After a long time, I caught myself smiling while watching a Mani Ratnam movie. The cuteness, the zingers, the youngness – it’s all back. Seen one way, O Kadhal Kanmani is something of a greatest-hits package. It’s as if the director is telling us: “So you didn’t like it when I went too far away from what you guys want me to do. So here’s the stuff you seem to like.” This much was evident from the trailers, which, with those trains and with that lead-pair vibe, explicitly invoked Alaipaayuthey. OKK, too, is the story of an impetuous younger couple (Dulquer Salmaan’s Aadhi, Nitya Menen’s Tara) who end up living under the calming shadow of an older one. But the story is more reminiscent of the Siddharth-Trisha segment in Aaydha Ezhuthu. And it’s not just because of the faint echoes of scenes from that movie, with Aadhi hitching a ride from a motorist in order to go after Tara, or Aadhi and Tara humming playfully to one of AR Rahman’s songs. It is, after all, a greatest-hits package.
To take that railway analogy further, Aadhi and Tara are on different tracks, the way the Siddharth and Trisha characters were. Tara wants to study architecture in France. (That wail you hear is the C-centre distributor going, “There goes my audience.”) Aadhi, meanwhile, is a video-game developer who wants to make it rich like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. (By now, that distributor has fainted.) For all its mainstream trappings, this film doesn’t pander – the way some films incorporate elements to please every section of the audience. It’s very focused about who it is targeting, and at least one segment of that “who” is discernible from Aadhi’s surname – Varadarajan – and the Thyagaraja and Annamacharya compositions that pop up on the soundtrack.
This focus is one of the film’s great strengths. Barring a handful of scenes, everything is organic, everything fits. That Daliesque clock in Tara’s room – that’s just what an architect who dreams of studying in France would have. The visuals, with every frame looking like a gift-wrapped Christmas present – that’s just what this audience likes to see. (After a couple of flashy outings, PC Sreeram does outstanding work, locating a very rooted kind of beauty in Mumbai’s exteriors and interiors.) The dialogues, stripped clean of words like figure, kattai, sarakku and anything that’s generally considered “low-class” – that’s just what this audience likes to hear. OKK is an unapologetically upper-class movie. We don’t want all films to be like this one. But given the mortal fear our directors have of openly courting this upper-class audience, it’s nice to have one of these films, once in a while.
The ostensible issue driving this film is an upper-class one too. Aadhi and Tara decide to move in together and spend a few happy months with each other before going their respective ways. (That distributor, by now, is on life support.) And though the screenplay plants a number of hurdles in their way – first, the landlord has to agree; then Aadhi’s brother makes an unannounced visit; then there’s her super-rich mother – Aadhi and Tara clear them with ease. The point I’m making is that there’s no melodrama. Each of these hurdles could have led to a screeching-violins high point – but, again, things are kept super-classy. Even the comic relief is classy. It comes from Bhavani Aunty (Leela Samson, who’s stupendous), who keeps making the oddest of asides until we discover why. But she’s never treated with anything but respect and dignity. We laugh with her, but never at her. That’s class.
But after a point, all this classiness becomes stifling. It’s one thing to have no melodrama. But OKK just doesn’t have drama. There’s barely any conflict and gradually the characters come to resemble soap bubbles, very pretty to look at and iridescently alive, but literally weightless. Maybe this is the whole point. Maybe after a couple of heavy dramas, Mani Ratnam just wanted to do something ultra-light, without much depth. But we still need something to hold on to, some reason to invest in the fate of these characters, and that reason never arrives. Everything happens so blithely, so easily, you may begin to wish for an axe murderer (or at least members of the VHP) to wander into the couple’s bedroom. Even the live-in angle is incidental. You could watch it with your grandmother. The film would have played this exact way even if Aadhi and Tara had simply been two commitment-phobes who happened to fall in love.
The most baffling aspect of OKK is that these conflict points do exist. There’s a lovely moment where Tara begins to realize she’s falling for Aadhi. She talks to Ganapathy Uncle, their landlord – that’s played by Prakash Raj; he usually likes to act with a capital-A, but his understatement here is hugely affecting. One thing this film cannot be faulted for is the quality of its performances. Just watch Nithya Menen in this scene, the way she imbues the line “Perisa edho parikudutha maadhiri irukku” with a casually existential sigh. But the scene ends almost as soon as it begins. This isn’t a plea for long-drawn wallows in emotion. But by refusing to even dip a toe into the pool, the film leaves us dry-eyed. Another scene that I thought was going somewhere was the one where Aadhi’s sister-in-law confronts Tara and asks her to marry Aadhi or pack her bags. Tara looks unflinchingly back – and why shouldn’t she? She isn’t ashamed or any such thing – and says something wonderful, that this same ultimatum could be delivered to Aadhi. I wanted more, but we cut away to another cute scene, another light moment. It’s a good thing Ganapathy Uncle and Bhavani Aunty are around – they provide much-needed ballast. I was more interested in their story.
But of course, this film is made for a much younger audience and at least in the theatre I saw it, they weren’t complaining. One reason is surely that the romantic scenes – Aadhi and Tara meeting cute across the aisle during a church wedding, or his panic one morning when she refuses to wake up – are so delightful. While reviewing Aaydha Ezhuthu, I wrote “the pushing-fifty Mani Ratnam proves once again that there aren’t many better portrayers of young love – or of youth itself.” More than a decade later, this still stands. And it helps that he has this cast. Dulquer Salmaan checks off all boxes in the Can You Be The Next Madhavan? questionnaire, but it’s his co-star, really, who makes the movie. Despite my issues with it, I couldn’t stop watching – she’s so good. She even sings like the song (Malargal kaetten) is coming out of her, with joy and with just the slightest musician-like affectations. We’re all going to have our favourite scenes with her, but let me leave you with the moment where she’s recording the interiors of a historical structure on her iPad and stops when Aadhi comes into the frame. She has this vague smile. It says everything. If Mani Ratnam keeps employing actors like her, he may not need to write those zingers anymore.
- Perisa edho parikudutha maadhiri irukku= I feel like I’ve lost something big
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