“Kadal”… Coast analysis

Posted on February 3, 2013


Spoilers everywhere.

Kadal contains what is easily the most gruesome moment in the Mani Ratnam oeuvre, and it occurs in an early scene about a dead prostitute from a Christian fishing community. A few locals take the corpse to church, where the priest refuses to permit this sinner’s burial in a plot inside, and so they take the body to an open ground by the sea and set about digging a grave. When done, they lower the body, now inside an open coffin, and find a leg sticking out – that old joke about the whore who couldn’t keep her legs crossed comes to mind – and one of them sets about breaking the limb, in order to make it fit inside. Over the sickening crunch of bones being broken, the director seems to be telling those who keep moaning that he doesn’t make nice, affecting, middle-class movies like Mouna Raagam anymore exactly where to get off.

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Ratnam spent the first part of his career becoming a legend, and now, it appears, he’s working on his legacy. What else can one do within the mainstream-movie format? How can one use songs and dances and fights and melodrama and yet not end up using them the way they’ve been used earlier? How much does an audience need to be told, and how much can we trust them to get? Can a love story with star children treat this story only incidentally? How does one keep changing the boundaries between characters and archetypes? And, even technically speaking, how much editing can a film survive without its connective tissue snapping off? We sensed, in Raavan(an), a lot of these questions being probed, and Kadal is very much a companion piece to that earlier film (and a much better one), very much an in-transition work of a filmmaker constantly searching for something. Your tolerance for the inevitable rough edges, I suppose, will determine your response to the film. Put differently, and like Raavan(an), Kadal is less for those who want their films to be easily classifiable as good or bad, more for those who like their films interesting. I was riveted.

And the most interesting aspect of Kadal – at least for longtime followers of this director, a self-confessed atheist – is the explicit religiosity. The film begins with the image of a huge cross and ends with a hymn-spouting gathering around Jesus. The first time we see the young hero, it’s a frame with Mother and Child (and this mother is named Sahaya Mary). The heroine Beatrice (Thulasi Nair) – she’s brought up by a nun, just as the nominal hero, Thomas (Gautham Karthik, who has his father’s eyes) is raised by Father Sam (Arvind Swamy) – is sometimes referred to as a dhevadhai, and she’s almost always attired in angelic white. (She’s therefore less of a character than a pristine archetype, an agent of deliverance.) The dialogues are steeped in Christian imagery – dhevadhai, dhevadoothan, saathaan, paralogam – and Bergmans (a snappy Arjun), the antagonist, cannot seem to put together a sentence without a reference to the Devil. (It becomes too much to take, after a point.) And he mocks Sam’s path as aattu mandhai vazhi, which is just another way of referring to a shepherd and his flock. Even a pathogen is labeled aandavan padaicha kirumi.

A question for a future edition of Conversations with Mani Ratnam is surely what prompted him to pick this story, what drew him in, especially when he usually prefers his characters in shades of grey, as embodiments of that dilemma of nallavana-kettavana. Here, the nallavan and the kettavan are cleanly split into two different people, Sam and Bergmans, and another interesting aspect of Kadal is how this primal, almost Biblical, showdown between these  forces of good and evil is engineered through an accident. Sam and Bergmans meet at a seminary. Why is Sam, who comes from a moneyed background, renouncing everything to serve the Lord? The question is raised, but never answered, and this decision to block off Sam’s past serves the character richly. Arvind Swamy has  never brought to a role this kind of shading or physicality (note the scene where he’s startled by the sound of a dusty old church register), and we keep wanting to know more about him. What is it about Sam that makes him so devout, so serious about his faith, when, as Bergmans rightly points out, the Bible doesn’t say you cannot have fun?

With Bergmans, though, there are no questions. The priesthood, to him, is but a means of monthly income to support a large family. He’s evicted from this House of God when Sam exposes him as a womaniser – Satan, after all, is a Fallen Angel – and he swears revenge. “Ippadhaan namma aattaam aarambichirukku,” he tells Sam, and we expect him to put together a systematic plan to bring down Sam, whom he wants not to die but to live and fall into sin. For a straight arrow like Sam, there can be no greater punishment. But Bergmans drifts away and we don’t hear of him for a long time (though, later, these gaps are filled in) – and when he meets Sam again, it’s almost destiny. This unplanned reunion, this accident, carries a charge greater than that of a single man’s determination to bring Sam down – it feels like something cosmic, as if the gods wanted to bring Sam down.

Mainstream filmmaking has everything to do with the clean narrative, shorn of mess – and perhaps in an earlier stage of his career, Ratnam may have made good on Bergmans’s teeth-gnashing words (“Ippadhaan namma aattaam aarambichirukku”) and had him tail Sam and set about his revenge. But life doesn’t always work the way we plan it, and Bergmans’s disappearance adds an unexpected flavour to the story, by making us wonder how and when he will return. (That he will return is a given.) In the meantime, we shift tracks to Sam’s burgeoning relationship with the inhabitants of the coastal village we saw at the film’s beginning, and with Thomas in particular, whom Sam begins to regard as something of a son. (In the scene where Sam affectionately complains about Thomas’s unruly hair, like parents everywhere, he is both Father and father.) There’s a refreshing looseness in the storytelling, with entertaining non-sequitur scenes like the one where a fishmonger forces Sam to buy her wares.

The only drawbacks in the mostly excellent pre-interval portions are the songs. For a while now, I have wondered why Ratnam’s songs – not the ones that play over scenes, like Nenjukkulle, but those in which characters break into exuberant steps – have begun to seem redundant (at best) and intrusive (at worst). When Thomas and his cohorts dance to Eley keechan, it’s not all that different from when Rajinikanth and Mammooty broke free from the “realistic” nature of the film until then and entered the stylised zone of choreography. And when a bride’s anticipation of her wedding night can find form in Jiya jale and when the separation of lovers can be represented through O Priya Priya, why can’t the onset of love be depicted through Adiye? But something has changed, something’s different. Unlike the case in the earlier films, these songs here bring the proceedings to a halt. As standalone music videos, they’re outstanding, but they don’t become an organic part of the film.

Perhaps it’s because Ratnam’s recent narrative style – rooted in the mainstream, yet striving to break free from the clichés of the mainstream – is less accommodating of the traditional elements of conventional cinema, including the at-times aggressive background score. Or maybe it’s because this isn’t the story – in a sense – of Thomas and Beatrice (who’s barely there in the first half), and when we keep cutting away to them in these songs, it’s like we’re beginning to follow a brand new story, while the meat so far involves a different duo, Sam and Bergmans. The songs aren’t that much of an issue in the second half, because we’ve gotten to know Thomas and Beatrice better. (The newcomers, unusual in both looks and performance styles, take a little getting used to, but they slip into their roles pretty well).

There’s possibly a reason we take a while to warm up to Thomas and Beatrice, both as individuals and as a couple. Unlike Sam and Bergmans, who are delineated for us pretty clearly – this is what they did then; this is what they are doing now – Thomas is presented to us through an extreme form of ellipsis (question for later: intentional at the screenplay level, or a byproduct  of editing?), wherein his story is scattered throughout and we have pick up the pieces. On the surface, this character is like the protagonist of Thalapathy, who yearns for a lost mother and who is coerced into a life of crime. But the similarity ends there. In that older film, made by a Ratnam who wasn’t just younger but also a different kind of filmmaker, we are synched to Rajinikanth’s motives at every stage, so we never doubt why he’s doing something. We’re always ahead of him, or at least keeping up with him.

But the Ratnam of today isn’t going to spoon-feed us, and this is what makes his recent films so rewarding in a mainstream context. With Thomas, as with other characters in Kadal, we’re on our toes, constantly playing catch up. Something happens, and it doesn’t make sense immediately, but when we think back, it all comes together satisfactorily. At a later stage, Sam, after an estrangement from Thomas, tells him, “Nee vera paadhayile romba dhooram poyitte-nu kelvi patten,” and we don’t seem to share these feelings that Thomas has turned evil. All we seem to be seeing is a sweetly aimless youth, pottering about the village and Beatrice. In a lovely scene, Beatrice is playing hopscotch and Thomas confesses to her about his wrongdoings. She absolves him – she is an angel, after all; a grown-up Anjali even – but we wonder, at that moment, what he has done to need this absolution. And then we recall the Magudi song sequence, into which all his sinning is compressed. So Ratnam, really, is asking us to hold on to the information from that song, which goes by in a blur, instead of presenting this information over a course of time over the screenplay, so that we are eased into Thomas’s new life.

And when Thomas, after Sam’s fall, affiliates himself with Bergmans, the next available father figure – there’s a third father figure in the character played by Ponvannan – we may feel at first that this transition comes about too quickly. But then we think back to the numerous earlier scenes that have built up to this moment – the young Thomas’s rejection by the villagers around him in  the opening credits; his humiliation when he sought to be baptized – and we see why he says he wants the villagers to fall at his feet. His first father refused to acknowledge him. His second father abandoned him. And hence this third father, Bergmans. And this development leads to the film’s funniest scene (though it’s played with utmost sobriety), where Thomas’s mother, the prostitute from earlier, is disinterred from her unmarked grave and given a Christian burial with full honours – her resting place is the grandest in the vicinity, with a Mother and Child sculpture in the headstone.

As to why Thomas changes back to being good, we may have to remember, along with the influence of the innocent Beatrice, the scene with the Pietà pose, featuring a son with a father instead of a mother. (And the song that plays, Chithirai nila, is the same one that played around his mother.) As to why an apparently godless community turns into a lynch mob upon discovering that its shepherd has sinned, we may have to recall how they have been led into the presence of God after all; we may not have been given a scene where they gathered in church to listen to one of Sam’s sermons, but we have seen their prayers being taken to God through a tape recorder. Would Kadal have been an easier film to embrace – directly, with the heart, rather than it all coming together in the head – had Ratnam given us a scene that explained why Thomas decided to become good again, or a scene of the villagers assembled in church as Sam preached to them? Would that have made their anger more justified, more understandable? Certainly. But it also would have been a very different movie, from a filmmaker with very different ambitions.

And that filmmaker would not have given us the fantastic scene featuring the film’s most intriguing character, Jerina (Lakshmi Manchu). She is an instrument of Evil, and when we see her, first, clutching the crucifix around her neck and in tears, we think the obvious thing. We put together the evidence from the scene around her and conclude that her distress is due to being abandoned by the man she loved, the man who offered her a life together (possibly the one good thing that that bad man did) – but immediately after, we realise the real reason behind her emotions. It’s not because of what happened, but because of what’s going to happen, what she’s about to do. And when she does that thing, the camera stays on her face despite the clamour that ensues behind her. (She’s bathed by an almost-heavenly light, like in a painting by a Renaissance master. Rajiv Menon’s work is exquisite, all the more so for not suffocating the film with beauty.) In this scene, as in the one where Beatrice weeps on being asked about her parents and we assume they are dead, we see subtle variations on tired tropes.

But at other times, we wish we had been given more, shown more. What, for instance, happens to Jerina? We’re told that she’s in paralogam, her heavenly abode. Has she been killed? Was she forced to take her own life? Didn’t Thomas, even once, try to meet Sam after the latter was led away from the village? Where was Beatrice escaping to when we first meet her? And how are we meant to read the key scene where Thomas aids a childbirth (Chithirai nila, again), and his hands, so far stained with the blood of those he’s put to death, are now coloured with blood from a newborn life? It’s as difficult a scene to buy as the one in 3 Idiots, even though we’re given hints of divine intervention, with a picture of Jesus near the mother and with AR Rahman flooding the soundtrack with an ecclesiastical choir.

In Raavan(an), these leaps – or gaps, depending on how you look at them – were somewhat easier to negotiate, because we already knew the characters from the epics. We already knew their backstories and we only needed to follow their forward trajectories, where the film was taking them. But here, because of the ellipses, there are times our grasp on the goings on remains tenuous, and the film’s biggest problem is its downplaying of the battle for Thomas’s soul – which is where the story seemed to be heading after Sam’s fall, when Thomas was lured by the Devil. Thomas’s subsequent return to Sam’s side feels preordained, and not so much the result of a mighty struggle. We get a mighty struggle alright, but a literal one (as opposed to the metaphorical one this good-versus-evil tale seemed to be leading to), in the storm-tossed climax, which features an unconvincing change of heart. There’s a lot of physical grandeur on display, Good and Evil seesawing up and down, but Biblical morality plays also demand emotional grandeur, especially when God makes a triumphant return.

But really, Mani Ratnam and God. Who would’ve thought? Even with respect to the parallel experience of seeing where Ratnam is heading while also holding on to his past, Kadal is never less than interesting. Note, for instance, even in this Biblical universe, the casual reference to foreigners who shoot Indian fisherman, the issue being raised in the context of a character rather than to call attention to the issue itself. There are so many images that recall earlier Ratnam that walking out, I found myself wondering about trains, rains, mirrors and old women – some of which I recalled, and others I did not. The biggest surprise for me, though, came in the scene where Thomas learns about Beatrice from the nun who raised her. I nearly fell off my chair when Beatrice’s childlike condition was attributed to “aazhmanasu seyyara thandhiram.” And here I thought this was a filmmaker who didn’t put much faith in the subconscious.

Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Tamil