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Mani Ratnam: A lost magic

 | February 13, 2013

Sadly, many of the established Tamil directors seem to have outlived their creative energy and talent.


Tamil film director Mani Ratnam is in a soup.

His latest work, Kadal or Sea, has run into a huge box-office debacle. The movie opened on Feb 1. Barely two days later, cinemas screening Kadal were not attracting enough people.

The other day, distributors picketed Mani Ratnam’s house demanding that he compensate them for their losses.

The distributors were going by a precedent set by Tamil superstar Rajnikanth. When his Baba and Kuselan flopped, he returned producers’ and distributors’ money. He had to – despite his hundreds of fan clubs and demi-god status.

A Times of India report said that one of the distributors who had bought Kadal for Rs 14 crores for an area in Tamil Nadu could collect only Rs 2.5 crores from ticket sales.

Mani Ratnam has choices though. He could refund the money or adjust distributors’ losses against the amount for a film he would make in the future. But the helmer has to make one very soon.

Sadly, many of the established Tamil directors seem to have outlived their creative energy and talent. They have been unable to come up with something novel.

Mani Ratnam appears to be one of them. And he probably knows that. Was this why he played a low key before Kadal hit the screen?

His bilingual Raavan/Raavanan, which he made just before Kadal, was preceded by a massive publicity campaign. Perhaps this was also necessitated by the presence of Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan in Raavan/Raavanan.

There was a much publicised PR effort at the Cannes Film Festival (where we were told among other things how difficult the actual shoot had been in hostile terrain).

Unfortunately, Raavan/Raavanan collapsed even before they could take their first steps.

Kadal, on the contrary, arrived without much of a roar. Probably, Mani Ratnam felt it was best to release the movie without much ado. This did not work either, disappointing fans and critics.

Not bad and bad

Clearly Mani Ratnam has lost his magic, the magic we saw in Mouna Raagam and Nayagan – both made in the 1980s. Mani Ratnam has not been able to better Nayagan, a take on Godfather and one of Kamal Hassan’s career best efforts. The actor plays a Bombay don, a brilliant portrayal.

Mani Ratnam’s later films have swung between two points: not bad and bad. And those not bad were not really good.

Kadal has two new actors, Gautham Karthik and Thulasi Nair — both children of yesteryear Tamil artists, Karthik and Radha, who interestingly had debuted together in Bharathi Raja’s Alaigal Oivathillai/Waves Never Cease, set in a Christian village, much like Kadal. Also a trimmer Aravind Swamy (once a Mani Ratnam favourite) was on board facing the camera after a hiatus of 12 years.

Photographed by Rajiv Menon – known for his ad-like shots – Kadal’s much talked about scene pertains to an actual storm on the Bay of Bengal, off the Chennai coast. It was Cyclone Nilam, if I am right.

Though the storm sequence pales in comparison to the one I saw in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (which was of course simulated in a gigantic tank in Taiwan), Menon’s camera work is extraordinary, often setting the mood for a story which is swept in sorrow.

Even in those few moments when the narrative manages to pop above the waves, there is a sense of melancholy, which Mani Ratnam in his classic style tries to dispel with exuberantly costumed dance numbers.

The narrative begins depressingly with the death of a prostitute in a fishing village and the travails of her young son, who goes through hunger, humiliation and ostracism before he is taken under the wings of a Christian priest, Samuel (Swamy).

Samuel does more; he not only gets the village church into shape, but also evokes a sense of faith in a community which drinks, swears and kills at will.

But as the movie conveys, the path to true salvation lies through fire, and actor Arjun’s Berchmans nursing a grudge against Samuel tries to destroy the priest. And what better way can there be than setting up the community against Samuel, who is battered, driven away from the village and defrocked.

But the plot strays from what it had initially set out to tell – about good and evil, retribution and forgiving – to accommodate a romance between Thomas (Gautham Karthik) and Beatrice (Nair).

Holes in the script

A trifle forced, even silly it appears. We are foxed when we find that Beatrice despite having the IQ of a two-year old (or something to that effect) is adept as a midwife, handling complicated cases.

She also falls in love with Thomas and sings a couple of songs (one in an exotic costume), that is when she is not playing hop-scotch.

There are other holes in the script, like, for instance, why does Berchmans wait for years to take his revenge against Samuel – and that too after an accidental meeting.

With an average music score by AR Rahman, Kadal ultimately trickles down to some awesome visuals, shot in some of the most beautiful coastal regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Menon uses the sea as a brilliant metaphor to convey the mood of the village as it goes about fishing sometimes on a placid ocean, and at other times, on an angry one.

Yes, Arjun as the “Satan” is riveting, and Swamy as the epitome of goodness holds our attention in parts.  But the lead pair fails to sparkle, unable to evoke the kind of chemistry needed to take the film across the waters.

The business of fishing recedes to the background or, at best, provides fodder for a song and dance, of which there is quite a few, some positively sticking out of the narrative. What is worse, often dialogues are drowned in the intrusive background music, and this gets compounded by the dialect, peculiar to some fishing groups in southern India.

Mani has lost his magic all right.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic. He is also an FMT columnist, and may be contacted at [email protected]


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