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.