This debate is for those who have already seen Kaatru Veliyidai; It reveals several plot details
To preface my comments, I am a big fan of Mani. I do believe he is the GOAT of Tamil film making. But let’s leave that aside and look at this movie on its merits.
First the good parts. As usual for his movies, there is some wonderful cinematography, not just the outdoor scenes of Kashmir, but also a brilliantly shot tango sequence cutting between the two leads. The movie has cast a heartthrob in Aditi who has a charismatic presence on the screen. It starts off with a very promising core for a story — Leela follows a long held girlish crush on Varun, someone she hasn’t even met, finds her dashing prince charming and, as is usual in such cases, comes to realize that he may not be entirely what she fantasized. Instead he is a narcissist who is emotionally, and borderline physically, abusive.
It all goes downhill from there. As the story of her brother is revealed, one is struck by what seems to be total apathy about his death, a flaw in the script and in acting. Instead we see her at the location where he purportedly died happily saying “இது போதும்” looking at the beautiful mountain. I guess Mani is making a metaphor for Varun, she is enthralled by its majesty but does not realize the wrath of the mountain is going to bury them both. We see traces of Varun’s anger clashing with her strong will, but it is resolved unsatisfactorily with her saying “முன்னமே சொல்லி இருக்கலாமே” when in fact he did tell her earlier.
At this point the movie has two arcs it could follow. Varun could be “changed by true love” or Leela could be shown to have the love and strength to accept him as he is, which is a difficult thread for a progressive film maker to weave without looking like he is glossing over abuse or chauvinism. But it could have been portrayed as strength, like the character shown by this girl facing down a bully with a smile. In any event, neither path is taken as we wonder off into a rudderless 30-40 minutes. Contrasted with Mouna Ragam or Alaipayuthe, where the progress of the relationship is expertly shown, in this case there is no blossoming of a greater love. Instead we see swings between infatuation and conflict and empty apologies, one iteration not different from the other, with the relationship always coming back to square one, or even getting more abusive. Maddeningly, this is where Mani usually excels, in catchy, memorable, and moving dialog between couples. In this movie, the good lines are reserved for the bit players. The expressions of love, remorse, flirtation are all uninspiring canned lines, repetition substituting for quality. The script has to resort to saying the chemistry is explosive between them rather than showing it — sort of like the movies where an aging actress is cast and the script makes up for it by repeatedly saying how beautiful or young she looks.
Even in the sequence when he tells her he loves her, we end with the reveal that this was all motivated by a bet of a single malt. Which is fine if the eventual arc is that Varun will remain Varun. A flawed but endearing hero is the stuff of great films, but this movie can’t make up its mind about which way it wants to go. We are left wondering why she doesn’t just dump him. The parallel story of his imprisonment wants to tell the tale of a man changed for the better by it. But it employs the rookie device of a voice over to assure us of this change Varun undergoes, rather than showing it cinematically. The only visuals we are given are gratuitous scenes of torture and Varun daydreaming about Leela. This narrative too is finally undermined when the voice over contradicts itself and says he actually changed at the moment of capture, when 8 guns were pointed at him. So much for the tough guy.
A good 10 minutes were wasted on a meaningless sequence when Leela goes to meet Varun’s family, apparently all of it in a build up to show him face off with his dad, and yet display the same flaws himself. That part of his character is already established and the time could have been spent to evolve the relationship. Likewise, his meeting Leela’s family does nothing to advance the story other than suggest that they should not be together. It may have been a good idea to have the “quiet interrogation” earlier in the movie, contrasted with the other interrogation in prison, but it was too late and out of place.
For me the saddest part of the movie was the prison escape sequence as Mani channels his inner Vin Diesel to do his first western style action sequence. It felt like he saw the rest of the movie for the lost cause it was, and was making a desperate attempt to redeem it with a car chase. The build up to the escape too was an opportunity to create tension and suspense, but this is no Great Escape. And what was the deal with retracing Dilip Parulkar’s run to Afghanistan? In the time frame of Kargil, the Taleban was in power in Afghanistan and would have beheaded Varun before he could belt out the first line of Bharathyar’s அச்சமில்லை.
Mani has built very strong female characters in his best movies. In this movie, Leela is portrayed as headstrong in an argument but the quiet strength of the heroines from Bombay to Kannatthil Mutthamittaal to OKK, we do not see in her, especially in that single malt moment. The movie does not bring out the best of Leela under adversity, and in what should have been her finest hour, when Varun was captured, she disappears entirely. There is no Roja moment here. When Varun returns, the annoying voiceover persists. He is searching for her, we are told, though one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise based on the acting. Later we find out that he has been searching for several years since their kid has grown quite a bit, but that time lag was not well shown and served up more confusion. Why had she stayed away for so long? She wasn’t sure if he wanted her or their daughter, even though she wanted him. Weakness and wilting again. Their reunion feels no different than any of the previous unions, but this time the movie lazily deploys a child to wave a magic wand and make everything right. Granted, there is no mention of happily ever afters, but what then was the story about?
It worked for me as the characters were realistic and even unromantic to the end while the script was set in a poetic setting with romantic visuals, BGM and songs.
The discussion on the brother’s death comes up in their first ‘date’ only to let VC know she had known about him since high school. Leela never intended to treat his brother’s death to gain sympathy from VC or introduce her. She comes from a military family, she is used to it hence the ‘இது போதும்’. But one can see the weird kind of surprise in VCs reactions. He even behaves like a true gentleman, for once, when he drops her back and says ‘chemistry எல்லாம் தாறு மாறா இருக்கு – இது தப்பாயிடும்’ and goes back home.
The snow storm scene sums up the relationship between the two – it starts with a magical setting and love that escalates into an argument. VC does not reason at first, but only tells her let’s get back a storm is coming… I know these storms well and you don’t ..so do as I tell you …. Otherwise I will have to use force … I am a trained military commander etc. This doesn’t go well with the strong minded Leela. At the end, he says I am ‘worried’ we both might get killed in the storm, can we please go… to which she responds ‘இத முன்னாடியே சொல்லி இருக்கலாமே’.
On the point where you say the movie could have taken two arcs. It would have been clichéd and mundane if the movie had taken the route ‘true love changed him’ and they happily carried on, until VC went to war and became a POW, then the yearning and the escape. That would be identical to Roja. Kaatru Veliyidai, I believe, takes the second path as you mention – where a strong-willed woman takes on an egoistic (add other adjectives!) guy who she is madly in love with. Yes, there is ‘no blossoming of great love’ here as in Mouna Ragam or Alaipayuthey. Here the director brings out a few other, more realistic, shades in a relationship. The story is seen from VC’s recollections hence the constant ‘bad chemistry side’ comes up – yes it’s a bit repetitive which leads the viewer to have no sympathy for VC and lot of affection for Leela, which is what VC has for Leela. But the scenes with VCs family, which makes you squirm in your seat, gives us an idea where VC gets some of his traits.
Agree on the lack of conviction in making the audience believe that VC had changed. Maybe the director didn’t intend to do this. VC still seem to love his sunglasses in the prison, showing he still is the same guy – even though the voice over says otherwise. He is intending to escape not only to find Leela, he is also not content dying in the prison his egoistic pride would not let him. When he returns, he goes to work, starts flying and then goes looking for Leela during his annual vacations. This is VC.
The scene when VC meets the parents for dinner was one of my favorites. Earlier, VC had been already escorted out of the funeral – without a reason. He was seething inside – but tries hard to please the in-laws. The silent treatment from the parents was classic Mani style. Viewers are left to guess what they are angry about – is it the pregnancy? Is it because she wants to marry a military guy? The wind hustling in the background through that open door, adds more tension to the scene. In the end VC looses it and gets a ‘Please Get-Out’ from Leela. Leela shows she is strong minded to kick him out for being an insensitive jerk.
Agree on the prison escape sequence it was like a 1960s WWII sequence with motorbikes and trucks flying over. I didn’t care as I was interested to see how VC and Leela ended up. Adding drama and suspense for the escape would have been like Roja…. And it was never about the POW or patriotism. I didn’t see any harm in using the Dilip Parulkar run to inspire the escape sequence but agree Taliban might be not as friendly as was in 1971. The script also uses a quote by Norman Schwarzkopf US Commander in Afghanistan, who said ‘that forgiving the enemy is God’s function our job is simply to arrange the meeting’ Karthi tells this to his wavering junior in the bar. It seems there has been some research put into the script.
Leela is a unique portrayal – she is not Roja yearning for a captured lover in the war or Divya from Mouna Ragam who gradually falls in love after marriage. Leela is a strong-minded woman – may be the strongest of all of Mani’s female characters. She is a doctor who takes her first posting in Srinagar. Falls in love with a guy she wants to be with since high school, she is not interested in marriage, has a child with him even though he doesn’t want to keep the child, she walks out of the relationship after she realizes it’s not going to work, probably has no support from her parents either, works/volunteers in medical camps in remote areas while bringing up a child as a single parent. She doesn’t bother about Varun becoming a POW or to go looking for him even after she sees him on TV when the military awards medals for him.
The climax would have been contrived if VC and Leela got back together, in a melodramatic scene with the returning POW falling in the arms of his lost girlfriend. I thought the child brings in more conviction, yes it’s a bit clichéd – but the way the climax was staged with the mention of child’s name Rohini, which Varun had picked previously, melts him to tears, for the first time. The dialogue where Leela tells Rohini she is responsible for VC and VC that he is responsible for Rohini is simple, yet has deeper connotations and it is classic Mani dialogue. There is no mention of marriage or happily living ever after.
Cinema is a form of art. The illusive ‘story’ is what you see, feel and realize. The movie can take you so far and one brings in his or her own investment into the art – together you experience art. What works for one might not work for another. This is the beauty of art as opposed to science… there is not a right form of art nor a wrong form of art.
Happy Musings !
Miss! on direction, dialogue; Hit! on carving complex characters, actors.
“I have brought my girl back! You owe me that single malt!” – The Mani that meets our expectations, the one that stands up to his past glorious film making, owns this scene. It’s a pity it is only one scene in 2hrs and 20mts. As 30yr. olds today don’t know the Balachander or Balu Mahendra from the 70s and 80s, my 13 and 11yr. olds may not know the Mani Ratnam from the 2000s.
Perhaps we lost hope in the first 15mts. Wasn’t that jeep that close to the edge of the cliff and presumably took a bad hit when the truck slammed in? It was after all an open jeep (airbags, seat belts). VC looks critical but we are confused about the 24hr time period. The bandage comes off, patient is moved about (even lifted to remove the bandage, propped up) – doesn’t seem to make sense to the layman with minimal ward experience.
The movie didn’t flow through as calmly as the emerald waters of the snow region. The scenes didn’t pull off as jagged as the mountains yet breathtakingly beautiful in what was captured against those peaks and valleys. Mani usually does that. His expertise is in weaving stories in to stories. I have to agree with critics before me when they said it was simple film making.
Two words – “VC”, “please”.
Were these the two most used words in the movie? We get the message from these two words but too little for a movie with a Bharathiyaar quoting protagonist. The beauty of Thamil eloquence that we yearn for is definitely beginning to slide off the tongues of Mani’s last few heroines. Language is abrupt and the accent distracting when required to couple with a powerful performance.
As with every movie that Mani makes, he takes risks and I stand up to applaud such courage! I think he carved two very complex characters for this movie. This is about two strong personalities, both self-centered and faulty. Both unto themselves. Both seeking to fulfill the love in their own hearts, building egos to meet their needs. Both did not sacrifice for the other; they suffered to save themselves and their egos. VC will always be the same in my eyes. Manipulative, drawing strength from loud emotions and drama when the fear of failure strikes him. Dr. Leela, her needs swift and strong as the mountain winds, unable to control her desires, walking down the path of abuse again and again…. falling prey to praise.
This is what Mani may want us to take from the movie. What moulds these characters?
While in his past movies we have seen strong female characters, with capabilities not necessarily gained by a formal education, in this movie, every female character possessed an above average education but lacked the maturity and courage to stand up for themselves. To those that see this portrayal of women as Manis fault, I say, this is his wake up call. As he did show the lack of tolerance in Bombay, the lack of appreciation in Guru, the lack of knowledge in Anjali, this movie is a wake up call to recognize the lack of respect still prevalent amongst us.
Karthi and Aditi, you are two brilliant actors. I have no doubt in your potential.
The two talented actors didn’t need the enlarged pupils and dilated eyes so much! What’s with that Mani sir? Surely you saw the ridiculousness of that in those frames?
I would like to believe the movie was about two complex human beings, but my favourite movie maker put me in doubt even with my interpretation of the message in this movie.
I guess all I can do this time around is sit back and enjoy the songs, the excellent acting by the supporting cast, the attention to (some) small details, the natural beauty of the places and the MIGs!