Director: Mani Ratnam
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Aishwarya Rajesh, Aditi Rao Hydari, Prakash Raj, Jayasudha, Arvind Swami, T.R. Silambarasan
In the days leading to the release of Mani Ratnam's Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (Crimson Red Sky), there was hot speculation that the gangster drama was a reworking of Kalki Krishnamurthy's historical fiction, Ponniyin Selvan. That turns out to be true, somewhat. The ailing monarch, Sundara Cholan, becomes a don named Senapathi (Prakash Raj), "the most powerful man in the city," who's bedridden after an assassination attempt. The open-shirted, hairy-chested machismo of Senapathi's son, Varadan (Arvind Swamy), brings to mind the hot-tempered Aditya Karikalan. The boatwoman Poonguzhali, who ferried Arulmozhi Varman from Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu, becomes a Sri Lankan Tamil named Renu (Aishwarya Rajesh) — her first scene has her in a boat. Arulmozhi Varman was Sundara Cholan's second son, and his equivalent — Thyagu (a stylish Arun Vijay) — is whom Renu/Poonguzhali is married to. (And Sri Lanka becomes Dubai.) And Vandiyathevan, Aditya Karikalan's friend who has a secret or two up his sleeve, becomes Varadan's friend, Rasool (Vijay Sethupathi). So on, so forth.
The story, too, is a similar Game-of-Thrones construct — but with the women (schemers like Nandini, innocents like Kundavai) out of the picture. And instead of who gets to be king, the question becomes who wanted Senapathi out of the picture. (Silambarasan plays Senapathi's third son, Ethi) It's a strong setup — but the first half is utterly generic, giving us very little that was not in the trailers. Apart from the four male leads, the characters are quite generic, too. Chitra (Jyothika) is Varadan's through-thick-and-thin wife. Parvati (Aditi Rao Hydari) is Varadan's mischievous mistress. The character seems to have been written in to bring about a parallel between father and son (Senapathi was unfaithful, too), but she adds nothing to the movie. Chhaya (Dayana Erappa), who is Ethi's girlfriend/wife, is essentially a chalk outline, albeit a very fetching one. Senapathi's wife, Lakshmi (Jayasudha), gets a little more texture — a bit of confusion while waving goodbye to her sons (after she learns something about them), and a Thalapathy-lite moment with Ethi, who feels he never got the mother's love he deserved. But it's all swept away in a sea of testosterone.
There's nothing inherently wrong about a movie being male-centric. The problem is that these men — though strong on screen — aren't very well-defined. Thiagarajan turns up as a rival gangster, but the character is so dispensable that his name could have been Chekka Chivantha Herring. There's a very funny moment when Senapathi wonders, aloud, what will happen after his death, and all three sons freeze, all ears — but save for an early prank at an airport, the relationship between the brothers is very sketchy. It's hard to make out who means how much to whom, and this becomes increasingly important as Varadan, Thyagu and Ethi turn on each other — without a before, the after doesn't resonate as much. As for Rasool, Vijay Sethupathi keeps things light and "massy" in his trademarked style — he's wonderful to watch. But given the (underwhelming) revelations about the character at the end, it's impossible to reconcile the man we were made to think Rasool is and the man he really is.
I am not asking for emotion, to walk away feeling something. I just wanted a connect
Thinking back, some of the lines in the first half round out some of the latter developments. Rasool, in a voiceover describing crime in Chennai, says, "Pudhusa kettavargal pirandhu vandhu pudhu pudhu kuttrangal seyyaraanga." (It's an evocative line.) The sentiment colours his character in an unexpected manner. Jayasudha remarks to her husband, "Ellaarayum vekkara edathula thaane vechirukkeenga," that he — emotionlessly — has kept each one of his sons in their place. The sentiment colours Varadan's resentment. So on, so forth. But this is too broad a movie for these dainty ellipses. It's like feeding a lion grass. We yearn for juicy, chekka chivandha slabs of meat. There's always something exciting going on, but you don't feel the excitement because everything, everyone is at a remove. I am not asking for emotion, to walk away feeling something. Many great films are cold films. I just wanted a connect.
One reason this connect is missing is the structure. As always, Mani Ratnam (who has also co-written this film, with Siva Ananth) keeps looking for new ways to tell stories within the constraints of mainstream cinema. The experimentation, in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, is primarily in terms of scene structure and the use of AR Rahman's songs. The scenes are ultra-short, and even potentially longer scenes — like Renu's house being invaded by mysterious men while Ethi and Thyagu are having a conversation — are cross-cut, to give the impression of momentum. These fragmented bits and pieces are sometimes entertaining on their own, but they don't cohere into a satisfying big picture. There's no connective tissue, no distinctive moments of characterisation. I thought of the wife's death in Nayakan — she's gunned down while leaning out of a window. A similar death here — superbly shot and cut (Sreekar Prasad is the editor) — gives us a physical jolt but not the emotional connect that would make us root for revenge.
These fragmented bits and pieces are sometimes entertaining on their own, but they don't cohere into a satisfying big picture
Which brings me to the songs. One way to infuse this emotional connect is through a song featuring "relationship moments". Here, all songs are chopped up and used in bits and pieces — they're as fragmented as the scenes. In Thalapathy, Sundari was used as a love song, so when its refrain plays over the lovers' parting, much later, we make the then-versus-now connect instantly. In Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, there are no such "associations" with the songs. They erupt out of nowhere. The bits keep coming relentlessly, and the effect is overkill. Between the clipped scenes and the background song clips, it's like watching a six-hour saga reduced to music-video highlights.
Even the legendary Mani Ratnam flourishes (Santosh Sivan is the cinematographer) are in short supply. A mirror is wheeled in front of a man whose back is to us, but it's not the intro shot of a major character. The tease is amusing. But otherwise, the staging is not complemented by the setup. In Iruvar, when two men on different levels of a building were talking to each other, it indicated a power equation. A similar scene here just says "cool shot." Other times, the energetic staging fails to hide the fact that there's very little reason for the scene to exist. I'm thinking of Ethi barging into Rasool's house looking for Varadan, and following it up with another scene looking for Varadan in Parvati's house. These cat-and-mouse games need more slyness, more wit.
Through the film, I kept wondering if my fondness for Mani Ratnam's recent stabs at poetry, however flawed they were, was making me flinch from these two-and-a-half hours of hardboiled prose. Or was the disconnected series of "punch" scenes (say, Ethi's intro in a Jeep, with Chhaya standing next to him) a deliberate dig at the audience, the way Balu Mahendra raised a middle finger with Neengal Kettavai, saying, "If this is what you want, then this is what you'll get." Because, otherwise, it's hard to shake off memories of Aaydha Ezhuthu, how well that multi-character story played out, and how jumpy this narrative is, with motivations and aftermaths of acts glossed over as though they meant nothing. So many characters disappear into thin air (again, what is Aditi Rao Hydari doing in this movie?) or die in unmemorable ways. A bullet in a character must give us a punch in the gut. Otherwise, it's just an action scene, not drama.
So many characters disappear into thin air (again, what is Aditi Rao Hydari doing in this movie?) or die in unmemorable ways
As with Kamal Haasan's writing, Mani Ratnam's partially stylised dialogue — with its staccato rhythms — needs actors who can pull it off. Only a few in this cast manage it. Gowtham Sundararajan nails a small part as Rasool's superior officer. He makes a stylised phrase ("oru chinna criminal ulagam") his own. It sits just right in the scene. Not all of Arvind Swamy's lines work, but his argument with Thyagu on the phone while performing a ritual — a classic Mani Ratnam setup — is brilliant, and he gets a great breakdown scene towards the end. (I do wish it had been better built up to, though.) Aishwarya Rajesh is lovely in a small moment where she expresses her anger to Thyagu. And Silambarasan is terrific. I love the look he throws at the minister who officiates his wedding. (I can't define the look, but I love it.) In another affecting bit, Chhaya asks him if he'll take her home to his folks. He pauses two beats and says, "Ippo venaam." (Not now.) I wanted to get into the heads of this man, his brothers, their wives and love interests. Maybe it's more fun imagining Chekka Chivantha Vaanam as a ten-part Netflix series. That way, we really will know what Aditi Rao Hydari is meant to be doing.