Scattered thoughts on Kaatru Veliyidai..

[this will sound like a perverse joke but what follows actually originated as a set of thoughts on twitter..!]

Kaatru Veliyidai affirms once more what ought to be beyond debate by now. There isn’t anyone quite like Mani Ratnam in Indian commercial cinema even after all these years. I am not doing a review of any sort here, just offering scattered thoughts. Ratnam as a craftsman is still at the height of his powers. Barring Raavan(an) this might be his best film in that formalist sense in at least fifteen years or so. In some of the film’s best montages he even exhibits a kind of Kurosawa-like spontaneity, which is to say a whole series of dazzling shots ranging across different registers. Visually this film is a feast (though I wish Ratnam would not use FX even to the limited extent he does, much as in Raavan it shows and in a work of such stylistic finesse it jumps out even more). This includes of course his song videos. The Tango (also my favorite track on the album) is quite simply one of his masterpieces.

Narratively though (and here I do agree with Baradwaj Rangan in certain ways) problems emerge. In his depiction of romance Ratnam is as fresh and interesting as ever. This is really an intimate relationship film which might have been even richer but for the epic frame Ratnam uses for it. The entire air force backdrop allows for all kinds of visual flourishes, it certainly makes for a number of compelling sequences, and ultimately allows some easy masala pleasures by the end. Even more importantly Ratnam in subtle ways paints his own picture of Nehruvian secularism and diversity (the languages that come into play for instance) and his subversion here (it cannot be less than this in these dark times) is a welcome move. This is mirrored in some ways in what might be his darkest representation of patriarchal domesticity, at least leaving aside the obvious example of Agni Natchathiram. His male lead also displays many of the same attitudes. There is surely meant to be a parallel here between such notions of domestic order and the more mechanical national chauvinism that ‘VC’ is equally invested in. Nonetheless the two registers do not quite fuse. More precisely the cathartic payoff always promised with such an epic schema (the war hero, missing in action, planning a great escape, returning Odysseus-like), including in the ‘grand visual’ sense is never quite delivered (though in fairness one could argue as I have in the past that part of Ratnam’s project involves a subversion of such expectations.. the clear example is Thalapathy but there are others too.. whether one can finally ‘tame’ these epic registers perhaps remains an open question). The relationship is essentially a series of very strong vignettes but it does not quite have the arc that might justify the overtures of ‘transcendence’ the film otherwise employs.

Age has not mellowed Ratnam in any sense and we are the more fortunate for this. A critique of the kind I have just indulged in should not be confused with a definition of ‘failure’. Ratnam’s film and larger corpus are far too interesting to be reduced to such petty panning (or praise). Kaatru Veliyidai is a significant, possibly major effort from Ratnam. It is not a lesser outing like Ok Kanmani. To the extent that Ratnam’s work seems problematic more often than not in the post-Iruvar phase of his career (and perhaps including that film) this is a measure of the strength and honesty of his larger project. He is constantly searching for newer configurations. Box office triumphs or failures (and sometimes even of the very vicious kind.. Raavan in Hindi and Kadal in Tamil come to mind) inevitably place different sorts of pressures on a director but happily these have not damaged this extraordinary director. Kaatru Veliyidai does not excite because it is just the latest chapter of what is by now a hallowed name and history. It does so because Ratnam keeps making formidable films that are not burdened by that history. Yet he is also reformulating various concerns and themes that in turn enrich the older works. He is still ‘thinking’ about cinema in the truest sense, still thinking better than anyone else in Indian commercial cinema. The result might not always constitute the optimal film but it is almost certainly going to be an interesting one. The current film is just the latest example.

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12 Responses to “Scattered thoughts on Kaatru Veliyidai..”

  1. Re.- The Tango (also my favorite…….
    Whhhatttt ?? Yeh kab hua ??
    LOL

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  2. Any comments on Mani Ratnan’s Tamil vs Hindi ventures?

    May be the language barrier but I think Mani has more command when he is in Tamil territory. I find his Hindi movies lose focus towards end.

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    • I think it’s fair to say that one will never have the same comfort in another language that one will in one’s own. But having said that it is not the case that his films necessarily fare better in Tamil. At least over the past 25 years he’s had high profile disappointments (underperformers or failures) several times. Now on the one hand his films ought to be easier to absorb for a Tamil audience. Because they’re familiar with his history and all the things he done for so many years. They can ‘recognize’ things in his work that a Hindi audience cannot. But that nonetheless hasn’t really helped him at the box office. The current film hasn’t done well, the last one did but Kadal before that was mauled by everyone at least as badly as Raavan was in Hindi, possibly more than that. What’s happened typically in this period is that his more ambitious films don’t work more often that not and the lesser ones do. But as I’ve said in the past in the context of Raavan and other films Ratnam is always playing with commercial conventions. He’s very capable of designing a hit when he wants to but most of the time he’s not interested in doing so. Now with all this said I wouldn’t really agree that in Hindi he tends to lose focus towards the end. Also remember that Dil Se and Guru are his only stand-alone Hindi works. The other two were bilinguals (Yuva-Raavan). If he does Hindi again as some of the rumors suggest it might very well be another bilingual (because I’ve also heard rumors of another Tamil film). But language is nonetheless important inasmuch as his often snappy dialog doesn’t quite work the same way in Hindi (because the traditions here are different). In other words you can’t translate it into Hindi in quite the same way.

      Here’s a note related to all of this…

      @baradwajrangan Wonderful piece on Kaatru Veliyidai. You bring up an interesting if problematic opposition between ‘movie’ and ‘cinema’. But this tension that has been evident in Ratnam’s works for more or less a quarter of a century tracks (pun intended) a similar one at a global level. In a sense cinema turns novelistic when sound is introduced to the medium. One could argue that the silent form of the medium represented its truer or perhaps even purer possibilities in some ways. Of course there are very many grand counter-examples of many (not all) of the great auteurs of the 20th century but commercial cinema by and large remained novelistic for the longest time. Put differently, and to repeat your opposition, ‘cinema’ never came in the way of a good movie! Certainly there were all kinds of important global influences even in earlier ages but these were always put at the service of novelistic continuity. Better still the latter in its 19th century social-realist formats. To take this even further cinema in this sense might constitute a kind of regression or a counter-reaction to the modernism that was sweeping the actual novel by then. However, when commercial cinema itself becomes ‘auteurist’ that compact with novelistic narrative can no longer be maintained. Ratnam is symptomatic (though I don’t mean this reductively) of this more recent history. And if Ratnam cannot often wholly satisfy his viewers in emotional terms with these latter day choices I’d say even here he keeps company with many illustrious peers from around the world. This is not to argue that you cannot do affecting stories that are also interesting formal attempts. At the same time if you follow that ‘cinematic’ logic more faithfully you might often be led into a very different terrain where those traditional cathartic pleasures might not as easily be available. By the way I’m not necessarily taking a position on this one way or the other, at least not here. But it seems to me that there are consequences either way.

      [As an aside I’d say that within the context of Indian commercial cinema, the rise of the megastar as “parallel text” (to use Vijay Mishra’s term for Amitabh Bachchan) already starts deconstructing that novelistic equilibrium. This is why such an overdetermined star doesn’t quite fit into the Ratnam world (Rajini in Thalapathy is the most clear example). Differently still the megastar-as-parallel-text cannot quite be integrated into an auteurist universe. At any rate, ‘taming’ the Rajini signature is problematic. But if Ratnam didn’t Rajini would explode the film! Mammootty or Mohanlal or Kamal are much better fits. And of course the former two in a Tamil film are always by definition outside their immediate economy of signification. ]

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  3. tonymontana Says:

    Mani Ratnam’s all been there done that

    Just cos he made some great movies in the past doesn’t mean we should try looking desperately for great moments in films that just aren’t. This has been mostly panned by critics. Might have its moments but I doubt if the overall product is anything great

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  4. Ganesh R Says:

    Absolutely agree. Kaatru Veliyidai was absolutely magical and is the best of his work in the last 10/15 years. Except that it was a polarizing film and a lot many viewers just didn’t get it. But it was intended to be this way. Many critics ( mostly inferior ones) panned it and but an equal number appreciated it too. Not that critics matter. But it left the average moviegoer disappointed. But so did Mouna Ragam eons back. To those who have good things to say about that film, they should know that almost nobody watched it outside Chennai city and even in Chennai ( Madras those days ) it played in a little cinema called Little Anand, a 300 seater, for a long time. I think Mani Ratnam has managed to keep the mainstream audience away this time too, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the film. His sensibilities have always been far from mainstream and he has had to use his composers, be it Illiayaraaja or Rahman, as attractions to get the audience in.

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  5. Filmy~Keeda Says:

    I really liked Kaatru Veliyidai too. Personally I think it was positioned wrongly as an ‘epic romance’ or something like that whereas it is more of a take on abuse in relationships and how we react to it. From that point of view it really worked for me, besides being a visual feast and technically terrific. I only didn’t like the ending.

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  6. I think Mani himself will not be averse if his film is appreciated by greater numbers and a good boxoffice success. It is upto the discerning audience to enjoy the fare and not spread too much negativity in the form of criticism. But then everyone has an opinion and they cant wait to express them. As someone on BR blog said that MR should come out of the man woman relationships once in a while. The film is being appreciated more for the technique and visual grandeur than engrossing storyline. It cant be called romantic comedy as there is less comedy but can be called romantic tragedy.

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  7. I saw Kaatru Veliyidai recently, and must say I was quite disappointed: the narrative problems you mention for me overwhelmed the film, and even the depictions of patriarchy were somewhat stilted — in the sense that characterization is easily sacrificed by Ratnam’s insistence on having his characters say and do certain things (I am thinking of the Delhi hospital scene with Kathi’s family; hard to imagine the father suddenly publicly humiliating his wife in that way), and Aditi Rao Hydari’s character suffers the most from this: as the film goes on she suddenly becomes quite passive, and we have little insight or explanation as to why this is happening. Visually for sure, Ratnam is always Ratnam, but far too many moments in this film reminded me of moments from other, better Ratnam films (consider the film’s last sequence, and think of Dil Se’s pre-Satrangi Ladakh portions). Stated differently, far too often here I got the sense of a director’s reflex, rather than his mind or vision, at work. (Part of the problem might be casting: even at the best of times Ratnam’s scripts are at once understated and messy, and depend on serious acting talent: the leads here are very far from the expressive abilities of a Madhavan or Surya; much less the screen presence that Vikram and Abhishek Bachchan brought to their Ratnam roles, and they just don’t have any chemistry together: neither is bad by himself/herself, but for me this couple made no sense together.)

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