Kaatru Veliyidai: A gloriously flawed study of ambivalence.

This blog post of mine is not essentially a review. It is a rambling rumination on Kaatru Veliyidai and films of Mani Ratnam. If you are the sort that would not like to know about the story before you watch a film, kindly read it after watching KV.

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A Mani Ratnam film has a charm of its own. The organic, nuanced and exhilarating visual experience the film provides stays with you, no matter, whether you like it or not. Almost all of his films are based on premises that are: tastefully conceived, labyrinthine yet sincere. The characters he writes affect you deeply; occasionally you get mesmerized so much by their idiosyncrasies that you literally start living with them (Divya in Mouna Ragam).

Cinema like other visual arts is a marriage of style and substance. The magical resonance between style and substance, at times, goes missing in his films (films such as Iruvar, Raavanan, Dil se, Nayagan and Mouna Raagam are some exceptions). This observation does not infer that the other ones are bad films; they are still great cinema, but to become works of art, which stay etched in one’s conscience, a film needs to do so much more than just be aesthetically phenomenal.

Kaatru Veliyidai (breezy expanse) is a Mani Ratnam film – from the first frame to the last – it is a stylistically accomplished production. There are so many wonderfully composed frames in the film that I stopped counting. Leela Abraham is one of Mani’s best-written female characters after Meghna/ Moina (Manisha Koirala’s character) in Dil Se. The premise is, as VC (Karthi) puts it, “naan irul nee oli, aana irul illama oli illa”. VC, our protagonist, refers to himself as darkness and his lover (Leela) as light; they are polar opposites. For light to survive it needs darkness, hence for their survival they need to find a way to coexist – interesting, isn’t it. VC’s character is a fairly complex, and kaleidoscopic one; whose arc provides scaffolding for this non-linear narrative.

Intro

Mani’s films tend to often dwell on philosophical duality, and the associated dilemma; the drama that stems from this dilemma usually acts as the essence of his narratives, this film is no different. So you have truckloads of cinematic sophistication, a complex yet charming premise, and a sensitive yet assertive female lead – so is it a typical Mani Ratnam drama? I don’t think so; this film is different, it aims to create so much ambivalence in its lead characters that it makes you feel that they could be plots unto themselves, intertwined to each other.

Nallai Allai Leela

Leela might appear like the ever sensitive, sophisticated, intelligent and assertive Mani Ratnam heroine of lore on the surface, but there is a gray side to her. You see hints of this in Revathi’s character (Divya) in Mouna Raagam. In her relationship with Manohar (Karthik in Mouna Raagam), at one point, she realizes that he might be a great romantic but might not be a stable companion, yet she persists with the relationship. Before this aspect of her character is explored, the relationship ends precipitously as Manohar dies. In KV this gray area is dwelt upon.

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As the audience we are never ever convinced that VC has the capacity to turn into a new leaf and love Leela selflessly, we intuitively realize that he shall continue to be an egotistic patriarch and that Leela would have to compromise a lot on her ideals to make this relationship work. However, Leela is afflicted with a sort of masochistic passion called VC, she is addicted to love. He treats her like a trophy once, the very next scene serenades her, and in the next demeans and humiliates her. Yet the attraction is so intense that she can’t help giving in each time (Nallai allai song is one such ignominious give in). It is almost like she is awestruck by this cubist painting called VC, never realizing that he has the capacity to pulverize her.

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However she does know, at some level, that she is not doing the so-called sane thing. Leela’s ambivalence and its evolution are well portrayed and orchestrated. Some of the best scenes and shots are reserved for Leela. In one such scene, Mani employs a prop beautifully to illustrate the ambivalence. In this scene, in which Leela confesses her love, a wooden cupboard door (mirrored) is used as the prop. She utilizes it as a barrier onto which she leans on reluctantly, and also refrains from looking at her own image on it. The prop is her ambivalent relationship. Neither is she comfortable with her reckless love for VC (hence the hesitation to look at her own reflection), nor does she feel secure with his persona and attitude (hence it is a barrier that she leans on reluctantly). There are many such mirror shots in this film; it is as if the director wants us to realize that in these scenes the characters are not just interacting with their partners, but also conversing with themselves.

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A 360-degree birds eye view of the ambivalence: The ambivalence in the relationship is depicted in another well-orchestrated, geometrically poetic scene. It is the scene where Leela tells VC about the baby. First there is a front on close up of Leela on the foreground looking into the camera, in the horizontal axis, while VC’s face is on the perpendicular plane in the background. As the ambivalence in their relationship gets uncovered, through the dialogues, you get a feeling as if VC’s face is dipping and rising, into and from his lover’s visage, rhythmically. This shot cuts and we have a similar orchestration of head movements; this time the scene is shot from a top angle, and you feel as if his face levitates and floats over hers, ever so briefly.

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Leela’s character is definitely the crowning glory of the movie; the character arc is in a way unusual and intriguing. Moreover it is superbly cast, Aditi Rao Hydari probably has given a performance of a lifetime. We totally buy her as the multi faceted Leela. One of her scenes that stood out was the first date, on the aircraft, when she talks about her brother. This scene demands from the actor to celebrate a memory and sprinkle her emotions with melancholic nostalgia, at the same time she would have to avoid sadness; a complex task for any actor, and she delivers. The scene with its great composition and acting really hits you. As the aircraft’s engine whirr up (the frame starts to shake as well) you sense the start of a glorious bumpy ride. She (Aditi) also nails those scenes where she needs to be ambivalent about the relationship (when she confesses her love, when VC acts in a demeaning/ arrogant fashion, when she talks about marriage and the pregnancy etc.). Unfortunately, the narrative does not ride on her character arc.

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VC, I felt was a good idea that got, sort of, lost in translation. He is a multifaceted character (way more complex than Leela) like the protagonist in Raavan/ Raavanan. VC is a charming, egotistic, chauvinistic, brash, patriotic individual with bucket loads of hubris. Part of his cocksure attitude stems from his line of occupation, in a way he is a miniature representation of his army (and as he puts it, personifies destruction). He has an ambivalent relationship with a like-minded chauvinistic father (and guess that experience affects all his relationships), he is aware of his capability to hurt others and hence, I feel, he discovers ways to drift away from relationships after short flings. At one point you wonder if he is capable of loving anyone else other than himself. He is surely not someone who believes in destiny, rather he is one who is convinced that he can create his own. A polar opposite to Leela, indeed.

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VC’s character initially seems to be less complex, you sort of think that he is another egotistic army officer, who will eventually realize his deep love and turn into a new leaf, no, that is not the case. As mentioned above there are way too many layers to VC, and these are hastily peeled away in the second half. The complexity of his character needed a plot that unfurls these layers at a meditative pace, employing Mani’s characteristic visual eloquence.

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VC is a romantic but he also has intimacy issues. He seems to have subconsciously inherited the same chauvinistic, egotistic faculties of his father, which he hates. In his relationship with Leela these characters of his make her feel insecure. The way in which the relationship disintegrates is depicted hastily in the second half. I felt the scenes where VC meets his family were important plot points; they were not dwelt upon much. Meditating more on the interactions with the family members could have helped carve out VC’s character at a higher resolution, thus better illuminating the ambivalent relationship that Leela & VC share, instead we end up with another song – Sarattu Vandiyila (granted the reds in the song kind of portend the painful experience that is in store for Leela with VC & his family)

Journey 1Journey 2

VC, during a flight accident in enemy territory, gets a reality check of sorts, realizes his deep-seated love for Leela and has to make an odyssey to find his loved one. His character arc has content to fill 3 films, but Mani tries to stuff it all into one, and moreover he has tried ineffectively to portray this character through Karthi. This role needed a seasoned actor, with a great range, and not a star. Mani allows very little time for the character’s journey to register. VC’s reality check or his realizations had to be visually dramatized in a convincing way to make them work or sound true. Instead VC dishes out intermittent monologues, while in jail, to convey his state of mind, they just don’t work. Cinema is about showing and not telling. Most importantly, VC’s physical Journey, back to Leela, in spite of being well choreographed, did not insinuate or make us embrace the rocky inner journey that he makes (except for the top angle shot of the hairpin bends).

All said and done, I was somehow touched by the climax a fantastic composition on the top of a dune and the way in which Leela intuitively recognizes VC was goose bump worthy. In this scene there is also a confession of love, but instead of the wooden door acting as a barrier you have their kid uniting them.

This rumination’s tone is as ambivalent as the taste of the cud chewed. I tried to see the movie through Leela and VC and not just through the details. Finally, I would say that KV is a phenomenal relationship drama, which is flawed in a way only a Mani’s film can be.

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