Over the years, Mani Ratnam has given us the most beautiful love stories, be it Mouna Ragam or Alaipayuthey or OK Kanmani or Roja or Bombay or Dil Se. Alaipayuthey and OK Kanmani were romance dramas about a young couple in love and how they navigate the conflicts in their relationship. On the other hand, Roja, Bombay and Dil Se were political thrillers infused with a love story. In Kaatru Veliyidai, Mani Ratnam moves away from both these genres of love and romance and explores a different shade of love, one that is more complex. He explores a relationship that seems romantic at first but becomes toxic as it progresses. If one delves deeper, one notices that the filmmaker also explores love as a form of redemption.
In the first few minutes of the film, we are introduced to Leela (Aditi Rao Hydari) amidst the snow capped mountains while the melodious 'Vaan Varuvan' (is he the sky, who will come to me) plays in the background. Mountains evoke a feeling of spiritual elevation and in this scene, it symbolises Leela's romanticism and her belief in fate and destiny. The very next scene introduces us to VC (Karthi). We see him speeding a jeep and then turning it at the edge of a cliff. The way he grins and calls it a perfect landing, one immediately knows that it's not confidence but arrogance. The opening scenes thus introduce us to them both.
The first time Leela sees VC, he is in a miserable condition and needs to be saved; the first time VC sees Leela, it's more like a dream for him since he is in a subconscious state. She is persistent in asking him if he can hear her but he does not respond and lies subconscious on the bed. The shot of Leela's reflection in VC eyes as it opens and closes is like their on-off relationship. Even in their relationship, she is the one looking out for him and calling out his toxic behaviour while he remains unaware of his narcissism and, in her words, either treats her like a queen or walks over her. There are so many ways of showing a person trying to wake up another person but the scene is choreographed in a way that it not only tells us about that moment but also makes a larger point about their relationship. It enhances both our experience of viewing the film and our understanding of the characters.
The film starts as a conventional love story. So you have VC flirting with Leela, them singing and dancing to Rahman's lovely 'Azhagiye' and 'Saarattu Vandiyila'. After the honeymoon period, cracks begin to appear in their relationship. The first time we notice these cracks is when VC shouts at Leela in front of his family members at a hospital and she is embarrassed. In their next fight, he twists her hand, in front of his colleagues, to stop her and make his point and when she asks him to leave, he pushes her. She is both shocked and embarrassed. While he thinks of it as a mere fight because of difference in opinion, Leela knows that this isn't just a disagreement. This scene introduces us to another shade of the man, his toxic masculinity. He doesn't realise that he has inflicted pain on her. He apologises and Leela comes back to him. He boasts about her coming back to him in front of his colleagues and that they owe him a single malt because he won the bet, thereby making her feel embarrassed and ashamed of herself. Right after this scene, he insists she confess her love. Therefore, in the next scene, when Leela says 'I love you' to him, she is looking down. She is on one side of the mirror while he is on the other side. She can't look at herself in the mirror because she cannot face herself as she is ashamed of the person she has become. She even struggles to look at him because it might remind her of who he is. But after a few seconds, she again forgets everything and they kiss.
When VC forgets to show up at the marriage registrar's office after having proposed the plan to Leela himself, she is heartbroken, but he seems to be casual about it. He is so unaware and caught up with himself that he does not even acknowledge his mistake when Leela confronts him. He holds her from behind without realising that it is making her suffocate, both literally and metaphorically. In another scene, when Leela tells him that she is pregnant, he goes silent for a moment and looks at himself at the mirror. Right after this, when she asks him if he wants to keep the child or not, they are lying on the bed. It is shot beautifully by Ravi Varman from a top angle and is a true depiction of their relationship. While Leela looks at him, he buries his head in the pillow, unable to confront her. Then he turns his head towards her and says that he also imagines having twins, playing with them while they sit on his shoulder and tells her the names he has in mind but is scared that he might be a terrible father and therefore he does not want to keep the child. At this point, both are looking at each other and the moment is symbolic of them falling in love with each other. This scene also reveals another shade of VC. The way he looks into the mirror seems as if he does not like himself and the fact that he tells her that he is unworthy shows that probably deep down he is aware of who he is but is unwilling to confront himself or her. It unsettles us because we always thought that he is probably unaware of his narcissism and chauvinism, but we realise that may be he is aware but is in denial of it. When Leela turns her head away, he keeps looking at her and this is symbolic of what is going to unfold. While she walks away from him, he holds on to her and yearns for her in prison. It is this love, her absence, his ego being shattered after being held captive, and his stay in the prison all by himself, that make him introspect.
In Kaatru Veliyidai, Mani Ratnam moves away from the conventional romance. The film begins like his previous love stories, and so you have the meet-cute, flirting, songs and dance, but ends up exploring a much more complicated relationship. A relationship where one walks the grey path, feeling both loved and suffocated, where love forces you to look at your flaws and makes you introspect, and where there are no easy answers. Why does Leela go back to VC every time? Is she a romantic or is she in denial? What is love? Is it respect? Should love account for respect? Is it possible to love someone and not respect them? Is it possible to love someone and be okay if they disrespect you? Does time really heal wounds? It is easy for us to have an opinion on whether Leela should stay in the relationship or not, or whether she should forgive him or not, but for her, it's most definitely not easy. It is easy for us to shun VC and his redemption, and make moral judgements on the nature of their relationship, but concepts like love, dignity, morality, justice and freedom are indeed ambiguous. In my opinion, the unsettling narrative of the film and the uncomfortable questions it raises about love and relationships are what makes it an unconventional Mani Ratnam love story. It remains his most underrated and under-appreciated film.