Mani Ratnam has been showing a distinct slide in his past few films, of the sort which forces us to acknowledge that he may have shot all his bullets, and has a near-empty barrel now, which he sandpapers over with gorgeous vistas (the cinematography is breath-taking), and marvelous songs and dances ( the choreography is terrific).
‘Kaatru Veliyidai’, which loosely translates as ‘breezy expanse’, checks all the Mani Ratnam boxes we’ve loved and obsessed over, over the years. Every frame is sheer poetry. His leading lady is the epitome of fragile beauty, with just the right degree of virginal smoulder, which kindles only for her lover. His leading man is flawed but knows that his ardour is enough to win his lady over.
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Ratnam’s melding of politics and pleasure in his movies has always been a tricky balance, and in parts of his well-known trilogy—‘Roja-Bombay-Dil Se’—there have been a series of sweet spots when it comes together with a degree of flair and colourful conviction.
So, how is it like to be in love with someone like that? Ask Leela, the girl who’s had a thing for VC since school (she heard about the star pilot from her brother). We soon learn that it’s easier to fall in love with VC than to stay in love with him. Describing his mood swings she says, “Nee enna rani pola madhikire, illena kizha potta midhikire (either you hail me like a queen or trample all over me).
VC hails from a dysfunctional family and his abusive nature, we’re told, is something he’s inherited from his father. See how beautifully we’re shown how VC’s touch and embraces feel like it’s suffocating Leela. Ultimately, when he chooses to play God again it is because he fears he might become just like his father.
So when the missile strikes, it isn’t just his aircraft that’s grounded. It’s his ego too. As he makes his way back home, what we’re witnessing is his journey to selflessness.
When the writing is that good, one also wishes every scene had come together in the heart as well as it does in the head. There’s something about Karthi’s performance that just didn’t work — the way he rolls his eyes and the scene where he confronts her parents were especially jarring.
There are reasons why Kaatru Veliyidai is certainly no classic. But when you leave the theatre with a lump in your throat, you remember how your love for this director doesn’t arise merely because he makes you smile. He does so much more than that.
Long indulgent takes, lingering glances, urgent dialogues, postcard frames – Ratnam’s movies are in the moments. The throwbacks are unmissable, there’s Alaipayuthey in the one open eye of a man coming back to life, Roja where he stays alive in captivity with the memories of his lover. Aditi Rao Hydari’s eyes do all the talking, her performance packs a gentle caress instead of a punch and Karthi simmers as the schizophrenic hero. Supporting cast RJ Balaji, Rukmini Vijayakumar and Delhi Ganesh are impactful despite their limited screen space.
If the all too common proverb all is fair in love and war had to be encapsulated in a film this would be it, a film that’s far from common though. And if I’ve have mentioned love too many times in this review that’s because love is what all Ratnam films are about, the story exists on the fringes. I’m going with three and a half out of five, Kaatru Veliyidai keeps you flying high long after you walk out of the cinema hall.
Hydari pleases the eye, and, given her head, acquits herself better here than she has in her previous outings, even if she has to do what heroines down the ages have been forced to – wear sheer drapes and shiver in the cold of Kashmir’s snow, while the hero is covered in leather. Two supporting roles are interesting, though: RJ Balaji and Vijaykumar, who glide in and out, have character. But ultimately, it all comes down to these questions: is it new, and does it work, even if it isn’t all novel. These are the things we demand, as we must, even of beloved auteurs, each of whose films is a much-anticipated event.
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On both those counts, `Kaatru Veliyidai’ flunks the test. What we are left with is a few moments in which Hydari impresses, the spectacular scenery, shot by Ravi Varman, and a couple of rousing song-and-dance numbers, powered by A R Rahman’s score.
Everything else just blows in the wind.