It has been three years since Mani Ratnam's Kaatru Veliyidai released, bombed, and made a niche for itself on social media, housed between hashtags, and screenshots of the dreamy landscapes, angelic portraits, and editorials wondering about, and defending its failure.
The film is about VC (Karthi), an abrasive fighter pilot, whose emotional abuse pushes his lover Leela (Aditi Rao Hydari), a fragile doctor, away. This precedes the Kargil War. Then, in a sudden burst of violence, the war explodes, and VC is taken hostage as a prisoner of war. His relentless exposure to physical violence makes him reconsider the effects of his emotional violence, making him, at first apologetic and reflective, but then proactive, attempting to break free and reach out to Leela; to apologize, and then, to be together, forever.
The failure of the film in some sense, can be attributed to its straddling of two disparate worlds- that of blood and mush- but not making use of either in the way it was intended. The mush here is gory and monotone. The blood is beautiful and life-altering. How do you then make sense of this film?
This lockdown might have the answer. We are all caged in, compressed into spaces we are not used to occupying for such long durations, yearning for the world outside, and its charms that we have now begun to romanticize from our windows. (I think I read a tweet about someone who bought lip-balm at a pharmacy and was moved by the experience) Are there lessons from this film we can take back to the world that opens itself to us soon? (I mean of course, there are the obvious ones: the appreciation for doctors working overtime in war-like situations, the companionship of ascetics and madmen, whom we conventionally consider subaltern, that keep us tethered, the futility of poetry in making us soft, empathetic people, and that Karthi looks demented unshaven- a nice evening shadow really elevated him in our eyes.)
But mostly, watching the film again, I was moved by both the absence of love till the very end and the presence of lust only in words, not deeds. It spoke to the moment we are living through.
The film starts off in monochrome with wide expansive Kargil war-scapes that then morph into tight closeups in tighter spaces- the jail- with dark blues, greys, and reds (blood) saturated. Most colour, and all joy seem drained. Within this captivity, we see the first yearnings for love.
What is it about captivity that makes us rethink the very fundamental assumptions of our life?
And when love is shown, it too starts off with wide white Kashmir snow-scapes that then morph into tight closeups of Aditi Rao Hydari, wearing white too, but with motifs on her salwar of deep, bright colours. We know right away, she is love.
It must be quite apparent to most of us that it is only when we are forced to sit still indoors, do we realize the luxury, and the privilege of freedom, of bobbing tired heads to loud bands in cheap bars. We can ask ourselves if VC wasn't captured, would he have had the change of heart? What is it about captivity that makes us rethink the very fundamental assumptions of our life?
(Of course I am not making a direct comparison of the experience of a prisoner of war to that of us. That would be ridiculous.)
There is nothing that breaks self-centeredness than an experience where you realize how fragile and vulnerable to death and decay the self actually is. (Think of how cocky VC is in the beginning as he swerves the car over a cliff, confident in his powers to keep himself alive. Then think of his powerless scream in the prison) When VC first encounters Leela after years of searching for her, post his escape from prison, the first thing he does is ask about her. (In previous scenes, pre-Kargil, VC is seen to be the man who loves only himself, sees the world as one that revolves around his impulses, his demands) Has VC's abrasiveness leaked away with all that blood he bled in prison? Has it made him fall in love with the idea of Leela more than Leela herself? Will he remain loyal, kind, and caring?
Of course, this tweet is funny, but it also puts into perspective who we have become over this lockdown. Humans are social beings, who only can grow and become in the company of others growing and becoming. But will this love for company remain? Or will we relapse into our indignant selves after a month of heaving, and sighing, telling people we love them, when honestly, we probably just missed them. Love will be mis-characterized. Or perhaps that is the character of love, to be felt only when missed.
For a film that is insanely suggestive of sex, Kaatru Veliyidai is almost asexual in its portrayal of lust. It's almost as if the sexual dynamics between VC and Leela would be too much on top of the brute dynamics that is already so disconcerting to watch. (There is a small moment in the song 'Vaan' when Leela puts her head on VC's feet as he launches her head upwards, I cringed. If this is the clothed fantasy I don't want to know what the fantasies without clothes would entail.) We are told that they have had sex only when Leela tells him that she is pregnant.
A small note on the suggestiveness. The entire song 'Saarattu Vandiyila' is a goldmine of innuendo with midnight sweat and the man shattering the bangles symbolic of virginity, and her emerging disheveled from the bed to be draped in a new sari. I really don't need to further explain the lyric "In the pearl spray of the waterfall, the temptress sways intoxicated." It almost gives a whole new twist on the song 'Pudhu Vellai mazhai' from Roja. (The new, white, downpour)
But what's really cool is the situation the song is sung in- during a wedding of a knocked up couple. (Ironic also, because her virginal bangles are long broken, so to speak) You don't need social sanctions like marriage to be able to lust. Both females, Leela and VC's sister-in-law got knocked up before marriage. There isn't much hoo-ha about that. Ratnam's universe frees lust from marriage (something he also did in OK Kanmani without the procreation angle).
You don't need social sanctions like marriage to be able to lust.
But that's all the lust there is- quarantined to only the lyrics and bulging bellies. It's almost as if the performance of lust is more important than the staging of lust. And I can't help but think of this given the state we are in. A quick peek into the social media wormhole shows the shooting up of Only Fans subscribers (where you can post risque videos for paid subscribers to watch, almost changing the landscape of sex-work and porn), promises of photos across shady apps, the cheering of pro-abstinence figures while text messages degenerate into smut. All we have got now is the performance of lust, without it actually materializing because… social distancing.
Similarly performing compassion seems to be given more importance than compassion itself in the film. VC is a prolific Bharathiar fan, quoting his beauty frequently while being brutish. It shows, like I mentioned, that poetry perhaps doesn't warm people up as much as experience does. But in that moment of poetry, we swoon, only to forget. The ephemeral swoons keep us going, perhaps, hoping for a greater moment. The only fans accounts keep us tethered to a possibility of experiencing lust eventually. So here is Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian revolutionary poet, who wrote of love and violence, often in the same breath. If VC knew Arabic, he would spout these lines (translated here), as he pushed love away.
"She says, when are we going to meet?
I say, after a year and a war
She says, when does the war end?
I say, when we meet."
Are you swooning? Don't worry. This won't last.