Director: Mani Ratnam
Cast: Karthi, Aditi Rao Hydari, RJ Balaji, Shraddha Srinath
A few minutes into Mani Ratnam's Kaatru Veliyidai (Breezy Expanse), an IAF pilot named VC (Karthi) drives his jeep across a hideously twisted mountain road in Srinagar. Beside him is a girl he's probably interested in. She asks if he'll marry her. He says – in that smile-inducing, Mani Ratnam-esque way – he will, but after the birth of their first child.
This is the textbook example of a character introduction scene. We see that VC is a flamboyant, reckless stud. He's a show-off. He's a bit of a cad as well. He doesn't take love seriously (or maybe he isn't ready for it). He isn't too bothered about endangering someone else's life (or maybe he's super-sure there's no possibility of danger with him at the wheel). At the end, we see, through the rear-view, a truck approaching. So much has happened, and yet this is all the person seated behind me had to say about the scene: "Mirror shot."
Every auteur keeps revisiting –and more importantly, reshaping – pet themes, tropes, obsessions. Their films are, in a sense, a kaleidoscope. Each time, the pieces yield a new pattern. Many of the pieces in Kaatru Veliyidai are recognisable. For instance, that mirror shot. The fall from great heights. The fuck-you to a father figure. The back-and-forth, Alaipaayuthey-like search for love. (Like that film's heroine, this one, named Leela and played beautifully by Aditi Rao Hydari, is a doctor.) That unique cultural landscape that embraces Ghantasala as well as tango, meen kuzhambu (fish stew) as well as chopsticks. Kaatri veliyidai kannamma by Subramanya Bharathi as well as Bol re papihara by Gulzar.
The pattern, again, is familiar – Kaatru Veliyidai is a romance – but only in the broadest sense. With our other romantic auteurs, you know how the pieces of the kaleidoscope will fall into place. With Sanjay Leela Bhansali, you know it's going to be a variation on doomed, obsessive, wrist-slitting love. With Imtiaz Ali, you expect free-floating love that spans spaces and time. A Mani Ratnam romance is harder to pin down. Sometimes, it's a boy-girl love story. Sometimes, it's man-woman. Marriage and children are often involved.
The movie is about VC's odyssey, the physical journey back to Leela after war separates them (the film is set in 1999, during the Kargil conflict), and the psychological journey from who he is to who she wants him to be
Kaatru Veliyidai is a spin on the abusive relationship between Inba/Shashi that formed a third of Aaydha Ezhuthu (Lallan/Shashi in the Hindi version, Yuva.) It's a can't-live-with-you, can't-live-without-you story mounted on an epic scale – not just in the sense that one of VC-Leela's many meetings is framed against mountains, earth and sky, as if it's just them and Nature, but also because the story is reminiscent of Ulysses making his way back to Penelope. The movie is about VC's odyssey, the physical journey back to Leela after war separates them (the film is set in 1999, during the Kargil conflict), and the psychological journey from who he is to who she wants him to be.
The "who he is" is easily the most fascinating aspect of the film. Karthi, with his lopsided grin, looks positively cruel at times. His father calls him "mental," and he looks demented in his close-ups. Someone calls VC selfish, self-centred, arrogant. You could also call him a borderline prick, a narcissistic, chauvinistic caveman who says things like "Aambala vera, pombala vera." (Men and women are different.) He doesn't say "I love you" or "I'm sorry." He says "I love you, I love you, I love you," or "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." It's as though he's clubbing Leela over the head with his emotions.
In a stunning scene in the second half – the smooth-flowing but not exactly gripping first half is mostly set-up; the dramatic highs are saved for later – VC catches Leela's arm as she is walking away and twists it. His smile suggests he's being playful, but you get the sense he's secretly enjoying inflicting this pain, that he's getting off on the power he wields over her.
In another terrific scene – though it's horrific when you consider what really happens – VC woos Leela with AR Rahman's exquisitely tuned Nallai allai. He's been, as usual, an asshole, and this is his way of an apology. She's drawn to him as though by a siren call. She says he cannot treat her like a pet dog, but she's unable to turn away. They end up driving to the air force quarters, where he boasts to his friends, "See, I told you she'd come back." You think he'd be relieved she's forgiven him, happy that she's back. Instead, he's boasting, as though he's won a bet.
The layers keep coming off. He's impulsive (he suggests they get married). He's inconsiderate (he forgets). But he's also scared of repeating his father's mistakes. Is he fit for marriage? Is he fit to be a parent? And then we get a glimpse of why he is this way. When a fellow fighter pilot talks about the "other side" being people like them, he snaps that this is Kargil, not the Kurukshetra. Their job isn't to empathise. It's to eliminate the enemy. Perhaps VC has been trained a little too well on the job. If he sees that Leela is in danger of heading into a snowstorm, he will try to rescue her, with brute force, rather than try to reason with her into coming away with him.
Leela is the opposite, a romantic to whom a snowstorm isn't something you need to be rescued from but something you head into because it's so beautiful. If VC's signature accoutrements are his cocky Aviator glasses, hers are dainty droplet earrings. She's all delicate grace, and someone who believes in destiny.
The epic nature of this romance is furthered by the fact that Leela sort-of fell in love with VC even before she met him, when she was a star-struck schoolgirl. It's as though they were… destined for each other. It's destiny that made him skip a fatal sortie, so he could now be with her. Heck, it's destiny that she landed up in Srinagar the exact day he had an accident, so she could tend to him, cradling him in her arms as his bandages come off.
The biggest challenge Kaatru Veliyidai throws at us is to buy this beauty-and-beast dynamic. In other words: Why does she put up with him? This question is voiced by VC's friend (RJ Balaji, squirming in a serious role), and he gets the answer that it's love. Leela herself says she doesn't know why she keeps returning to VC. So yes, in our heads we know love isn't logical, but the film needs to convince us about this particular instance of illogical love. It doesn't.
And the biggest problem in Kaatru Veliyidai is that we don't sense the progression of the VC-Leela relationship. Post Iruvar, Mani Ratnam has grown increasingly impatient with conventional story and character arcs, but when the protagonist is this unconventional, we need some more scenes where we see him falling in love, being in love – and not just because she's, as he keeps saying, beautiful. Because the VC-Leela relationship is so fraught, we never understand why he thinks she's The One. (She's a romantic, so it's easy to see why she'd refuse to let go.)
Like some of Mani Ratnam's recent films, Kaatru Veliyidai feels abstracted, as though there was an entire story and then pages were ripped off and now it's up to us to join the dots in our head
And without this, VC's transformation (and Karthi's performance graph) is something we're asked to treat as a given. The emotion we seek is in the lines in Nallai allai: "When I looked for you in the skies, you were at the bottom of the sea / When I dived into the ocean, you slipped into the sky." But this feeling doesn't spill over into the scenes. We don't feel VC's yearning, because even when captured by the enemy and thrown into jail (these scenes are quite generic), he isn't exactly… yearning. His words suggest that he is, but somehow they don't build up to the grand romance that must have been on paper. The end, especially, feels rushed. An entire movie can be made from where VC and Leela are at that point. We get one scene.
Like some of Mani Ratnam's recent films, Kaatru Veliyidai feels abstracted, as though there was an entire story and then pages were ripped off and now it's up to us to join the dots in our head. Put differently, those of us who are fans have had to renegotiate our relationship with Mani Ratnam's films. In the Mouna Raagam days, it was unabashed love. Now, the feeling is like his films: a little less obvious, a little more complicated.
It's coming to terms with the fact that the director is in his mature phase (the odd OK Kanmani notwithstanding), and that he is trying to mainstream complex narratives (and characters) – something like what David Lean did with Doctor Zhivago. Compared to Kaatru Veliyidai, a similar love-in-the-time-of-war story like Roja feels so simplistic. The Arvind Swamy character was two words: a cryptographer, a patriot. VC, in comparison, is a Russian novel.
And it's the scenes. We've seen so many "I'm pregnant" moments, but how many with this kind of subtle eroticism? We've seen so many "I love you" scenes, but how many so resigned, so tentative that there's actually a barrier between the couple? We've seen many chirpy love songs, but how many, like Azhagiye, infuse the yes-or-no question from the lyric into the subsequent stages of the relationship, like marriage, like having a baby?
Even the director's legendary cinematography is more… mature. Yes, Ravi Varman does outstanding work, and yes, he gives some wow! shots with the reds of Holi, the whites of snowy expanses, the appearance of Leela in VC's eyes. (It's literally eye-popping.) But most of Kaatru Veliyidai is like the scene where Leela is humming as she makes her grandfather some tea, and she hears the sound of planes, and she steps out, and gazes up at the planes silently, and resumes humming as she re-enters the house, in what appears to be one unbroken shot. It's pure storytelling. As a movie, Kaatru Veliyidai leaves you wanting, but as cinema, very little can come close to it.
Watch the trailer here: