Ratnam’s Baptisms (GF on Kadal)

SPOILERS GALORE!

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Kadal plays like a greatest hits reel of Mani Ratnam’s favorite ideas, visual devices and story threads, refracted here through the lens of a vividly realized local world. The most memorable of Ratnam’s accomplishments in this film is his very distinctive, very focused sense of place. Few of Ratnam’s works in recent memory have felt this entrenched in its locale. Only Raavan, which spent virtually all of its running time in the thick of the forest, comes close on this score. And this isn’t the only way in which the last two films from this singular filmmaker appear connected.

If Ratnam’s ambitious, misunderstood previous film presented a vision of the world where the Gods were fallen, broken things, his latest offering has a more optimistic or, at least, a more balanced spiritual bent, concerned as it is with redemption, with ascension. Each one of the central characters here is offered a moment of resurrection—whether it’s the passing shot of a sleeping child roused from atop his mother’s corpse, or the introductory moment for a young woman who alights from a hospital gurney, unhooking her IV and walking out as if she’d simply shaken off her mortality. Then of course there’s the priest who is imprisoned and later released, or the self-professed Satan, who is reeled back into the story—and back to life—after his banishment and near-death. In Raavan, Ratnam blurred the lines between the hero and the villain—here he’s still interested in their dynamic but he’s rather more focused on the project of secularizing the ideas of good and evil.

That might sound like a strange thing to say about a movie that’s as steeped in Christian tropes as this one. But then it’s also strange for an atheist to make a film that on the surface appears to valorize God. Kadal, though, seems interested in doing so only to the extent that it remains tethered to the demands of its setting. Beyond its surface gestures, however, there are attempts in this film to interrogate faith and to place the responsibility of good and evil on the shoulders of individual players and the choices they make rather than the emissaries of God or Satan, as respectively played here by Arvind Swamy (in what is easily his career-best performance) and Arjun. The vehicle for this experiment is Gautham Karthik’s character, a young rogue sprung from the Ratnam archives—a shadow of several Ratnam anti-heroes from the past but primarily a successor to Kamal Haasan’s Velu, Rajnikanth’s Surya and Abhishek Bachchan/Madhavan’s Lallan/Inba. Those previous characters were all, like Kadal’s Thomas, born into poverty and betrayed and abandoned by their families, resorting to crime and violence in order to survive but also and perhaps more importantly to carve out a place for themselves in a world that has otherwise relegated them to the periphery. The Faustian pact that Thomas’ spiritual predecessors in Thalapathy, Nayakan and Yuva/Ayitha Ezhuthu make in order to transcend their lot is literalized in this film as both Arvind Swamy’s priest and Arjun’s mob lord vie for Thomas’ soul. That neither of these figures truly takes their prize in the end seems, to my mind, the point of Ratnam’s film and one of its most creditable successes.

Three sequences in Kadal are especially useful in this reading of the film, and they also help to explain the film’s title. Each of these moments involve Thomas confronting a baptism. The first occurs when he’s a wayward child and the priest who has become his Father and father (to borrow Rangan’s insightful phrasing) leads him to a beach where teams of fisherman are setting out for the day. The priest approaches a boatman along the shore and asks him to take Thomas along to teach the boy his trade, vouching for the child, (a homeless orphan) and pleading for his admittance into this insular community, and doing so (in a smart move by Ratnam) as he wades, fully robed in his vestments and with the boy in tow, into the water—the very picture of a baptism in action. Initially reluctant, the fisherman agrees and Thomas is accepted into a fold for the first time in his life. The second moment, occurring years later, is a less figurative and ultimately failed baptism. Thomas, now a teenager in love, asks the priest to actually baptize him, to allow him to formally enter the church, which is here an extension of the community. But when word gets out around town that a prostitute’s orphaned son wants to be baptized, and has registered his estranged father on the church record, swarms of indignant, intolerant villagers spurn Thomas. In a provocative move, Ratnam stages this scene of exclusion within the church, slyly leveling a criticism against the oppressive strictures and hypocrisy that religion can be susceptible to, while setting up the divide in this film between The World and The Church. Ratnam paints a less inclusive vision of the latter than he does the former, signalling the idea that the choice between good and evil can perhaps be most effectively realized outside the purview of religion.

The final baptism is the most remarkably choreographed, occurring during an energetically cut and tastefully CGI-d climactic action scene on the sea. This is first and foremost one of Ratnam’s finest dishoom-dishoom moments in a career that hasn’t really been about these, but that nevertheless is littered with great, distinctive action set pieces such as Nayagan’s muddy, bloody bout between Velu and the policeman Kelkar, or the ferocious, rain-soaked prison kabaddi match in Yuva/AE, or the gripping shootout between rebels and the Sri Lankan army in Kannathil Muthamittal. Kadal’s final showdown aboard a storm-battered ship is a wonder to behold and ends in a moment that superbly brings the central ideas that Ratnam has explored all along to the fore and that subsequently produces the film’s most emotionally resonant, joyous moment. A protracted fight that sees Thomas struggling between the priest and the villain (mainly to keep them from killing each other) ends with the latter snagging his foot on some rigging and getting strung up to face certain death as he dangles above the violent, open sea. The blocking of this moment risks awkwardness but it is vital to preserving Ratnam’s project. Because the priest is now placed outside the church and faced with a decision in which the act of baptism—lowering the sinner into the water—is itself a sin! Importantly, the priest fails the ethical test offered in this moment, and it is the boy who has been cast out of the church that finally intervenes, saving the villain’s life and rejecting this final and most vital of baptisms. The subtext here is remarkable for how it complicates the dynamic between this Faust and both his God and Satan.

In the films’ coda, Ratnam presents a Christmas Day parade that includes a resurrection (the priest is again folded into the community that had cast him out; here he leads the march) but there are a few things that mark this sequence with the sense that God is, if not exactly absent, then at least not as vital to the proceedings. One is that the priest himself has been literally and figuratively de-robed, no longer an official emissary of God, and the other is that the once contested soul, Thomas, is nowhere to be found in this celebration. He has no place in the church even if, in the end, Ratnam has offered him a place in the world. It’s no wonder that this film carries the charge of Ratnam’s previous works—this narrative is about the duality, the tug of war that exists at the core of every ideological struggle, and here Ratnam appears to want his protagonist not simply to split the difference between the extremes, but to ultimately exist outside of the established order. In this way, the castaway in Kadal becomes the survivor.

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33 Responses to “Ratnam’s Baptisms (GF on Kadal)”

  1. Fantastically insightful piece on the film GF. One of your best and along with Rangan’s easily ‘the piece’ to read on this work and on Ratnam’s larger trajectory in general. Both essays have certainly enlightened me on the film in various ways. The riches of this piece cannot be exhausted in one reading!

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  2. Excellent piece GF!

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  3. “here he’s still interested in their dynamic but he’s rather more focused on the project of secularizing the ideas of good and evil.”

    this is probably the single most important insight on the film. Ratnam’s most overtly religious film and one that employs the symbolism through and through and yet it does not seem to be more than a framing device to explore a set of ideas that as you’ve pointed out pop up elsewhere in the director’s work as well. In this sense Raavan too could be re-examined because here too there is an overt connection made with a very hallowed bit of tradition and belief and yet these latter metaphors are totally absent in the work. It is as if the Ramayana is entirely possible without there being any greater, over-arching belief system grafted onto it. Of course there is a certain truth to this gesture. Because the ‘mythic’ is not the same as the ‘religious’. A discussion for a different day. But in any case this is one of the reasons I found the film relatively difficult to interpret. Because it isn’t just about a normal narrative that uses all these religious tropes but also one that doubles down as a near parable. And so in a sense it is not just a set of religious cues but the structure itself that is employed. Ratnam gives the film over to this logic. A very daring and certainly risky move. So even though at one level the secularization works (to the degree that the religious elements are meant to frame deeper human conflicts that do not depend on the same) at another level we are in the world of a parable where it’s harder to keep the secularization operative in the very same way. I am not sure if I have a final answer on how all of this works but there are parallel structural moments elsewhere in Ratnam which I think are less successfully resolved. For instance in Dil Se the problem with the two halves isn’t really at the level of basic narrative (though I can certainly see how the second one seems more chaotic and more fragmentary and so on.. this is ultimately less problematic) but moreso in a greater tonal or mood sense. the first half constitutes a kind of vacation from the nation-state. It’s a dark, mysterious world but seductive in lots of ways. When the action shifts to Delhi the shift in formal choices (on Ratnam’s part) are perfectly comprehensible. But the hallucinogenic hyper-reality that Delhi represents seems to be completely severed from the fable-like ambience of the first half. Again this is defensible in a way (and I’ve done this elsewhere) but for the purposes of the Kadal analogy it’s problematic because Ratnam cannot easily establish a connection between the two worlds and the politics of this film in a sense requires it. There is obviously a disjunction between the two worlds and a profound one which the fictions of the nation-state cannot bridge. This is where the choices made are very prudent and manifest the essential political tension of the state. But the narrative eventually ends with a moment of destructive transcendence which cannot easily be connected to either world (of either half). and perhaps it is this ‘deadlock’ (as Zizek would say) that makes this the most honest ending. The disjunction is definitive. However this impasse isn’t necessarily the best ‘final’ response to all the questions the film has raised along the way. Confirming the disjunction is disappointing even. Whatever side one comes down on the realities of these two worlds are very distinct and the film doesn’t have a controlling metaphor or set of visual cues or what have you that can effect even a provisional transition. The SRK character is not enough and the Manisha character remains a total enigma. But the reason I brought up this very long detour is that two otherwise disjunctive modes of accessing reality are completely fused in kadal. Very successfully therefore. In the New testament you have parables that similarly operate in the ordinary world. But as readers of the Bible (if not believers) we are never meant to go outside these parables. The world that there is through this Biblical prism is completely susceptible to the parable framing. But this as you’ve pointed out is not what Ratnam intends. This is not a religious world-view in his work all of a sudden. In Raavan there’s no issue on this score because the reality of this world does not have to accept that of the Ramayana in any sense. The allusions are enough much as in a masala film there might be all sorts of sub-plots that echo tropes or themes or stories from the Mahabharata (or elsewhere) but these choices do not alter the ways in which the contemporary story is presented to us. Kadal however tries something quite unique on this score and succeeds marvelously. But for this very reason it is hard to argue with it. Because can one be sure that one isn’t in the world of the parable and simply in a more normative, say Bharthiraja-inspired universe? I argue that both levels are present in the film but this doesn’t mean one can extract one from the other. This isn’t like the Dil Se’s two halves. Everything operates at the same plane of reality from the very beginning and then right through. This is where the secularization question at any rate becomes somewhat more difficult to judge. But this is one of many reasons why (and though this might be still early) I’d be willing to hazard the judgment that this might be one of Ratnam’s very important films.

    On a related note even though I otherwise disagree with Rangan I can understand his point if re-framed this way. The songs are more or less perfectly placed in the film (at the most one could argue that Adiye though a striking video doesn’t follow as fluidly) but rather than interrupt a narrative that doesn’t require songs it is that the narrative is already flirting with transcendence at every point. Even though the film has its very raw moments of ordinary reality these can be put under the parable rubric without much difficulty. The songs (or at least the videos not part of the background score) possibly break away from this logic. In the usual film even where there is ‘interruption’ there is often the reward of a limited transcendence. The lovers enter a magical world not very respectful of the ordinary constraints of reality, or a burst of energy in a group situation where similarly the existing order is completely subverted, so on and so forth. In Kadal the songs often do the very same but this interrupts the tone of the parable which cannot account for these moments in the same way. Because the videos threaten to subvert this essential framing device. Rangan says he has less problems with the videos in the second half because the characters are more well-established. Perhaps. But thee videos in this half are also less obtrusive, much more ‘under the radar’. Nenjukulle for instance overlaps with dialog on the score and is very stealthily introduced. Moongil thottam is too ‘calming’ and for the purposes of this point I’m arguing ‘understated’ a piece of music to really interrupt anything. And Ratnam unlike previous instances (say something generally similar in AP) refuses to abandon the sense of place here. He precisely does not break away from the world of his film. No ‘dream-like’ moment therefore. Again I’m not saying I agree completely with Rangan even using this perspective but I can better translate his response this way.

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    • Incidentally meant to highlight some other equally interesting passages in your piece but this note tired me out! Will get to those at another point.

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      • What a disaster: I was tied up at work this week and was planning on catching it tonight, but the film seems to have been removed everywhere in Bombay; Google lists it as playing but the relevant cinemas’ websites don’t even list it as an option…Heartbreaking…

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        • that’s a real shame..

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        • In general the way the release for this has been handled almost explains what appears to be its total non-presence at the BO.

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          • Yes, it is a mystery how lackadaisical the producers have been about subtitled prints, when these days a 7 Aum Arivu releases with them in Bombay (in the case of Kadal, PVR advertised prints with subs, but viewers who showed up were disappointed to find an un-subtitled print; the same thing happened to Aarohi in Pune).

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          • apparently there were never any prints with subs in Bombay. I’ve been following some of the forums online and not a single person can testify to watching a subtitled print though many like Aarohi turned up only to discover this disappointing fact. I suspect that they didn’t account for this properly and eventually sent out all the subtitled prints overseas because conversely here I’ve heard from people who weren’t expecting to see a subtitled print and got it. The same holds for the theater I saw it in. In fact this is really the worst of both worlds. In India there were non-Tamil speakers willing to show up but there were no subs and many had too learn this the hard way. In the US where it would have really helped to advertise the subtitled versions and get more of a cross-over audience no one knew about this. So in 99% of instances you probably had people with at least a minimal familiarity with Tamil showing up and getting a version with subs! It’s just utterly crazy. Much as there was no screening of the film in Manhattan where you would get the greatest cross-over audience (this for a guy who’s increasingly better-known and who even had a film in the Time 100 some years ago). Either way, whether you’re in India or the US it really takes the truly dedicated viewer to show up for the film. Either there’s the subs issue or even if this isn’t so the theaters are not accessible enough or the film doesn’t last long enough and so forth. So if you’re a Tamilian living in TN or Bangalore (or some overseas territories with a Sri Lankan concentration like Malaysia or Toronto) you’re ok. Otherwise tough luck!

            But even otherwise the releases for Hindi movies are also haphazard. You can easily watch them because there are enough viewers but that’s all there is to it. Otherwise the releases are not any more strategically planned in terms of the demographics or what have you. Once upon a time when Hindi movies weren’t as big the same problems were evident here. Hate to beat the old drum once again but it’s once more about the absence of a proper film culture in the most institutional sense of the word.

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          • Shameful stuff.

            I wonder how the promotion and release was handled locally, in TN…I said this elsewhere but if the release strategy outside TN is anything to go by it’s no wonder this is taking a beating.

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    • Really interesting set of points Satyam…I do think Kadal is the kind of film that rewards multiple viewings. I personally can’t wait to see it again at some point.

      On a different but somewhat related note I meant to add something else in this piece but couldn’t quite find a place to properly introduce it. It occurred to me that the film this reminds me of most is actually Scorsese’s underrated Cape Fear. There’s of course the climactic showdown in that film on the high seas that sees an ultra-religious psychotic taking on a family, (by the end Arjun does come off looking like a total nutcase, frothing at the mouth in vengeance) but more than this, like Ratnam’s film, Cape Fear’s universe heavily draws from Christian tropes, and at its center it focuses on a battle between two men for the soul of a child. The difference in Kadal really is that because Ratnam’s project is to subvert the notion of playing by the order of good and evil as religion defines it, the focus of the story isn’t on the men who represent either end of the pole but on the subject of their contest, (the child) and that subject’s necessary transcendence.

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  4. Khiladi Bhaiya Says:

    wow, what an [i] unnecessary [/i] write up

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  5. James Mariathas Says:

    Quite brilliant analysis of a film which delves into regions beyond the understanding of most who went in expecting a romantic drama or something of a similar ilk. This film may require multiple viewings to understand the subtext, particularly the scenes essaying Tom’s various dilemmas. The Book of Genesis may be a good place to start, particularly the parable of Cain and Abel to eschew a greater understanding of the relationship between the Sam Fernando and Bergman characters. Ratnam’s exploration of the themes of Resurrection (when Sam comes back to the village for the second time to finish off what he set out to do) and baptism as you mentioned above are nuanced in their portrayal. The songs do feel a bit forced in the screenplay which is odd for a Ratnam film, however as an overall movie I felt it was a wonderful attempt in a cinema environment which caters for hero worship and all the commercial bullshit that goes with it. ARR’s background score dovetails perfectly with the film, and as I had the good fortune to have the English subtitles ready at hand here in England to understand the dialogues spoken, I was perhaps able to understand the gist of the film a lot better than I would have done without them. Menon’s photography is quite simply breathtaking..a milestone in Indian cinema for cinematography as far I’m concerned. The various hues, shades and mood of the sea correlating with Tom’s inner turbulence and turmoil is brought out beautifully on screen. This film is getting torn apart right now by people wanting an 80’s remake, but make no mistake this film will be viewed over time as a reference point in Indian cinema. That much is certain to me..Ratnam continues to fastidiously evolve as a filmmaker.

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    • James Mariathas Says:

      p.s: I have no idea what came over me when I decided to stick in ‘eschew’ there instead of ‘gain’..alas, a trick of the mind!

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  6. Ekta to produce Mani Ratnam’s next?

    By Bollywood Hungama News Network, April 23, 2013 – 10:59 hrs IST
    Ekta Kapoor who is currently busy with her forthcoming releases has apparently already started contemplating her next. In fact if what we hear is true then Ekta will be roping in none other than south filmmaker Mani Ratnam to direct her next venture.

    To gain more clarity on the subject, we spoke to Tanuj Garg, CEO of Balaji Motion Pictures, who said, “Right now it is still really too early to talk about this, though talks are on between the two of them. If it does work out, it will be great.”

    Ratnam who’s last Bollywood venture Raavan proved to be a non-starter at the box office has been known to produce the films he directs. Though at this time more details of the film are unavailable, we are told that an official announcement will be made when things are confirmed.

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  7. This rumor seems to have gained the most steam with respect to Ratnam’s next:

    http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2014-01-11/news-interviews/46089725_1_mani-ratnam-kadal-lajjo

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  8. Check out Rangan’s twitter feed. The kadal chapter which was added to the paperback edition of his Ratnam book will soon be available as an e-single on Amazon and already is on googleplay. This is great news as far as I’m concerned. Also eager to read Ratnam’s views on the film. It was mauled by the critics and of course was a huge box office failure (both facts place it in rather respectable company actually!). But I’ve always considered it a rather interesting film and like it more than O Kadhal Kanmani (though I found this perfectly enjoyable). And so in this sense I’m happy to see the chapter becoming more available and specially for those of us who’d already invested in the earlier edition.

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    • Psyched, and yeah, it’ll be interesting to see if this was a post-release interview considering how badly that film was received.

      Agreed, I’d take Kadal with its flaws over OKK too. The latter despite my initial sense of it has grown on me.

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