Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Kaatru VeLiyidai – a movie review

There is a sensational scene in Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru VeLiyidai where VC (Karthi), a fighter pilot, takes Leela Abraham  (Aditi Rao Hydari, playing a Doctor) on a ride on one of his planes.  While the plane is still on the ground, Leela reveals something about her sibling, a connection that VC never knew existed.  VC requests her repeatedly to smile – he comments that the siblings have a very similar grin – making Leela conscious.  Nevertheless, she secretly enjoys the extra attention that this revelation has led to.  As the plane’s engine revs up, the camera shakes vigorously and then steadies up as the plane takes flight. (We get the feeling that we are on the flight with them!)  Overcome by the beauty of the snow-kissed mountains and basking in the flickering of her heart’s lamp, Leela’s defenses are lowered for the first time, and certainly not the last. 

This sequence, which ends outside Leela’s house (when VC drops her off), is an example of so much that is good about this movie – a complex romance set in the time of the Kargil war - as well as the elements that don’t work.  First and foremost, Aditi’s magnificent performance - she owns this movie.  Her ability to confidently hold lengthy close-up shots, switch expressions in a matter of seconds and project feelings of strength, disappointment and vulnerability all equally well, are truly awe-inspiring.  This scene, as is the movie, is this actor’s showcase.  Secondly, the staging and the cinematography.  The frames that Ratnam and cinematographer Ravi Varman compose, deserve approbation not only for the beauty of the visuals but also a certain ineffable quality that they bring to the movie.  Soul, perhaps?  Just the way this flight scene and several other sequences are shot, take us to the emotional core of many moments than the way those sequences were written. 

But one marvelous performance and superb staging alone cannot make a movie.  As I think beyond these two elements, some of the issues of Kaatru VeLiyidai come to the fore.  Firstly, Karthi’s uneven performance.  It is a challenging role for him, no doubt.  This character is not soaked in shades of white and is markedly different from any of the roles that he has played thus far.  And, I didn’t know where to lay the blame for the weakness of his performance - at his feet, the writer’s or just the fact that his casting didn’t work.  Maybe it’s a combination of more than one factor.  Actors like Karthik (in his heyday), Madhavan and Dulquer Salman have a twinkle in their eye and an easygoing onscreen persona that bring a certain amount of effortless charm to their acting.  But they can also go a step further and combine that innate persona with a certain edge, resulting in a magical concoction.  Karthik in Agni Natchathiram, Madhavan in Aaytha Ezhuthu and Irudhi Sutru, Dulquer in Kali, are instances of the persona of the actor finding a perfect match in a multi-layered role.  That sadly is not the case with Karthi here and the struggle shows on screen.  Be it the scene outside Aditi’s house where he sings a song or the seemingly interminable monologue at the dinner table where he tries to allay the concerns of Aditi’s parents, there is something constantly off-key about him in Kaatru VeLiyidai.  It is a relief that he makes the all-important climactic sequence work; he is fantastic here.

As I mentioned earlier, the staging of some of the sequences is so fabulous that it overshadows the writing at times.  That is a good thing because I found the writing to be similar to Karthi’s performance – sparkling in some parts, unconvincing in others.  The episode featuring Karthi’s family, for instance, is written horribly.  The purpose of this extended sequence is to show the origins of Karthi’s selfishness and shades of a male chauvinistic attitude (despite an innate goodness).  But the writing is so clunky that the emotional resonance is zilch.  Had Karthi’s confrontation with his father and Aditi at the hospital worked, our empathy for his character would have increased manifold.  (To see how this can be done effectively, watch the “Raji madhiri ponnu” episode of Suhasini’s Penn, where Raghuvaran plays a spoiled child who inherited bad habits from his Dad.  It is available on Youtube.)

The sequence where Karthi escapes from the Rawalpindi prison is, again, a deftly shot action sequence with a scintillating background score.  But this sequence should have evoked the level of tension of the Shah Rukh - Kamal Hassan soda factory sequence in Hey Ram.  Instead, I was appalled at the apparent effortlessness (with the police firing from all sides) with which Karthi goes to the back of the truck.  Sure, he is supposedly a fearless fighter pilot but a little more tension would have been more apropos.  I mention this in the context of the writing to underscore the fact that the staging, at times, doesn’t find an able partner in the content.  And that hurts the movie.  When we should be witnessing VC's desperation to get back to Leela, we instead see someone escape from a prison in another country as though he is playing a video game.

But when the writing works, as is the case with the plane sequence that I mentioned at the start, the result is memorable.  This is also the case with some of the scenes with more depth.  The pregnancy scene is one where it all comes together beautifully.   This scene – as opposed to the unbearable dinner table monologue – is one that has a stunning start, slowly building tension and an unforgettable conclusion.  As the camera gently zooms in from up above, moving towards the two characters lying in bed, the drama – aided by the splendid lines – intensifies.  The actors too don’t miss a beat here, explaining their stance in a manner that seems just right, given the nature of their characters. 

The other reason why I think this movie didn’t transcend from a supremely well-crafted, interesting romance into a classic is because outside of Aditi and (to a much lesser extent) Karthi, none of the characters registered.  While one might think that it is not a huge factor in a movie that is laser-focused on its lead pair, I beg to differ.  Strong supporting characters can add a lot of weight to the drama.  And the good ones will even do things to enhance the lead actor’s performance.  Let me explain.  Delhi Ganesh appears in this movie in a miniscule role as Aditi’s grandpa.  But there is no presence.  It is no fault of this great actor; it’s just that there is nothing for him to do except be around.  Contrast this to another example featuring the same actor.  In Nayagan – the ultimate one-man show, you might think – Ganesh plays the role of a loyal aide of Kamal’s.  In none of the scenes does he have a great deal to do.  But in the crucial funeral scene, as Kamal nears the dead body of his son, Ganesh gently says, “Vendaam Naaykare…kozhandhaiku nerupu kaayam nerayya patruku…”  What it adds to the impact of Kamal’s performance is hard to quantify but the impact is absolutely real.  There is not one such moment here featuring the talented Ganesh, RJ Balaji, Rukmini or the wooden non-actors that play Karthi’s family members.  And, Kaatru VeLiyidai is poorer for that.

As I walked out of the movie, there were frames that kept flitting in and out of my mind’s eye.  It is a testament to Ratnam’s ability as a filmmaker that so many differing thoughts were occupying my mind in lieu of a simple, “I enjoyed it” or “No, I hated it.”  But it is the same Ratnam that has given me more fulfilling experiences.  So, at the end of the day, Kaatru VeLiyidai might have fallen short of the Himalayan peaks scaled by not only Karthi’s planes in this movie but also several of Ratnam’s previous ventures.  But he surely does take us on one hell of a ride.  


N said...

Brilliant review of the movie- I certainly don't feel like I haven't watched the movie as yet. I now have my own version in my head based on the read and I exactly know what to expect in terms of performamces, visuals etc. And you have done a great job without giving away the story(like most online reviewers..lol)....Well done!!!!

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ram Murali : Ace review and must have been a difficult one to write considering that most of us cease to be objective when confronted with Ratnam's craft..

N has said it all :) . Superb summary of your review.

A substantial part of our enjoyment of anything is a function of our expectations and your review does that admirably i.e setting the right expectations - its more of a guide than a review in that sense.

Okay, question of the week -

What is common to Aditi Rao Hydari and S.Ravishanker a k a Zola ?

I was in the cloud below Karthi's aircraft when I discovered this.

Ram Murali said...

N and Ravishanker - thank you for your comments. I did enjoy delving deep into my reactions to the movie. I just felt that this movie deserved a bit of an in-depth analysis.

Aditi Rao and Ravishanker ku common thing-a? :) Do you share a birthday? Neenga than Sir sollanum! :)

ravishanker sunderam said...

Sharing a birthday is meaningless when he population of the world is hitting the 9 billion mark according to Monsanto Chemicals :)

You can take one lousy guess :(

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - sollidunga thalaiva, idea-ve illa :)

ravishanker sunderam said...

ha Ha Ha

Coreectaa sonnavarukku aayiram porkkaasugal parisu :) ......illai :):)

ravishanker sunderam said...

It so happens that we went to the same school.

IDHU yeppadee irukku ?

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - to borrow Aishwarya Rai's line from Iruvar, "mayangi poiteenga..." :)

ravishanker sunderam said...

True - So True deah boy.

Who said women are romantic ?

Men get more sentimental, wistful and romantic as they grow older.

I remember how we used to "visit" Girija once a week to say Hi to her at Anand theatre during the run of Idhayathai Thirudaadhay.

It was close to snorting a special brand of psychedelic stuff.

And the sound track's refrain "I Love You I Love you" so that you were left in a daze by the time the show ended (SIGH).......

Kousalya Murali said...

Let me admit-I am partial to the movie because (a)I am a Mani fan but more important I watched the movie with you. I am sure I would have criticized more if I had gone with my usual gang.
Having given this disclaimer, I agree with you on the production values, the breathtaking camera and of course Aditi and her costume designer-spectacular and for a new comer outstanding performance.
Karthi except for the last scene looked a mis fit-Ram you did not mention Arvind swamy in Roja or even in the short cameo in Alai Payudey.
What I could not accept were
Delhi Ganesh total wasted
Karthi's family even if they are hard core Delhiites just didn't look the part-I thought the movie was being dubbed in Hindi and that is why the choice.
also the escape from prison looked like child's play
But I agree with you-the film did have its magical moments and light and breezy adb relaxing

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - that's a long journey you've had :)

Amma - thanks for your comment. I appreciate your honest disclaimer :) Unge nermai enaku pudichiruku!

N said...

When I reread your post, I got reminded of Shoba and her sweet face flirted through my mind. All her memories flooded my mind and for a moment I couldn't believe that she is gone. I recollected how she has taken you to several screenings of Mani' s films along with Ranga. You should link the write-up and give a special mention to Shoba. How I wish she joined you all for this screening! I still cannot believe that she is gone. I'm sure this screening must have been hard on all of you....RIP Shoba. Miss you!

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ive heard her voice too Ms Murali......through Ram's blog

Ram Murali said...

Thank you both for your sweet comments on Shoba. I remember her taking me to the premiere of Nerukku Ner. She was the one that accompanied me (trust me, I was...gulp...SHY!) as I approached Vasanth and Vivek to get their autographs. She will be smiling from up above seeing all these comments.

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ram Murali : Really enjoyed reading this (again) today. Yiur dissection and diagnosis is FIRST RATE.

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ram Murali : Finally got to watch Kaatru Veliyidai today on TV.

Your review was constantly playing at the back of my mind and I must say it really enhanced my entire experience of the movie.

It was a magnificent effort by Karthi considering that it was out of his range and comfort zone but your observation that it was an uneven performance was spot on....as also your alternate choices for the role viz. Karthik in his heyday, Madhavan and Dulquer Salman.

And Aditi Rao Hydari....(sigh)...I can drown in her eyes - limpid pools of passion....

Life's not fair...for the other actresses I mean.

Superb review !

Ram Murali said...

Aditi Rao Hydari ode #1 fan ennode Appa...but it looks like you are tied for that spot!
"And Aditi Rao Hydari....(sigh)...I can drown in her eyes - limpid pools of passion...."
--> Mei Marandhu Kanna Rasikreenga :)

Ram Murali said...

Thanks for commenting on the review after watching the movie. Special thanks for even thinking of my review while watching the movie :)

ravishanker sunderam said...

Trulu Ram. All that I can think of is her eyes. They seem to fill the screen. The last time I was this dazed when I watched idhayathai Thirudaadhay

ravishanker sunderam said...

"Special thanks for even thinking of my review while watching the movie :)"

You really nailed it. The review has energy and force which ofcourse enthusiasm for the material brings