Kadal (2013) (The Sea)
Mani Ratnam
Tamil

 

KadalThe title of Mani Ratnam’s latest feature, Kadal (“The Sea”, 2013), conjures images of vastness, infinity and extremity. Like the sea monsters of many a folklore, it has a mythic ring to it, which is very apt considering the last half hour of the film takes place entirely in the realm of the abstract, the mythical and the elemental. There is a leap of faith that is to be made on the part of the viewer if one is to take Ratnam’s film for what it is – a leap that corresponds to a risky gambit that the film makes towards its third act. It is a manoeuvre that catapults the film from a temperamentally placid, naturalistic portrait of stunted childhood and sea-side romance to a melodrama of heightened emotions and larger-than-life stakes. The jump is grating, sure, but those willing to hold on would see that Ratnam manages to find a more cogent articulation of the misplaced metaphysical arguments of Raavan (2010), especially because he thankfully divorces his tale from political topicality. At heart, Kadal works upon the classic temptation parable, wherein Thomas (Gautham Karthik) must choose between the ways of the Devil and God, which is tweaked here to posit the tainted nature of an Absolute Good or an Absolute Evil, the impossibility of a foundational morality. When, in the end, Bergmans (Arjun Sarja) laughs at Father Sam (Aravind Swamy) hanging upside down like Nolan’s Joker – a universe cut from the same moral fabric as Ratnam’s – we discover a deconstruction of the Good/Evil binary that is more thorough, pointed and pulsating than anything in Ratnam’s previous film.

Conversations With Mani Ratnam
Baradwaj Rangan
Penguin/Viking, 2012

 

Conversations with Mani RatnamSomewhere near the midpoint of noted Indian film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s Conversations with Mani Ratnam lies a startling, self-referential moment, a moment so out of step with the rest of the book that it becomes a poetic aside in itself. In the middle of a dialogue about one of Ratnam’s movies, Rangan, with his characteristically keen eye for minor details of the mise en scène, makes a comment about the director clutching a bunch of pencils. Ratnam, perhaps as startled as the reader, asks Rangan if he’s found some deeper meaning to this gesture as well. He goes on to note that the problem with critics is that they try to find a hidden meaning when none exists. This confrontational exchange, the only moment in the entire book when the critic and director aren’t separated by the screen that is Ratnam’s body of work, embodies the central dialectic of Conversations, between a critic who sees an authorial presence, a motivation, an intention behind distinctive film elements binding a filmography and a filmmaker who considers them merely the product of logistical necessity or an instinctive thought, at best, between a professional who relies on bringing to surface structures and mechanics of films and another whose job is to conceal them.

Rangan’s book consists of a set of 17 conversations between him and Ratnam that takes us through the latter’s twenty-odd films in chronological order. This conversational format, as opposed to a paraphrased version¸ has the benefit of retaining the director’s voice, with all its conceptual blind spots (this book is perhaps the best source to understand my reservations with late-period Mani Ratnam’s naïve humanism, where personal dramas are planted obliquely on topical issues, almost like an afterthought, essentially making them, despite his refusal, “message movies”) and anecdotal digressions intact, instead of glossing over gaps and presenting a smooth, monolithic view of Ratnam’s oeuvre as a fully-formed, theoretically integral body of work. It also saves the reader a lot of time since he/she can read the simple, pragmatically-worded conversations quickly instead of having to stop regularly to admire the elegance of Rangan’s typically graceful prose. On the other hand, it results in passages where the two participants aren’t on the same page, where Ratnam, neither complementing nor contradicting, unhelpfully goes off on a tangent in response to certain questions.

It doesn’t help when a convincing critic opens his book with a review of his own and Rangan’s introduction to Conversations serves both as a sharp review of the material that follows as well as an autobiographical piece that details the author’s personal journey with Ratnam’s cinema and his motivations for taking up this project. In it, Rangan characterizes Ratnam as being specifically a “Madras” filmmaker – a term with both geographical and historical connotations – who, he believes, captured the sensibilities of a generation of Madras-dwelling urbanites and the rhythms of the city like no other filmmaker of the time. He also goes on to bifurcate Ratnam’s filmography into his Madras films – movies where the city and its inhabitants became the focal point – and his non-Madras films – ones where his concerns diffused and his field of vision widened. Intriguingly, on a lighter note, he points out two personal tendencies that he traces in this project: a desire as a man of science to document the thoughts of a filmmaker he considers very important in the national film scene and as a man of faith to channel the words of an artist who was a veritable god to his generation.

The duality is vital here. In a modest, reverential and otherwise undistinguished foreword, composer and long-time collaborator A. R. Rahman makes a striking contrast between his profound faith and Ratnam’s considered atheism after having elaborated on the symbiosis between him and the director. Dichotomies such as these, besides paralleling the book’s critic-filmmaker split, presage the book’s crystallization of the bipartite structure of Mani Ratnam’s films. The conversations gradually reveal the bed of binaries that the director’s films are founded on and the centrality of the number “2” in them. (Iruvar (“The Duo”, 1997), admittedly the director’s best effort, literalizes the image/text conflict that cinema itself wrestles with). They help trace this preoccupation, though not overtly, to Ratnam’s thought process as a screenwriter, wherein he eschews western scriptwriting models and instead constructs his screenplays around a single conflict involving two persons, geographies, ideologies, time-lines or emotions.

Throughout the conversations, Rangan keeps tracing auteurist strains in Ratnam’s work, deftly pointing out consistencies in plotting, character sketches, filmmaking style and world view across the movies. There appear to be three typical ways in which Ratnam reacts to these critical reflections. At best, Ratnam’s acknowledges these observations with no acknowledgement. Alternately, he would downplay Rangan’s remarks with peripheral comments that replace artistry, voice and authorial intention with accidents, logistical and functional necessities. At worst, like John Ford, he plainly denies the obvious. (Case in point, his denial that Laal Maati (“Red Earth”), the name of the tribal village in Raavan (2010), has no Maoist undertone is so moot that one is tempted to doubt the truthfulness of his other statements).  Ratnam’s modesty here is, in turns, gratingly vehement, as when he extensively uses first person plural or second person for explanation, and gratifying, especially the manner in which he avoids people politics and convenient namedropping.

But the most fascinating and, perhaps, the most important aspect of Conversations with Mani Ratnam is its unequivocal establishment of the director as a mainstream filmmaker. Neither does Rangan picture him as a “middle cinema” auteur straddling arthouse and grindhouse nor is Ratnam apologetic about his status as a popular filmmaker embracing all the conventions of the industry. (The latter uses the word “product” five times in the book to describe finished films). The conversations explore in detail Ratnam’s grafting of personal stories on tried-and-tested screenwriting tropes – familiar character arcs, interpersonal relationships, the mid-movie interval and devices for moral justification – that Rangan characterizes as a flirtation with melodrama and casting tricks (Ratnam’s fine point about casting famous faces for minor parts to do away with the need for building an emotional connection from scratch and to harness their screen legacy warrants further analysis). Most of all, Ratnam’s opinion of songs in Indian cinema as powerful, mood-enhancing trump cards that give the filmmaker the freedom to take to poetry, abstraction, secondary narration and cinematic experimentation makes for a strong counter-argument to the line of thought that advocates abolishing this tradition as the first step towards a better cinema.

Raavan

Men On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown 
(Image courtesy: Raavan Official Site)

Towards the end of Mani Ratnam’s long-awaited Raavan (2010), one of the characters looks at the camera and says “You shouldn’t have turned back”. He might well have been talking to the person behind the camera. Raavan is a visual and narrative mess, with lots going for it and even more going against it. What seems to be a major hammering on a minor flash of brilliance has taken over three years to make. There is nothing much about the plot of Raavan that you already haven’t read in your schoolbooks and seen in your televisions. I suggest you read the Wikipedia entry on Ramayana and plug in the actors’ names beside the characters’ yourself. You wouldn’t be very wrong. There are, however, two major changes to the text that writer-director Mani Ratnam has done. One; the back story of Ram has been removed altogether and a new back story for Raavan has been added which attempts to put things in his perspective and to justify his acts. The second and the more important change is that Raavan has been relegated from a higher caste to a lower one. The second change opens up a number of new possibilities given the setting of the film.

Throughout his career, with a few exceptions, Mani Ratnam has been interested in writing stories in which personal drama plays out along and against national affairs and topical issues. Almost all these ‘issues’ that he deals with could be traced to newspaper articles or cover stories (communal riots in the city of Bombay, cross border terrorism in the far east and north, student protests down south, the LTTE, business scams etc.). It is true that there is seldom any rigor in these analyses, but where Mani really scores is in the other layer of these stories, in which he deals with people who are stuck in (or, less frequently, who help create) these social and political upheavals. He seems to be more interested in the lives of these ‘individuals’, without the trappings of any ideology, and the relationship between them. More often than not, these issues have been a pretext for exploring the fears, apprehensions and hopes of these individuals, who seem to be suddenly thrust into these agitations. As a result, the issues themselves stick out like a sore thumb even when they are handled with solemnity (Compare one of these with a film like Alaipayuthey (2000) where he completely de-politicizes the drama to break down the tale to human levels. The result is a completely bourgeois film, but also arguably the director’s most honest work to date).

Another facet of Mani Ratnam’s writing is his fascination with people working on the wrong side of the law. Right from Velu Nayakar, through Deva, Liaqat, Meghna, Inba/Lallan, Gurukanth Desai and up to Beera, all of Mani Ratnam’s central characters have been exploiting legal loopholes and even defying the legal system. All of them have a moral justification for their deeds and, with the probable exception of Inba (one of the director’s best characters, for he is the product of both an ideology and his free will), all these characters have their own definitions of what is objectively good and what is not. And this moral relativism is what they seem to consider as their redemption and it is what redeems them in the audience’s eyes (What makes the character of Velu Nayakar profound is his inability to morally assess this feature of his). Throughout, Mani’s attempt has always been to, if not construct a holistic and unbiased view of the world, recognize the ‘other’ as human and empathize with their situation. A fan might say that Mani is a silent rebel. But the truth remains that Mani Ratnam has always been an armchair liberal. In nearly every one of the cases above, he leaves the issues unresolved, as if they never existed in his film, and the audience unquestioned. He involves himself deep enough so as to raise questions and make us reflect about the state of the nation temporarily, but keeps himself aloof enough to avoid assuming or giving us responsibility.

But that is not to say that he should be resolving these issues and should propose a direction (which would be too much to ask and which runs the risk of making the films propagandistic – a fatal move for a director who works within the establishment), but the least he could do is test our own moral standings and elicit a complex response from us, as did the last Tarantino movie. Mani is a master of bad endings and even he can’t object to that complaint. Everywhere, he has resorted to either indifference or populist didacticism to restore the film to conventional pop-cinema trajectories. A special note must be made for the ending of Yuva/Aayitha Ezhuthu (2004), despite its crudeness, where, for once, the director throws away the armchair and retains the liberalism. That brings us back to Raavan, which sure does imbibe all these traits above. The villagers in the film are obviously based on the Maoist settlements of central and south-eastern India and their leader Beera is a resistance fighter combating the police and armed forces.  The plot points are heavily inspired by Operation Green Hunt, but the region of interest for the director, predictably, remains the triangle of characters at its heart. Oh, but there’s also something going on in the background of these characters. For the second time, after his reworking of the Mahabharata in Thalapathy (1991), Mani Ratnam resorts to an existing mythological text for a template.

 

[Raavan (2010) Trailer]

Mani Ratnam could have been faithful to the text, playing it out in its entirety and stressing and modulating key sections of it to reveal its inherent sexism and chauvinism and, subsequently, investigate how such a flawed text governs our behaviour. Or he could have stuck, as was his style so far, to the Maoist issue alone and examined the tensions underneath. Instead, Mani relocates the Ramayana into this politically charged narrative, making a few key changes for the sake of authenticity, and compromises both possibilities. Many of the characters in Raavan don’t exist for their own sake, but only to play other characters and to complete an existing narrative framework. Now, this isn’t the film’s biggest problem, but for viewers familiar with the text, it goes on to become monotonous and self-parodying. It is also a bit appalling to see a director like Mani Ratnam going for such banal character mapping. The film’s biggest problem is, however, its viewpoint. Now, the point that the film tries to be making is that there is a Ram and Raavan in every one and that it’s only a matter of context that one becomes the hero and the other the villain. But the whole film shows otherwise. There is not one virtue bestowed upon Dev or one vice assigned to Beera (Being an officer in the police force is the only positive thing about Dev, but Ratnam drains that position of any goodness). It’s all still black and white. The film never moves on to the grey area that it claims it is in. This lack of a moral complexity denies the film any real resonance. It is made clear from the very beginning that Beera is the one the audience needs to root for and Dev is the one to be cursed (The casting only worsens the problem, with Abhishek Bachchan being less easier to hate than the newcomer Vikram). Mani does not balance the sides, as is required, he merely swaps them.

However, the film’s redeeming factor lies in the way it sketches these decidedly good and decidedly bad characters. Dev (Vikram) is the icon of a perfect male god. He is macho, sporting a neatly trimmed moustache, well-built, determined and self-assured. But he also seems to be overconfident of his seemingly infallible masculinity to the point of being sexist. His egocentricity defines the world with respect to himself (the camera gyrates around him quite a few times). He considers his wife and his gun to be fairly interchangeable objects which could be used to demonstrate his power. Mani Ratnam floods the mise en scène with phallic symbols when dealing with Dev. Wielding razors, pistols, sunglasses and cigarettes throughout, Dev is the ultimate patriarch who can control the people around him at will. Or so he thinks. This vanity is his biggest vice. And the disillusionment of that masculine vanity is the cause of his fall. Dev seems to be more interested in killing the man who kidnapped his wife than rescuing her or finishing the mission he is assigned. It is the thought that his wife may have found a better man – that his wife’s fantasies might have outgrown his capacities – that frustrates him more than the fact that she is kidnapped. In that respect, Dev has a lot of counterparts in Hollywood including Dr. Harford of Eyes Wide Shut (1999). What Dev is fighting for is, then, his own potency that has been snatched away by this sociopolitical outcast. He can only do this by killing off any man whom his wife may have considered better. And that is what he sets out to do.

Beera (Abhishek Bachchan), on the other hand, lies exactly at the moral and physical midpoint between Ragini and Dev. He is a man who’s more self-aware and empathetic. He has already realized his own limitations as a ‘man’ the moment his sister was snatched away by the police force some time ago (“It was my fault” he says). Unlike Dev, he is a very progressively thinking person and believes in equality. And unlike that Ram, who can not see anything but lies on Ragini’s face, this Raavan trusts her with his life (and his phallic gun, if you will!). But he is also a man on the verge. He could flip over to the other moral side any time soon. His “jealousy” could turn out to be an obsession. Why, he teeters on the boundary between life and death every day. Each one of his ten imaginary heads might be saying a different thing every time. His temptation of avenging his sister by reciprocally violating Ragini is undone by the fact that both Ragini and his sister are merely variations of each other (This implicit aversion towards “miscegenation” in Raavan is but one of the very many narrative, visual and thematic elements that the film shares with The Searchers (1956), a film that is also set at the native frontier and the film that Raavan wants to emulate). These two people who leapt towards death without fear are the only persons who could stand up to Beera and speak. They are the only ones who prevent him from becoming a Dev. This idea of living on the edge is continually underscored by the film’s visual strategy that employs highly expressionistic landscapes. Beera is usually located on a dark cliff beyond which there are only the white waters of death (and redemption?). He is regularly seen straddling dark geographical structures and the white mist-like atmosphere. Even when he is a mysterious, dark, fearful figure, he is associated with harsh light. Samir Chanda’s production design is noteworthy in this regard. Beera’s idea of redemption is a very subjective one and his vindication seems to be in making Dev realize how morally integral he is, despite his caste, and how unethical Dev is, despite his social and legal standing. Of course, for this he throws his political objective to the wind, as does Mani Ratnam.

Ragini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is the symbol of moral strength purity in the film. She’s the only character in the film who could safely be called “objectively good” (for one, Aishwarya Rai is significantly fairer than the other two men in the film. Politically incorrect? May be. Cliché? Definitely). In some ways, she is the mirror image of Dev, and surely the better half, and repudiates all that he stands for. She’s the only person in the film who gets to see the full picture. She acts fairly rationally and, unlike the men, knows no class, creed or ideology (Amusingly, she almost exclusively moves vertically within the frame throughout the film – plummeting and ascending, skidding and rising amidst the rocky mountains – as if transcending the rigid ‘horizontal’ notions of class). She knows no fear in front of Beera, for she has nothing to be afraid of, unlike Dev and his entourage. Beera is just an arbitrary terror for her. And this independence of hers is what brings Beera to earth from his demigod status. These are very interesting characters, no doubt, but our response to them remains highly one-dimensional. As a result, the film turns out to be as one-dimensional and biased as the text it wants to deconstruct. And yes, the film that Raavan wants to be has already been made ten years ago. And how!

 

Rating:

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