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.