P.S.: This is not a review. There’s too much going on in this film for me to talk about it without giving away spoilers.
Before I begin, I’d like to point you to Baradwaj Rangan’s Raavan review and his brilliant book Conversations with Mani Ratnam. I don’t think I would have appreciated Kadal as much as I did if it weren’t for both. I completed the latter on Friday night just in time for the film, and although I do hope to churn out a review, I’d like to digress a bit here to say that there’s nothing better than reading a filmmaker, that too one as accomplished as Mani, deconstruct his own films. What reading the book - and the review - did for me was they made sure I wasn’t caught up in my own expectations of a Mani Ratnam film like I was with Raavanan. I saw the film just for what it was, a unique work of vision from a filmmaker who’s trying to deviate from his own well-beaten path, of which Kadal is just another illustration. And deconstructing the movie was immensely helped by the book remaining fresh in my memories. I was constantly trying to make sense of why Mani framed a scene in a particular fashion or why he chose certain lines or why a character is lit in a specific fashion. I’d be lying if I said all of it made sense, but it was an invigorating process nonetheless.
But first, a gripe, why do trailers have to be so misleading? Why do they have to be put together only for marketing the film? Why can’t a trailer give us exactly what the film is going to be about? Is that too much to ask? If one looks at the trailers and promos of Kadal, one gets the impression that it is going to be a seaside love tale between a young couple. That was my impression after watching the trailer and listening to several songs in A R Rahman’s phenomenal album. But you’d be surprised to know that the film is actually about the battle between good and evil, with Arvind Swamy’s Father Sam Fernando being the former and Arjun’s Bergmans, the latter. Gautham Karthik’s Thomas and Thulasi Nair’s Beatrice are, as Mani Ratnam has pointed out a number of times in the aforementioned book, necessary to the story he is trying to convey, but they are far from the points of focus in it. This was evident in my first-time viewing of the film itself but seeped itself into my subconscious better the second time around, helped immensely by reading, yet again, Baradwaj Rangan’s Kadal review - “Kadal”… Coast analysis - as well as the extremely insightful discussions that have taken place in its comments section.
One aspect of the film that is really going to astound viewers is its overt religious tone. Baradwaj Rangan summed it up aptly in his review, “But really, Mani Ratnam and God. Who would’ve thought?” My mother told me something eerily similar when we got home after watching the film, “There’s a lot of religion in the film.” These reactions shouldn’t surprise people as one sitting with Kadal is going to give this away. Bergmans is most often seen dressed in black and keeps uttering lines like, “Naan Saathaan Le…” and is constantly found referring to himself as the physical embodiment of Satan/Evil. Sam is, of course, the embodiment of God/Good, and when he’s around, you know there’s a cross to be found somewhere nearby. Beatrice, like most angels, is almost always clad in heavenly white. Thomas can be seen in all shades in-between. And what can I say about those crosses, whether it be the huge one outside a church or a small one seen on the bow of Thomas’ motorboat or another seen on the hull of Bergmans’ ship towards the end. Religious imagery abound, it felt to me as if Mani couldn’t go through a couple of scenes without assaulting us with them.
Leaving all the subtext aside for a moment, I’ve always maintained that you can mine underneath the film only if what is presented on-screen grabs your attention. To this effect, my parents accompanied me to my second-time viewing of the film. Their one-line review when we reached home, “We liked the film a lot except for the climax.” The climax is something we’ll get to later, but these are the same people who said Mani had probably lost his touch when they came out of our Raavanan viewing. My dad got the good vs evil subtext, but he wouldn’t have been so engrossed in the film if it wasn’t for the effectiveness of the drama. And who are we kidding! Drama is Mani Ratnam’s forte. It is where he has repeatedly staked his claim as King of the throne. Even in the book, Baradwaj Rangan refers to him as primarily a relationships director, and Kadal is yet another example of why Mani Ratnam is peerless in Indian cinema when it comes to painting a picture of humans in all their vivid shades on-screen.
And what relationships they are. Son/mother - The film opens in tragic fashion with the mother’s death and the son being left stranded, but this relationship is constantly referenced throughout. Son/father - Although it is never made clear whether Chetti (Ponvannan) is actually the father - and we can make an educated guess that he isn’t - he is the first father figure for Thomas, and theirs is a constantly strained relationship. Protegé/Mentor - The lynchpin of Kadal and delivered in two forms with Thomas tutored in the path of good by Sam and evil by Bergmans. This forms two parallels in the first and second halves. And finally Thomas and Beatrice. This cannot be termed a romance in any sense (and once again, I am forced to refer to the misleading promos), but Thomas is given his redemption by Beatrice, and it comes via one of my personal favorite sequences in the film.
Beatrice, when called on to deliver a baby in one of the communities, uses Thomas’ boat for transportation, and he decides to accompany her when they reach the destination. Once there, she finds that there are complications and asks his help in delivering the baby. It is an instance where every aspect of Kadal comes together. There’s religious imagery in various forms. There’s Rajeev Menon’s lenswork which is truly exquisite. A R Rahman uses a slower version of the outstanding Anbin Vaasalile… which signals this as the moment where Thomas, who’s been flirting with both God and Satan for much of the film, recognizes His magnificent handiwork. Thomas, who has mostly used his hands for Satan’s acts and witnessed blood only for destruction, for the first time, through Beatrice, uses them for giving birth, for creating life. It wouldn’t far off to say that, in a sense, he is being reborn in this scene. Or would that be reading too much into the film, something which Mani Ratnam himself has said he is averse to. But isn’t it wonderful to have a film that gives us too much to read into rather than nothing at all.
And that is what leads us to the climax. First time around, I was extremely disappointed that Mani, who had chosen to dissociate himself from the mainstream for the better part of the film, steered the film to a somewhat predictable conclusion. The fight sequence set in a literal storm. Bergmans not having the heart to finish off his daughter in a sequence where he recognizes his own weaknesses. And finally the clichéd hospital scene where Thomas “cures” Beatrice. (I was left wondering how Beatrice arrived here in the first place.) That entire sequence did not work for me. On the second viewing, I came away with a more favorable opinion of the fight sequence (Thomas saving Bergmans, thereby redeeming him from the depths he has sunk to), though the tying up of threads was still a bit unsatisfying.
Another aspect where Kadal came up short was in the picturization of A R Rahman’s marvelous songs. Adiye…, for instance, made no sense to me at all. It was strikingly picturized, but I just couldn’t see how the song made sense within the narrative of the film. Mani Ratnam constantly says in the book that that is what he’s always tried to do, but I simply couldn’t see how Adiye… fit into the rest of the film. The duets (Nenjukkule… and Moongil Thottam…) were also used in a straightforward fashion. Although it is interesting to note that, as pointed out by a commenter in Baradwaj Rangan’s blog, Nenjukkule… does read as if it was written for the Arjun/Lakshmi Manchu pair. Magudi… is used twice at the beginning of the first and second halves, both times to compress a long timeline into a single song. The first time with Thomas’ growing up, the second with his growth as a gangster. I didn’t rate this song too highly when I heard the album, but it was actually very effective on-screen. Chithirai Nila… is a soothing melody that is used a bit overbearingly at times.
It never ceases to amaze me the performances Mani Ratnam is able to extract from his actors. Gautham’s performance belies the fact that this is his feature debut. There are a number of scenes where his emotions are palpable. For instance, notice the rage in his eyes as he stands over his “father” with a knife in his hand after a fight. But I have to say that he does come up short in some of the heavy scenes, hardly a negative seeing as this is his first film. (It would be unfair to omit the performances of child actors as young Thomas, once again demonstrating that Mani is truly a master.) Thulasi was effective in most of the scenes, even the ones that have her breaking down. Arvind Swamy has always come up trumps for Mani. But the real scene-stealer was Arjun as the trailer had already shown us. Bergmans was a role that suited him to the letter T, and he has made the most of it, even making lines like “Naan Saathaan Le…” work with the way he has delivered them; a riveting performance indeed.
It will be fascinating to see where Mani Ratnam goes from here. Word-of-mouth for Kadal isn’t very positive, and it looks like he has another Raavanan on his cards. For a filmmaker who’s always juggled mainstream expectations and artistic sensibilities effectively, both his recent films have veered towards the latter while conceding considerable ground on the former. (Although as I’ve noted earlier in the review, Kadal is very effective on its own as a human drama.) Nevertheless, wherever Mani chooses to go with his next film, I’ll be eagerly awaiting it with box seat tickets.
- Banner image used falls under fair use and taken from Wikipedia