a series of flashes which do not quite have the stability of the Raavan(an) back-story. Good and evil are then two different responses to trauma. The Christian trope of love is intended to transcend this polarity, the path Sam represents in the film. However there is another notion of love which does not resolve the dichotomy but instead subtracts itself from this series. This is the romantic relationship Thomas finds himself involved in.
Towards the end Sam confesses that his pupil has surpassed him. But it is less than clear that Thomas is any more committed to a religious calling than he was in the initial stages of the work. The climactic battle**** of the film takes place in a tempest of sorts, extraordinarily filmed by Ratnam, but more to the point the resolution occurs far from land in an unreal haze of squall and on a boat where the characters are constantly thrown and tossed about. Almost an apocalyptic finale where Thomas in a sense prevents the irreparable from happening and corrects as it were the priest. The film finally closes with Sam and the pieties of Anbin Vaasale but Thomas is elsewhere, seeking to restore Beatrice and eventually succeeding.***** The two visions are juxtaposed and they are not necessarily the same.
Kadal is Ratnam’s most surprising film for multiple reasons and possibly his most mysterious one. It is once again evidence of not only his extraordinary self-invention but also his ambition to keep interrogating well-established commercial registers in profound ways. He is active heir to a great tradition in this sense but also its most imaginative and radical subverter. The point that many viewers of his often miss is that Ratnam does not aim to do away with his inheritance, he just wishes to devilishly tweak it at every turn! His work represents a fascinating dichotomy on this score and one which separates him from every other (Indian) auteurist effort along similar lines. The key moments in this ‘later’ sequence and down through the current movie represent an ongoing dialog with several important cinematic strands but are also informed by a much sharper socio-political focus. Ratnam in any case remains one of the premier sites where a re-thinking of global commercial cinema might be activated and in this case, with an Indian difference. Kadal hearteningly re-confirms all of this..
*though notice how employing this elliptical style with a much revered tradition introduces a whole other level of subversion that at least the Hindi audience, far less used to the canonical twists of the Kamban text, found much harder to handle.
**Jeyamohan made the Dante reference explicit in a recent interview.
***In both Yuva/Ayudha Ezhuthu and Raavan(an) the same happens on a bridge, over water in the first instance and over an abyss in the second one.
**** From a feminist perspective this might be considered a regression where the agency of the woman is replaced by an all-male cast and a world in which the woman can only appear as utterly ‘fallen’ or as idealized image, each in turn meant to regulate the film’s male economy. But things are not so easy. There is a crucial birth scene which Rangan analyzes well where blood is re-imagined as a symbol of life and the mother’s womb. This theme re-emerges towards the end when in a surprising development we learn that the presiding Satanic figure of this universe is actually Bea’s father. Of course Thomas is himself a prostitute’s son, one never claimed by his actual father but perhaps one who could not have an absolute father. The prostitute makes irrelevant the notion of fatherhood (note how even in the age of DNA-testing the actual father would in this situation still be a matter of the purest accident). A classic Christian twinning — Mary as the mother of Jesus, the absent husband-father, and then the other prostitute Mary (in some versions Jesus has a sexual relationship which is what for instance Scorsese relies on by way of the Kazantzakis novel).
***** Will she once again become ‘angel’ or her older less emotionally developed self, her defense mechanism to repress her trauma or will she finally become fully human? The film leaves this question open.