Utkal on Ok Kanmani


Someone said this of Mani Ratnam’s films: It is love in the time of …..fill in the blanks. Insurgency in Kashmir. Bombay riots. Terrorism in the North East. The Eelam movement in Sri Lanka.

So what about OK Kanmani? At one level it is love in the time of …well, love. Because all it does is captures through a sort of Kirlion photography the budding of romance between Adi and Tara, the flowering of full blown love and passionate physical intimacy, and the ripening of the relationship to one of deeper commitment.

But wait, the backdrop hasn’t completely vanished. Because what meaning has love got without a backdrop? Leave a man and a woman in air-conditioned home with a hundred year’s supply and you have no love story. And when the backdrop has a sense of loss, of death , of devastation; the feeling becomes more poignant. That’s why ‘ Farewell to Arms’. That’s why ‘ English Patient’. That’s why ‘ Love In The Time of Cholera’.

Closing lines of Mathew Arnold’s ‘ Dover Beach’ :
“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

No Certitude, nor peace, nor help from pain.

Bhavani to Ganapati: You say I will get better. I cannot find the way to my own house. My music drifts away slowly out of the window. And you say, I will get better. Ganapati, one day will I fail to recognize you?

So OK Kanmani is also love at the time of …Alzheimer. And with what loving, slow strokes has Mani painted the total devastation that Alzheimer can bring to one’s and one’s companion’s life! And the only response can be ‘ Ah, love, let us be true…’

It is also love in the time of torrential rain. And have you seen anyone capture the Mumbai rains in all their ferocity, in all their beauty as Mani does in OK Kanmani? As Adi and Tara go looking for Bhavani in this blinding rain, bickering, pointing fingers at each other , resigning themselves to hopelessness of their effort and then prodding on with hope, you can sense a certain realization taking shape within them. Yes that kind of rain can allude to the end of the world, pralay, and the only Noah’s Ark available to you is …love.

Mani does not articulate these meanings overtly in the way he stages these scenes. He is far too subtle, even fooling you into thinking nothing is happening in the film. But be assured there is plenty happening in the film. Because what is happening in the film is LOVE. And in no other of his film of his in the past has Mani or any other Indian director I can remember has captured the heightened joy of two young people in love in such detail, allowing us to look on voyeuristically. Never before has Mani shown such insights into the phenomenon of man-woman companionship ( barring perhaps ‘Iruvar’) and no other film has he detailed the progression of the heart’s journey with such accuracy. Only Imtiaz Ali among the current directors manages to peek into the inner nooks and crevices of a man-woman relationship with some success (‘Cocktail’ was directed by Homi Adjania but the stamp of writer Imtiaz was there all over the film.). But Mani proves he too can be as good in mapping what happens when love happens.

The most enjoyable part of OK Kanmani is the many different levels at which Mani engages and entertains you in this outing of his. As in the best of Mani, he tells us more through language of cinema, rather than just words. There is PC Sreeram’s cinematography and AR Rahman’s music melding seamlessly into the storytelling as does the wonderfully written conversation that is witty, warm and yet not contrived at all.

Take this scene where Ganapati is telling how he used to go to listen to Bhavani’s wonderful singing of Carnatic classical music. “Tell them how was I to look at’, Bhavani prods. Ganapati tells about his tone-deaf doctor friend who used to go to her concerts just to ogle at her. “And you used to listen with your eyes closed…haan?” she quips. Touche!

There are many low-key but charming and flirtatious conversation between Adi and Tara giving us the flavour of their love play. In the middle of their resolve to paint the town red, sitting together on a boat on the seashore, Tara asks Adi to say something that he really feels deeply about. Adi tells her: But we swore not to get sentimental. Tara: Suppose there was no restrictions of any kind. What would you like to say to me now? Adi (after pausing for a split second): A hot omlette would be perfect now!

The way Mani maps their journey from their first dramatic meeting at the station through the first real making of connection through the mischievous introduction during the church wedding to their first night of physical intimacy Mani lingers over each moment lovingly allowing us to savour the leela almost in real time. In Cocktail, Homi-Imtiaz construct the scene at the beach dance with Saif and Diana Penty which leads to the acceptance of their physical attraction towards each other and which Diana takes forward with her flirtatious action where she pushes him into the water from the culvert playfully. There are no bare shoulders and shuffling under the bedsheets shown. We see them the night after, outside in the open, fully clothed, talking. The way Mani sets it up in OK Kanmani has a similar arch. They share a room in the lodge in Ahmedabad after missing the train. They explore each other’s compatibility quotient through the song (Paranthu Selaa Vaa / Let us fly) which is spun off from Adi’s experimenting with rhythm loops. They return to Mumbai next morning. Adi surprises Tara by dropping in her office the next morning and in a show of male aggression almost abducts her and they ultimately spend the night in Tara’s hostel room to the song ‘ Naanu Vaargiren’. There is a bit of talking afterwards. Tara asks, “Do you like me? Or is it just this love-lust ( prema-kama) ?’ Adi: ‘ I like this love-lust. But I like you a little more.” Tara: ‘Little more is okay. Too much more would be a problem’. Still on guard. Still testing the waters, Still playing the no-commitment game. Next we see them, they are at Ganapati-Bhavani’s house, Adi asking Ganapati uncle to let Tara also stay as a paying guest.
At this point let me get out of the way the sarcasm loaded in the remark made by some, “ Oh, I must learn carnatic classical if a mere singing of a song could let Bhavani change her mind and let Adi and Tara stay.” The people making such remarks know nothing either about the human mind or the art of storytelling.

In a much admired short story ‘ Chef’s House’ by Raymond Carver, Wes, a middle-aged man, goes to live by the ocean as he tries to recover from his alcoholism. He rents a house from his friend Chef, and calls his estranged wife, whom he has not been with in over two years, to come and live with him. She does and they have a happy summer together until Chef tells him they have to leave by the end of the month so that he can give the house to his daughter, whose husband has not been found after a surfing accident. Wes, who has attached the success of his recovery to the house, takes the news badly and is on his way to succumb to drinking again.

You see Chef’s house becomes so much more than just a house. The house had become a talisman for his recovery from alcoholism and reconstructing his life with Edna. He could always have got another house. But no, the human mind does not work that way.

So there. Singing of a Carnatic classical song in a perfect pitch with the right amount of feeling can tilt the decision in your favour. Tara’s singing of ‘Malargal kaettaen’ is a cipher for many things and we judge people based on such ciphers. And in the light of the philistine behaviour that Adi has shown while accompanying her to the kutcheri, she might be saying to herself, Tara’s presence will do her as well as Adi some good. Remember, as someone steeped in the carnatic music ethos, she could as well have developed the ESP to divine a person’s character from the way she sings. Maybe.

Some have found fault in the film for lacking in drama. My complaint is the opposite. The film did not need the drama involving Tara’s mother and all the family imbroglio. But I guess Mani had to put that in to make it look like a ‘story’ which so many seem to need in a film. Thankfully these twists and turns take up a small part of the film which is mostly about Adi and Tara, with Ganapati and Bhavani providing the counterpoint.

So does the goings on have any tension? Not really. No matter how much the two young lovers may talk of not believing in commitment, what we see on screen tells us otherwise. Adi may talk of his fifteen other girlfriends, we know he does not have any. As for Tara, she is not like Veronica in Cocktail swinging it out. So there is no reason on earth really for them not to take their relationship to the next logical step. The business of his going to US and her to France could easily have been accommodated into the scheme of things. It is to Mani’s credit that he creates a kind of artificial tension and manages to stage a dramatic climax when nothing really was in doubt.

But as I said the chief pleasures of the film are in just watching the many splendours of love. We see one facet of it in the early rush of passion, in Adi and Tara, warm and sunny; bright and blazing; and the other in Ganapati and Bhavani; mellow and melancholy, sweet and solemn, in the fading light of advancing age.

Like in vintage Mani the film stands on its own as a beautiful work of art, quit distinct from its different components like plot, narrative, cinematography, music and what have you. He has got rid of some his failings that had begun to creep in to his film so of late. Unlike a film like Raavan there is detailing in the interaction between characters, drawing us into their world. In the lodge in Ahmedabad, where she is in her nightie, she puts on a little mini-jacket over it before she comes to Adi to listen to the demo of his music loop. Then later, we see her taking off her ear stud before going to sleep. Then there is the scene where Adi and Tara are in a restaurant and Adi’s boss and office colleagues walk in. Adi must make a quick exit and he drags Tara from her chair. At the doorway, Tara turns back . ‘ My phone,’ she says as she retrieves her mobile. These touches are a new for Mani’s cinematic language, not at all essential for the narrative, but built in to add texture and give a lived-in feel to the film. The mention of the architect Balakrishna Doshi and making him actally appear in the film explaining the salient points of the mosque in Ahmedabad is a part of similar narrative design, or I should say, architectureof the film.

Mani has shown a lot of good sense in the way he has picturized the songs in the film. I am glad that he has realized that stopping the narrative to stage a beautiful but outlandishly choreographed song has passed its sale by date. With the proliferation of song promos on TV , songs can be tolerated in a film only if they are well integrated into the narrative. So the songs here are choreographed against the backdrop of Adi and Tara’s everyday life. ( No ‘ Khuda Hafiz ‘ on exotic seas. No ‘ Chhaiya Chhaiya’ on a hill station train.) But that does not stop Mani from revealing his masterly touches in song picturization. Look at the way he uses space, including the verticality, within the room in the lodge during the song ‘Paranthu Selaa Va’. Or take the song ‘Theera’ with its throbbing bass lines. While a similar song ‘ Fanaa’ in ‘ Yuva’ ended up being just a disco song here it is a wonderful montage of Adi and Tara expressing their inner feelings.

The cinematography too has many magical touches. A scene of Ganapati reading the newspaper under the chiaroscuro sunlight filtered through palm frond becomes a photo essay on Ganapati’s character. The filming of the car carrying Adi and Tara through Mumbai’s pouring rain in search of lost Bhavani is an amazing feat.
The performances are pitch perfect. Dulquer Salmaan and Nithya Menon are great finds as the young lovers. Ditto for Prakash Raj and Leila Samson as the elder couple. All four of them live their roles, and I find it difficult to pick any one out of the four for special praise. They were all wonderful.

The most satisfying aspect of the effort is how all these elements – the writing, the cinematography, the music, the performances – all combine to create a complete whole…a beautiful film. Mani Ratmam is back and how!

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7 Responses to “Utkal on Ok Kanmani”

  1. Idealism and omnivorousness converge in the music of A. R. Rahman, the hugely prolific Oscar-winning Indian film composer whose Intimate Concert Tour sold out the Beacon Theater on Thursday night.

    Mr. Rahman has a huge discography of scores for Indian movies and a growing one for Western films like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours” and “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” True to the long, wildly eclectic tradition of Bollywood music, his songs are proudly multilingual in both lyrics and musical styles. During the concert, all sorts of allusions came along sooner or later. Raga, Baroque counterpoint, power ballad, reggae, flamenco, bhangra and disco were only part of the checklist.

    His gift is making fusions sound natural. They’re not; different cultures have different scales, different rhythms, different harmonies, different expectations of melody and phrasing.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/30/arts/music/review-a-r-rahman-full-of-bollywood-hits-at-the-beacon.html?ref=arts&_r=2

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  2. The Naane Varagiren composition by ARR is just magical. Its amazing how after 20 years, the genius continues to churn out gems like that!!

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  3. The piece is already so long and I haven’t been able to say anything about the video game that Adi was developing. On one hand, it gives us a glimpse into Adi’s mind, and on the other hand it is such a delight by itself. Rarely do we come across this level of detailing for some enterprise the hero or heroine is engaged in. Mani is really in the one with this one.

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  4. havent seen this flick but agree with u on cocktail..

    but utkal uncle has certain ‘genre limitations’
    hes ok whilst discussing ‘matters of the heart’ (though some will question his age appropriatness in these lol but hey, i ownt fault him on that)

    but his limitations stand exposed in certain junctures as mentioned here–
    https://satyamshot.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/welcome-2-karachi-tanu-weds-manu-returns-ongoing-the-rest-of-the-box-office/#comment-304478

    theres a certain ARMCHAIR WANTON CONVENIENT stance & discourse and SELECTIVENESS that has afflicted people of/near bengal..
    and im not talking about deepikas casual promscuity in piku here…

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  5. Utkal: What a beautiful piece this is. I saw the film on Sunday and enjoyed it a lot even if I didn’t find anything particularly memorable about it. But this is very easily one of your best write-ups. I also loved all of your literary references. The one place I will disagree with you is the Fanaa song (from Yuva)- IMO that song redefined the typical Bollywood club number.

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  6. Thanks, Saurabh. The Fanaa number is one of my favourites. I play it in every New Year’s dance party that we have . All I ma saying is that it does not have the same narrative relevance as the Theera song in OKK. Theera flows naturally into the kind of interactions Adi and Tara have been having. And the words express their thoughts. While words like ‘ Hone do dard ko dawa’ are just poetic words that have no meaning in the context of the relationship that Vivek and Kareena were having.

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