Director: Prabu Solomon
Like the recent Thaen, Kaadan is a film about protecting nature (elephants, specifically) from overdevelopment. It’s also about the government’s apathy to environmental issues. But, really, it’s a tear-jerker. It begins with a bird’s eye view of the canopy over Sengiri hills and never zooms down to specifics.
Take the introduction scene for Virabharathi aka Kaadan (Rana Daggubati). We don’t see him running triumphantly around the forest singing a song about birds. Instead, we see him just observing the jungle. Kaadan doesn’t want control, he only wants to belong to nature. But, abruptly, the film stops tracking him for a period. It becomes a narrative about apathy and corruption in government bureaucracy. We are introduced to the ‘Forest Man of India’ only to abandon him and shift to events in Delhi.
Without knowing what makes Kaadan tick, we run the risk of judging him as a madman (as it actually happens in the film). We identify with his ideology of environmentalism, but we are too different (he’s a guy who has given up electricity to live with nature!). While we believe in the issues he does, we don’t especially relate to him as a person.
Later in the film, we do get a bit of exposition that he comes from a family of millionaires that actually owned the woods. Director Prabu Solomon appears to be building the character up without necessarily making him relatable. Even if we weren’t able to relate to Kaadan, we should have been able to relate to his elephants.
The crux of the film is the protection of the elephants’ water source that’s being blocked by the construction of a swanky township. To care about this issue beyond the vague feeling that it’s unfair to the elephants, we need to know them as personally as Kaadan does.
Early on we see names graphically superimposed on the elephants’ foreheads, perhaps to show that Kaadan can identify them individually by name. But we are never shown their unique personalities (Kaadan only talks about it) or how to identify the head elephant of the group (which becomes important later). We are told that they form long-term memories and bonds, but that’s a dry fact from a science book.
You can’t practically care about elephants as a species unless you care about at least one specific elephant. For most of the film, they do little more than walk about as a herd and have heavy objects fall on them. It is only near the climax that we get to see their personalities.
The forest, too, feels like just a backdrop to a conventional story of the struggle between haves and have-nots. We get an inventive fight that happens on top of a tall tree. There’s a sequence that shows elephants visiting a watering hole. For us to feel Kaadan’s pain, we needed to experience more of the forest’s rhythms and the changes that occur after construction begins.
Kaadan is rife with generalizations. All politicians, corporate CEOs, and policemen are written using broad stereotypes. The logo of the corporate company that’s clearing the forest resembles a blue swastika. A turban-wearing godman dances at a party thrown by a politician. Contractors deliberately divert resources away from a medical emergency to placate their bosses.
Rana Daggubati as Kaadan delivers a spirited performance. He models his body language on elephants and makes it look natural. It’s an intensely physical performance: he punches walls, gets really angry and screams, runs towards elephants, runs away from elephants, scales trees, and crosses precarious wooden bridges over running streams. Still, you’d think that the forest has been invested with greater character than Kaadan is by the director because he is reduced to a one-issue messiah in the end.
Because we are always at a certain emotional distance from Kaadan, his elephants, and the forest around them, the film feels like a propaganda flyer that you feel too bad to crumple in the presence of the earnest-looking person who handed it to you.