Kaatru Veliyidai- Of air, style and no substance

The week before the movie’s release, Mani Ratnam’s interviews with almost every film tracking space worth its salt occupied our bandwidth. And every question directed at the auteur was adorned by a “Mani Sir” before it. The reverence is understandable, given the legacy of the man before. The adulation, even more, given that most of the interviewers were from this generation that was raised on a staple diet of his films. We yardsticked our dressing with his heroes. We tweaked our pick up lines to resemble the ones in his movies. The epidemic of monosyllabic enunciation spread from there. Our romantic moments had his songs play in our mind. Our uptight chested respect to disapproving dads drew from his movies. Our idea of classy, cool, romance, respect, revolution were some form of a tip of hat to his sensibilities. It would be safe to assume that Ratnam’s oeuvre not just captured, but fashioned the imagination of an entire generation.
Beyond their social impact, his films have served as case studies for cinephiles in this part of the  world. He was our Kubrick and Scorsese before our sensibilities could gauge their nuances. So Mani Sir, he is!

But the admiration is mostly for his extensive body of work, peach of which stopped a decade before. Have a look at the movies that’ve come in the last decade, barring Guru and OK Kanmani, none managed to resonate with the audience. He’s not someone we valuate in terms of collections or returns, he’s beyond mere commerce. His movies are an experience, more than a source of entertainment. This experience is what has some how not felt overwhelming off late, be it the inconsistent Raavanan( which was more a vanity project to reflect Vikram’s acting chops, if not his moistened triceps.) or the insipid Kadal.

His core constituency has been the tasteful deconstruction of human relations into palatable drama. Often than not, his dramas have had the just-another-person at their core. It’s the portrayal of their idiosyncrasies, shenanigans, justifications to be a certain way that has made them endearing to us. Take for instance Prakash Raj‘s Ganapathy uncle from OK Kanmani, a slow moving septuagenarian who nonchalantly loves his Alzheimer hit spouse with very little fuss. Shining light on the often overseen contours of normalcy has been MR’s strength. Most of his memorable characters have been white or black. That’s why his VC- who exists in the grey in-between -from KV gets lost in translation, much like his Veera from Raavanan. Ratnam writes these characters with truckloads of complexities without a prologue or a back story, that what comes on screen is often than not confusion. Because not just are we expected to muse on his unique creations now, but also to empathize with their quirks without being a part of their beginnings.

It’s not a prerequisite to have a back story. A movie can span across a short time or its central characters can take off from their current state of minds and brew through the course of it’s running time. A plot driven movie like say, Ayutha Ezhuthu can afford to take that path. A character driven movie cannot. We cannot identify with a Velu Nayakar without seeing the anecdotes from his early life. These episodes make him the man he comes to be before us. This is where KV falters. It’s largely a character driven plot with very little happenings than the whirlwind romance between two people, one of whom is a Bharathiyar quoting chauvinist, who practices his misogyny in the garb of romance. To digest his anomalies as they keep coming, while on the go, with no rhyme or reason, is a little too much to expect out of an audience that’s outside one’s own imagination.

We’re supposed to travel with VC’s psychological journey. Partake in his epiphanies. Root for him. Hope for him to change.Yearn for him to get together with Leela. What we instead end up getting invested in are the artifices like his fixation with his aviator glasses, the actor’s apparent weight loss, his grooming and an eternal grimace that says,”freshly minted out of Madras Talkies“. There’s so much posturing, especially involving the lips(to accentuate his debonairness), that it makes Sivaji Ganesan‘s lip concussions look like a smirk.

And what’s with casting a bunch of talented actors in disposable cameos. Seeing actors like Shraddha Srinath and Delhi Ganesh scattered as passing scenery in the main proceedings felt bad. But RJ Balaji as a surgeon walks away with the credits for being the most miscast member of the film, with him not just struggling to act, but to act sophisticated as well.

The deployment of elaborate symbolism(mountains, sky and landscape serve their bit as metaphors) , mirrors as perspective giving devices and the weird positions in which the lead pair strike lengthy conversations come across as avant-garde gimmickery, as they don’t flow organically into the scheme of things. So this shot of Leela and VC lying on a tastefully knit kashmiri carpet, with their outlines being crimson lit as they murmur to the floors, feels like a wallpaper than a scene.

Rahman’s tantalising songs and the serrated score does way more to the movie, than the movie does to it. But that’s been the case for a while now with Ratnam’s outings, where the music serves as an exquisite fresco on the ceiling to distract after the food turns out bad.

Every great creator has a point, from where he chooses to either call it a day or continue ahead to eventually taint his legacy. RGV went beyond that point. Sachin did that in search of an elusive hundredth hundred. We know how those pursuits turned out. Should Mani Ratnam continue further, only time will tell or the ticket sales definitely will. As far as Kaatru Veliyidai(breezy expanse) goes, it seemed like the title was referring to the space above my head- the breezy expanse – where most of the movie went.

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