@Nagrathnam once told me that one should make it a point to watch movies made by certain filmmakers , regardless about the feedback they receive or the buzz that is made. ManiRatnam to me is one such filmmaker. His films provoked me to care for his characters , to write about them and made me care about films the way I cared about my books and the people inhabiting their pages.
I caught Kaatru Veliyidai on the first day and loved the film – simply loved it. You see , the Mani Ratnam I knew was going through a change and this had been evident in his films since the late 2000s . You see glimpses of it in Raavan . In Kadal , he was like that butterfly trying to break out of the cocoon. In Kaatru Veliyidai , this new Mani Ratnam is preening through the movie , having gotten rid of the struggle between his past and present selves. I loved the texture of the movie , the context and layers he imparts to his characters and the way he paints a love story we have known and heard about in such a way that we don’t even recognize the original story in the movie – but more to come on it later.
Therefore , I am somewhat taken aback by the vitriol the movie is receiving on social media platforms and elsewhere. Can the audience blame a movie and a moviemaker when it is the audience’s failure to concentrate on the movie and its layers? I don’t know and I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole. So I am going to do what I know best – try and put down my thoughts on the movie and my interpretation of what I derived from the 2 hr 20 mins of screen time. Most people have a problem with how the movie ended so I am going to start with the end. This post is going to be spoiler heavy from this point on , so if you haven’t seen the movie yet , this is where you favorite my post , get off and come back once you have seen the movie.
Leela is a doctor and that makes her pro-life in a way. So she gives birth to Varun’s daughter . However , she doesn’t inform Varun about their child because she does not know if he has changed . She loves him but she does not want her daughter to get affected by his cruel nature. Even when she introduces Rohini to Varun , she goes “This is Varun ” not “This is your Appa” . She is very clear here – I love you , I want you back but not at the cost of my daughter. You do not get to be a father , not yet . Prove yourself to be capable of being a father and a husband mister , and then we shall see if we have a life together.
The movie has a lot of time lapses and the story covers 7-8 years in a couple’s life. Rohini looks to be 7. Varun has endured captivity for 4 years and has been back from captivity for 3 years and in those 3 years he has followed her to every RedCross camp , waiting for Leela to notice him patiently , without intruding on her , with the complete understanding and knowledge that she could have moved on or could be in the process of moving on as he waited. Contrast this to the earlier moments in the film . He barges in on her without giving a single thought to her feelings and moods – at her grandpa’s party and later at his funeral. And here he is coming back every year , waiting for patiently , catching a fleeting glimpse here and there , waiting for her to make a move. Is this not repentance enough? Is there a better way to show how much Varun has changed himself than this? I don’t know .
What I love about the ending is that MR does not spoon feed all of this – this information is there in the dialogue , in the costume , in the body language of the actors. “Tarcheyala” she asks . He shakes his head vehemently and says no and that is when the light bulb goes off inside your head. Varun finding Leela at this camp is not a coincidence or an instance of destiny or fate . He has been dogged in his pursuit and has been following her to every single camp , watching her from the sidelines , knowing that she is alive , maybe content and heck even happy. “Doorathulendhu paakanum” he says. ” En enakku sollala? ” Varun asks and Leela says ” Unakku Rohini Pidikkalena illa enna pidikkalena “and that is when he realizes that his actions has made her doubt his love . She is not confident about her position in his life because he never appeared sincere and did nothing to make her feel secure .
Look at the way this scene is staged . The landscape is dry and dreary like his life and Leela is dressed in a maroon anarkali suit , with the dupatta worn as a ghoongat like a bride , and he does see her as a bride. Chances are Leela has noticed him in the past but ignored him . She sees that he is persistent but he has not intruded and bent her to the force of his will , and she has seen it year after year. Which is why , she decides to approach him that day and talk to him and introduce their daughter and therefore the red anarkali suit is a deliberate choice. When he hugs her and cries at the end , it is for all those years and memories he has lost , it is for the circumstances that had made him a stranger to his daughter and when she hugs him back , you know she still loves him to bits and is happy but that happiness is tinged with Caution . He is sorry and he has changed. Leela has changed too – she is no longer a doormat , one more stunt from him and he is out of their lives. This single sequence in the movie has so many layers , so many subtle nudges and nods weaved into the music , dialogues and costumes that give you a clear idea about what happened in the time jump prior to that scene.
Another pet peeve that has been making the rounds is that we are not told why Varun loves Leela . Why should we know why he loves her and why should it be told clearly? There are clues all over pointing to the when and why. When you see Varun and Leela at the ball – he is gentlemanly , charming and polite. He has heard about Ravi’s sister and his head Ravi’s sister is a class 12 kid who probably wanted to become a doctor. But Ravi died and therefore his sister is still a class 12 kid for Varun. Initially he is flattered by her attention , she is intelligent , looks like an angel and has been in love with him for the longest time . The devotion and love is in her eyes when she looks at him during the flight and then he goes to Leh – where Ravi died , where the memories and guilt chase him for two months until he sees her on that evening , singing Pappihara and wham he realizes he loves her . He has reconciled Ravi’s kid sister with the lovely medico in these two months and he has fallen in love. Fast-forward to that scene set in the snow storm where he says adichu thookittu poven and enakku nee venum. He loves her and hence his true nature has come out. You do not pretend in front of your own and his pretense has come off. Sometimes , shared history and memories are enough to make you fall in love and at times you fall in love because the other person loves you so much. The problem here is that Varun’s thoughts, feelings and memories are left to our imagination. MR wants us to demonize him and despise him and succeeds in it in such a way that we miss these cues when we see the movie. They come back at a later time , when you keep thinking about the movie , about the splendidly set scenes and the dialogues.
Kaatru Veliyidai is also a retelling of the Dushyant – Shakuntala tale , painting Dushyant as the cruel , chauvinistic , abusive and in love male lead who has to redeem himself to get back to his love. The abhijnana shakuntalam beacons are strewn through the movie – Ravi’s letters , Varun standing Leela up at the registrar’s office , the ending and the gandarva vivaha moment in the film ,which is another of my favorites. She is dressed in a Maroon Saree in Nallai , he comes and gets her and that cruel she’s still my gal moment happens and minutes later he is spinning her round and round and round with I love you’s going around , chiseled and captured like pheras.
The movie is filled with many such moments that are immersive and brilliantly crafted with so many layers and contexts. In Kaatru Veliyidai , MR has created a wonderful jigsaw puzzle. He gives us all the pieces to the puzzle in the movie and says there , now you go home and assemble it and get the context – the only caveat being that to assemble this particular puzzle , one must pay a lot of attention to the source picture , get immersed and then think about it a lot. The latter is not a chore as the movie stays with you and refuses to leave your thoughts.
Thank you ManiRatnam. Please keep making more of such films.
P.S. This movie has the best AR Rahman score in ages . I will write another post on it , sometime later.