Readers Write In #54: Evolution paints the sky crimson

Posted on October 14, 2018


WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD for Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

An obvious distinction that #MeToo often brings up is that while men cloaked in power are unwilling to shed their primal skins, the women, even when victimized, have used civil means to fight back. A striking contrast between the composure displayed by women and the emotional charge spewed forth by men was on full display recently in the American political stage. If one were to view these through alien eyes, the women perhaps belong to an advanced species much further along in humanity’s evolution. Extending that line of thought, #TimesUp becomes a metaphor for hastening the “extinction” of the less evolved species. It is through this metaphorical lens that I saw Mani Ratnam’s latest movie, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam.

For some time now, it seems to me that Mani Ratnam has been toying with this idea of an animal inside man who, through his association with a woman, sheds his bestiality and ends up more humane. We saw this in Raavan, in Kadal and more recently, in Kaatru Veliyidai.  In CCV, this idea is taken to an extreme, where animals, in the guise of men, are eliminated, and humanity, in the form of woman, prevails. In all these movies, the male and female protagonists are portrayed as though they belong to different species. The men are brutish driven by greed, vengeance, and self preservation and the women are gentle, angelic even, acting with compassion and civility. Where the earlier movies got dumped into a pile labeled idiosyncratic indulgences, CCV seems to have captured crowds and critics alike (our friendly neighborhood host excluded) while still exploring the same thematic thread. Part of the reason cited for those earlier movies failing, both critically and commercially, was that the transformations of the men were unconvincing on screen.  In CCV, the idea of transformation of a single man from animal to human was completely done away with, and substituted instead by a sequence of men belonging to a single crime family, each of whom is at a different stage of evolution towards a truly civilized species. In the end, all these men perish, and just as with the other three movies, it is a woman standing in for humanity, this time by spearheading the extinction of the lesser species.

That evolution could be a central theme in the movie is visible from the opening minutes— a montage of the evolution of a city is  accompanied by a voice over about the evolution of crime and criminals. The film is bookended by two key figures at different ends of the humanity’s evolution, the face of the powerful male head of a crime family at the beginning, and the unheard voice of the female chief of law enforcement at the end. In a subversive twist, a movie where the driving question was which of the men would be king of crime ended with this queen of civility emerging the victor. It is telling that the only scene where we see the female commissioner, she is seated at the head of the table full of male police officers and calls for civility in law enforcement.

The screenwriting, as with any Mani Ratnam movie, is so layered that one can find strands of this thematic thread strewn throughout the movie. Take the progression of the crime family. Senapathi is a brutal gangster (the one thing we hear about his actions is a horrific assassination of his father-in-law) and a serial philanderer. His eldest, Varadan, is all brawn but a weaker gangster, and limits his extramarital dalliances to one mistress. Thyagu, the second son, is two faced, switching between barbarism and sophistication, but loyal to his wife, with seemingly harmless flirtations on the side. The third son, Ethi, has one true love and conducts his business with pure smarts— his cleverness in smuggling weapons is the only visible detail about his business. The last child, the end of this evolutionary chain so to speak, is a daughter whose child is literally named a king and notably,  we neither see nor hear anything about a husband. Its not just the progression of people, look at their modes of transport. Varadan uses cars and deals in land, Thyagu operates off a boat, and Ethi smuggles through planes.

The gangster life where only the fittest survive provides the perfect setting for a story about evolution, which is summarized in the wonderfully staged climactic face off where each version of man is eliminated by the next in succession. The drive around in this scene serves as a visual metaphor for the cycle of karma that each man tries to break free from. What is evolution, if not a severance from the old cycle of birth and death, to start a new one. That the vehicle was driven around by Rasool neatly sums up his role in the movie as the driver of karma/extinction. When viewed through a prism of evolution, the character of Rasool also provides a bridge between the male and female species; born as the son of a male gangster, he ends up being raised by a female educator, and it is perhaps no coincidence that he is the only male protagonist without a female companion, and in fact refuses to marry.

In today’s world,  where emotional fight-or-flight responses are labeled unfairly as behavioural attributes of women, this movie (and those earlier ones I mentioned) reverses that notion and presents the women— every single one of them— as the level headed species. When a character’s extra marital affair is exposed, the women stand their ground and converse with poise, while the man stays hidden until called for. Upon discovering the brutal murder of a close relative, a female character employs diplomacy in contrast to the man who is instantly up in arms. All the male protagonists, save for Rasool, are shown as beasts at heart, impulsive, driven by self preservation, and tempered only because of their association with the women beside them. When they lose their women, they completely revert to their primal selves. Fittingly, by the end, it was #TimesUp for every one of them.

(by Karthik Amarnath.)