Cast: Aishwarya Rajesh, Sathyaraj, Sivakarthikeyan
Director: Arunraja Kamaraj
Stories of triumphant underdogs, especially in sport, have this tendency to pile on clichés. The narrative tends to follows a familiar pattern too: sketching the protagonist's journey that begins on a promising note, skids into a dullness and ends in festive chorus. Kanaa, the story of village girl Kausalya, who aspires to be a cricketer, does fall into that trap but a few competent performances and well-crafted cricket scenes save the film from becoming an entirely middling experience.
Kanaa starts with promise, telling the tale of a cricket fanatic father (Sathyaraj) who makes his daughter, Kousu (Aishwarya Rajesh) sit next to him as he believes her to be lucky for India. When she sees him sobbing after a defeat, she decides to pursue cricket, just so she can bring his smile back. But thankfully, the narrative never gets cushioned in this father-daughter bond. In fact, the part where young Kousu (the younger Aishwarya is brilliant casting) initiates herself into cricket is superbly done. From trying to line up her reluctant classmates, to stealthily watching the boys of a local cricket team on the field, to winning them over with her enthusiasm, there is an authenticity in the way she picks up the game; familiarising herself with the ball, imitating their posture and eventually becoming one among them.
But the film is also about a village, where women are only considered fit to cook and work in the fields. And here is this young girl who is breaking the glass ceiling by entering a predominantly male sport. But this intricacy is missing in the writing. The friction too appears forced and all you get are the village men and woman laughing awkwardly around her parents, dropping hints about their audacious daughter's way of life.
The film starts slipping into stereotypes post interval. The village girl who is judged brutally by the outside world; the fair upper caste girls versus the impoverished local ponnu; Hindi versus Tamil, so on and so forth. Like every Indian sports film, the selectors are greedy, dishonest and unfair. Enter the weakest link —the inspirational manual-cum-coach with a familiar backstory, badly reminiscent of Prabhu Selvaraj of Irudhi Suttru and Kabir Khan of Chak De India. Sivakarthikeyan looks striking but ill at ease. Was there a Dhanush/Madhavan/Vijay hangover?
Throughout the film, the father-daughter story runs on a parallel, riddled with ups and downs. Murugesan is a farmer who struggles after a drought hits their village. Though the issue addressed is of great relevance, the events are predictable and without impact and even tedious for the most part. Sathyaraj's performance at times felt melodramatic. There was something extremely forced about that scene where Murugesan is gazing blissfully at his daughter playing cricket, on TV, and the wife sits back and stares at him.
There isn't much to say about the mother except that she is the typical worried, orthodox mother from a village who angrily storms into the cricket ground and beats her daughter with a bamboo broom. There is a love interest (who looks uncharacteristically like Udayanidhi Stalin, including his acting skills) but the director smartly dodges that cliché with a clever scene.
The cricket scenes were shot with detail and finesse, setting up the fervour and tension in right doses. Though the foreign players, especially the Australians, were turned into caricatures.
From the time she enters the frame, it's clear that Aishwarya Rajesh has internalised Kausalya. It's a character where the actor has clearly contributed more than the writer. Some of her best scenes include: the North Indian player's talking down to her and Kousi who doesn't understand a word, smiles, shakes her head and tries to move forward; her altercations with her mother; the meltdown in the dressing room and the subsequent meeting with her father; and that final speech. All beautifully understated. There is something deeply honest about her eyes. The actor out in the sun, on the field, sweating profusely, pushing herself doggedly, stripping herself of all vanity is a beautiful sight.
If only they gave her credit for what she was worth rather than piggyback on a coach to facilitate her road to glory. That's where Kanaa falters, and that's why Kousu falls short of being truly empowering.