Had Kaththi been a film with loftier ambitions, we might say it begins in medias res – but it does begin with a bang. A prison. An escape. A freeze frame. Then, a flashback, which contains one of those procedural depictions AR Murugadoss is so fond of. (If nothing else, it must be said that his films have some of the smarter masala heroes. There’s at least an attempt to think through a situation instead of just flexing a bicep.) The sequence has a cheeky finish, guaranteed to whip the hero’s (Kathiresan, played by Vijay) fans into a frenzy.
And then, all the air begins to leak out of the narrative. Murugadoss has never been an economical storyteller, but even by his standards, the early portions of Kaththi are remarkably flabby and dull. Instead of surprising us by cutting to scenes directly, he keeps laying them out for us, he keeps explaining them. Consider the stretch where Kathiresan returns to an old-age home and experiences a shock. Why have the lead-in scene where his friend (Sathish) tells him what he’s going to find? How much better if we find out what’s happened along with Kathiresan? The ideas are snappy – the reveal of the person injured in a shootout; the identity of a couple of television reporters – but the staging is shockingly flat. Worse, more time is wasted on what must surely be one of the most uninspired romantic tracks of all time. Samantha plays the heroine… No, scratch that. She plays an emoticon. Happy face. Sad face. That pretty much covers her contribution to the proceedings.
The story is the old one of a crook who grows a conscience – this happens when Kathiresan is faced with the plight of farmers whose lands (and the water in those lands) are at the point of being usurped by a multinational. (Neil Nitin Mukesh plays the villain… No scratch that. He plays another emoticon. Frown face. Angry face.) And because two heroes are always more fun than one, Kathiresan finds himself assuming the role of Jeeva (Vijay again). This avatar is even smarter – not only does he come with an MSc in Hydrology, he’s able to explain communism with the help of… an idli. Clearly, Marxist philosophies are best digested with a spoonful of sambar. It’s the old Naadodi Mannan template, shaped with a relevant, burning social angle. Along with MNCs, Kaththi indicts the mainstream media that cares more about goosing city viewers with sensation than giving villagers a voice. Jeeva, therefore, is their only voice. “En uyire ponaalum vivasaayatha vidaatheenga,” he tells the villagers, after being beaten up by corrupt cops, MNC stooges. The scene is framed so that we see him as a messiah, a deliverer addressing weeping believers – he carries their cross.
Part of the problem with Kaththi, then, is that its concerns are too heavy, too real, to accommodate Vijay’s lightweight, I’m-too-cool-to-care star persona. (That’s why Thuppakki, the earlier Murugadoss-Vijay collaboration worked as well as it did. Its defining characteristic, even as bombs threatened to obliterate cities, was its pulse-quickening coolness.) The other problem lies in the characterization. Murugadoss doesn’t opt for the path taken by Dhool – another masala movie about villagers and their water problems. There, the hero hailed from the village. He was a son of the soil and when he came to the big, bad city to fix things, the transposition carried a charge – we were never in doubt about the intensity of his feelings, the extent of his indignation. Kathiresan, on the other hand, is a creature of the city, a criminal to boot – and his transformative arc needed to be traced more convincingly. (His background, which is revealed late into the film, could have been used to shape his character more empathetically, but it’s tossed off in a line or two.) And without this anchoring, the film gets into a slightly dangerous (and queasy-making) zone where we begin to feel that it is exploiting the horrifying reality of farmers for the sake of a few masala kicks. A scene in which farmers commit suicide is chilling, but a minute later, we question the validity of our response. This is, after all, the kind of film that has its hero claiming that cell phones are an extravagance in a country whose farmers are dying without basic needs – but not before shaking a leg in a lavishly shot song that goes… Selfie pulla.
But the film gets better as it goes along, mostly because Murugadoss rediscovers, midway, the sound masala instincts that had apparently abandoned him earlier. A fight sequence where Kathiresan uses a bunch of coins is a superb bit of imagination. The impact comes not just from the action choreography, but from the emotional resonance imparted by those coins – they were donated for Jeeva’s cause by displaced farmers who are now laboring as sewage workers and employees in sleazy wine shops. So when Kathiresan uses these coins against the goons employed by the MNC, he’s really drawing from the villagers’ struggles – he’s really fighting their fight. Later, he invokes the names of Periyar, Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi and launches a civil disobedience movement. What a grand idea. And what a grand masala movie might have resulted had these concerns percolated into the story at every level, had this film been as attuned to serving its premise as its hero and his fans.
* Kaththi = knife
* En uyire ponaalum vivasaayatha vidaatheenga = Don’t abandon farming even if I die.
* idli = see here
An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.