Friday, May 19, 2017

Simran’s finest hour: A review of her performance in Kannathil Muthamittaal

Indira is a mother of three kids, one of whom is an adopted child.  She agrees to accompany her husband Thiruselvan to Sri Lanka in search of the adopted daughter’s biological mother.  A couple of days after they land, the three of them go on a bus journey to a village as part of this quest.  As they board the bus, Amudha, the daughter, decides to take a nap.  Thiru asks Indira, “Are you thinking of our kids back home?”  Indira, resting her chin on Thiru’s shoulder, responds, “For the sake of one child, we have left two back home.  I hope they are doing well.  I wonder how my father is taking care of them single handedly.”  Her response is honest but in an equally spontaneous moment, she quickly adds, “Amudha is still asleep, right?”  Simran, the mother, plays this little scene so exceptionally well that you could just watch this scene without any audio, look at her expressions, and understand what she is communicating to her husband. 

I recently revisited Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittaal (2002) and was struck by how I could not think of a single performance by an actress in Tamil in the past 15 years that I regard as better than this.  Aishwarya Rajesh in Kaaka Muttai, Priya Mani in Paruthi Veeran and Anjali in Kattradhu Thamizh (in that order) come close.  And one could even argue that these three actresses dubbed in their own voice for these movies whereas Deepa Venkat was the voice artist for Simran in Kannathil… But there are several moments of sublime internalization by Simran in this difficult role that makes her performance truly stand out.  More than the voice - Deepa Venkat does a fine job here, no doubt - it is her face and body language that speak volumes.  And for that, her performance in this movie deserves to be regarded as a crown jewel in any analysis of modern Tamil cinema.

The oonjal scene where she tries to answer Amudha’s (Keerthana, who won a richly deserved National award) questions about her biological mother and how and why she was adopted is a scene where the writing, acting, cinematography and production design all come together in the most cohesive, undemonstrative way.  In a recent interview, when asked if viewers might miss paying attention to all the technical aspects that bring a scene alive, Mani Ratnam thoughtfully remarked, “It is okay if they don’t notice it; as long as they sense it, that’s enough.”  I have watched Kannathil… multiple times in the past decade and I suppose I had always “sensed” how exquisite this scene was.  But it was only during this recent viewing that I paid attention to Simran’s minute, purposeful changes in body language that so perfectly suited the lines that she was delivering in this scene.  When Amudha asks a rather painful question (“Was I in a trash can when I was retrieved?”) she looks away uncertainly.  When the kid says, “Will you abandon me?” she hugs her tightly.  And when the kid wants further reassurance, she looks her in the eye and comforts her.  The scene has a deeply poignant end when Amudha asks, “Why did you tell me now?  You could have told me later.”  Indira knows that it is a question better left unanswered and just continues to hold on to her daughter in a comforting posture.  And Ratnam, ever the master of song placement, makes this scene lead to the soothing melody, “Oru Dheivam Thandha Poove…” 

Another sequence that merits a closer look is the railway station one.  Amudha, feeling confused and uncertain about her future, has run away from the house.  But thanks to a good samaritan, the parents receive a call that the kid is at the railway station.  While being informed of the daughter’s whereabouts on the phone, Indira pleads to the caller, “Please be with her till we come.”  En route to the station, Thiru tries to dismiss her feelings and asks her to stop crying.  Despite her vulnerabilities, she is an inherently steely person.  So she asks him to mind his own business.  And at the station, once she spots the kid, she looks intently, with pain, disappointment and even a bit of anger.  After they return home, as Amudha tries to apologize for her act, Indira, overcoming her own anger, hugs and kisses her in a loving manner.   And in a truly lifelike moment, she adds that she has to finish her chores!  Emotional upheavals or not, life goes on.  Simran is incandescent in this sequence, displaying myriad changes in tone in a seamless, artless, affecting manner.

It’s been a few days since I finished watching the movie.  And I reckon that apart from the stupendous level of acting by Simran, it is the way in which Mani Ratnam shaped the character that has led to my feeling compelled to dwell on her performance.  Simran appears in the movie with minimal make-up, simple but elegant clothing, hair not nearly as perfectly coiffed, as was the case in her other movies.  But her radiance in this movie comes from the intrinsic elements that she brings to the screen as well as these externals that result from Ratnam’s sure-footed shaping of her character and performance.  And the result of this truly artistic collaboration is a deeply fulfilling experience.



Zola said...

Ram Murali :Really feel like standing up and clapping after reading this much as I felt like standing up and clapping after watching Simran's performance.

In one word it was a REVELATION.

You've really brought out the various facets of her performance - great word to describe it "steely".

She really steals the frames even with all the other strong characters around.

I like the way she berates Amudha for running away from home and for not caring about her (Simran's) feelings.

Easily Manirathnam's best in the last one and half decades.

Thanks a bunch for recollecting this.

Anonymous said...

I think I will appreciate KMI because I am now a mother( watched it as a teenager and hated it). I certainly couldn't process all the layers but you have spelled it out so clearly that I need not read between the lines.You have written in great detail about the aspects of Simran' s acting in the scenes with her daughter that stand out and i can't wait to watch this movie again. :)

Zola said...

Anonymous : Heartily agree with your comments. You've spelled out exactly what I wanted to say

Anu Warrier said...

I saw the title of your post on my sidebar, and the first thing that popped into my head even before I read your post was that particular dialogue - 'For one child, we have left two behind.'

Kannathil Muthamittal is one of my favourite Mani Ratnam movies, and I really thought Simran did a fantastic job there. So did everyone else, especially Keerthana.
I have a draft of a review waiting for me to work on it, but haven't had the time to go back to it. I should. Now.

newmomontheblock said...

Great post as usual. Kannathil Muthamittal is a movie I saw in my late teens/early 20s. At that time, as this movie came right after Alaipayuthey, with that title and Madhavan, our gang went with a different expectation and were completely disappointed.

This story initially came out in Reader's Digest and is a true story of a Korean girl adopted by American Parents. I had read this story years before I watched the movie. It was great how Maniratnam had adapted it and blended it so well with the issues due to Srilanakan war. My grandfather and so many people from the Sivagangai district used to work, travel frequently to Srilanka and to get to see this place through this movie was amazing.

I believe this is a movie that would be amazing to watch now and would probably even benefit from a re-release.

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - yes, the berating part was so lifelike. I love the fact that Simran is not made out to be this angelic character. She even slaps Amudha at one point. Not saying slapping is right or wrong; it's just a human facet to the character. Makes her a living, breathing individual, warts and all.

Anonymous - do watch the movie again. I actually must confess that the movie 'speaks' to me differently as I have grown older.

Anu - I am so glad that you too thought of the bus sequence. What a lovely line, right? I also like the part where the son (on the phone) lies to Simran, "Amma, enaku orey joram" and the grandpa adds, "PuLugaraan ma!"

newmomontheblock - so nice to see your comment after a while. I don't blame you for being disappointed initially. Even Mani Ratnam mentions the promotions in the Baradwaj Rangan book. He said that the poster with Maddy, Simran and the three kids was used in promotions to ensure that people didn't come in expecting another Alai Payuthey. I guess the promotions during those days were quite muted that people still came in with those expectations. Thanks for sharing the origins of KM. I had heard pieces of it. One thing I do remember is how adoption experts took exception to the beach scene where Maddy abruptly tells Keerthana that she is an adopted kid. Mani Ratnam kinda admitted to getting that wrong, in Rangan's book. I suppose you could afford some creative license to what is, after all, a very honest, sensitive effort.

Anusha said...

I miss Simran! I was quite excited to watch her in Trisha Illana Nayanthara, hehe.

She is indeed lovely in Kannathil Muthamittal.

Ram Murali said...

Anusha - I feel like she is a complete director's actor. She aces well-written parts. But she can also look really disinterested in mundane roles. In T I N, she looked like she'd rather be combing GV Prakash's unkempt hair!

But yes, we fans will always have Kannathil! I also really liked her in Parthen Rasithen. Shades of gray and she reveled in it!

Zola said...

Ram Murali That slapping bit was too good. I wonder whetehr it would fall into the well-written category or the actor's spontaneity taking over

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that the 'direction' for the slap came from Mani Ratnam! Of course, I have no basis for saying that. Just guessing!

Unknown said...

Agree with you - Simran's performance in parthen rasithen is truly mesmerising! From what i heard, mani ratnam allows his actors to move the character forward, so if all means Simran is truly an underrated actress to the core. I'll say she is the best tamil actress from late 90s onward, hands down!

Ram Murali said...

Avin Ason - thank you for your comment. I think Simran was underutilized. It was only a select few roles like Parthen Rasithen, Vaali and Kannathil Muthamittaal that were well and truly author backed.