Thursday, April 16, 2020

Lens and Sensibility: 20 years of Kandukondain Kandukondain

Rajiv Menon, the veteran ad filmmaker and master cinematographer, has directed three feature films till date.  Minsaara Kanavu (1997) is the weakest of the three, despite a magical musical score.  Sarvam ThaaLa Mayam from last year is, by a Corona-safe distance, the best of them, its highlights a delightful performance by Nedumudi Venu and an unforgettable mirudangam performance in the climax.  Sandwiched between the two in terms of timeline and quality is Kandukondain Kandukondain, which was released in May 2000. (I can sound cool and state that it is a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  But if I hadn’t bothered to check the wiki page, I may have even written, Pride and Prejudice because I have read an enviable zero novels in my entire life!)

The cast and crew of Kandukondain… is first-rate.  A cast headlined by Mammootty, Tabu, Ajith and Aishwarya Rai, a behind-the-scenes team comprising stalwarts such as Sujatha, AR Rahman and Ravi K Chandran, Rajiv Menon helmed what should have been a surefire winner.  But to me, this film will always be a qualified success.  While it has aged quite well, the problems that existed at the time of its release persist.  Sometimes movies speak to us differently as we age.  I don’t think age has brightened or dimmed the luster that exists in parts of the film, even if not for the entire duration.

Kandukondain… is the story of two sisters (Tabu and Aishwarya Rai) and the experiences that they go through in their romantic and familial life over the course of a few years.  Tabu’s love interest is Ajith, who plays an aspiring film director.  Aishwarya Rai initially falls in love with Abbas, an industrialist with a penchant for (awkardly) citing lines written by Bharathiyar.  Mammootty is an army officer who lost a leg while in Sri Lanka as part of the IPKF.  He develops feelings for Aishwarya Rai but maintains a dignified silence on account of the age gap.  She realizes the inherent goodness in him but spurns him at every turn until certain sour experiences make her realize the depth and meaning that was missing in her dreams and fantasies that had marked her limpid existence.

One of the strengths of Kandukondain… is the urbanity and delicacy of taste in the characterizations and the interactions among the lead characters.  Mammootty’s is a beautifully fleshed out character.  One who has seen his youth pass him by with his years in the army, who has been scarred physically and mentally.  But the amount of genuine, selfless emotion he infuses into his love for the impulsive, sharp-tongued Aishwarya Rai makes his character sparkle.  The actor too is in fine form, especially in the lovely scene in the hospital where he leans towards her and assures her that for the first time in his life, he would pray…for her recovery.  There is a line in Moondru Per Moondru Kadhal that goes, “Kadhal-ngaradhu kaekardhu illa…kodukardhu.”  Mammootty in this film is an embodiment of that line.  What also makes his character well-rounded is the light vein of humor and sarcasm, which sometimes he uses to obscure his true feelings. 
The hospital scene: 
(Click on play to go directly to the scene)

The Tabu – Ajith romance also has a very convincing arc.  They are two strong-willed individuals, one reticent, the other gregarious.  But the vulnerability of the Tabu character, the way she bears the ‘luckless’ tag with a quiet resignation and the manner in which she expresses an unwillingness to let go of Ajith in the end are layered strokes.  Strokes that writer Sujatha and director Rajiv Menon use to paint a lovely portrait of a woman who is part steel, part porcelain. 

Ajith plays a confident, hot-headed aspiring film director.  Born with a silver spoon, he chooses a life of struggle, unwavering in his vision of and commitment to the film he wants to make.  But the problem is that the actual movie he tries to make is a rip-off of Speed titled, Vegam! (That S. Ve. Sekhar chose this title for his son’s debut film is a joke in itself!)  We even have a character joke about the plot sounding vaguely familiar!  Even the scenes he enacts with Pooja Batra (who plays an action heroine, a fact that the film gleefully skewers!) have none of the conviction that he had projected in earlier scenes.  All this might sound like incidental detail.  But it is the kind of detail that distracts, the sort of nuance (or lack there of) that robs his quest off an element of pain that was brought out so well in Mugavari. (Of course, his character itself could be a subtle dig at filmmakers that place technique over substance.)

The only underwhelming parts of Kandukondain… are thankfully restricted to the first half, especially the Abbas-Aishwarya Rai romance.  Abbas maybe a much-ridiculed actor, especially for his laughable utterances in films like Padayappa.  But I had never dismissed him as an actor completely.  He could hold his own in a certain type of role – the kind of which he played in Kadhal Desam and Minnale.  But he is a complete misfit as a fanatic of Bharathiyar.  Vikram, who had lent his voice for him, would have been a much better choice, one that could mouth chaste Tamil verses in the same breath as casual English lines.  Abbas' scenes with Aishwarya Rai (also a Bharathiyar fan!) are amateurish and completely lacking in the charm and resonance of the other relationships in this film. 

Thankfully, the film is on firm ground in the concluding portions.  The break-up, the re-unions and reconciliations are all convincing.  Especially heartwarming is the way Aishwarya Rai and Mammootty confess their love for one another without using words like “love” or “kadhal.”  Instead, their cathartic moment is about inner beauty, the vagaries of fate and the inexplicable designs of the Almighty.  The final Tabu-Ajith scene in the apartment too is charming and brilliantly acted. (I vividly remember the applause in the theater when they hugged one another!)

The Aishwarya Rai-Mammootty staircase scene:

The Tabu-Ajith apartment sequence:

AR Rahman’s songs and Ravi K Chandran’s cinematography ensure that the film is an audio-visual treat to savor.  Chandran’s framing of the aforementioned hospital bed shot is especially exquisite.  There is a short vignette that features Tabu at work and Aishwarya Rai immersing herself in music.  Rahman’s fusion of carnatic and more modern music works wonderfully for this sequence.

Kandukondain… might not be a timeless classic.  But it is a rarity in the way solid material is brought to screen by a filmmaker with an urbane sensibility, visual finesse and stellar support from his cast.  For that reason, we have to be thankful for its existence.


Vimala Parasuram said...

Wow super read. Very detail oriented covering all aspects of the movie. I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned Srividya’s acting in your write-up. (Given how much you like her acting). Also, Anita rathnam who did her role so convincingly. I have enjoyed watching this movie many times. The only thing I didn’t enjoy was the “Thatha” character portions. It was disgusting!

Zola said...

Vimala : I'm angry with Ram for the same reason :):)

You hit the aani on the thalai

Prasanna. S said...

stumbled upon your page while browsing twitter. Well written article. Watched the songs and some scenes because of your article!

Kandukonden.. is my all time favourite. I watched at Pondicherry during release amidst huge crowd. Loved every songs and use to play on loop in the cassette Walkman (aiwa!) those days. Unfortunately it’s theatrical release was delayed and Alaipayuthey, which was released few weeks ago gave tough competition.
Till date, when I hear the BGMs, I get goosebumps. Especially the BGMs during opening titles, when Tabu opens the door for Ajith, when she was consoled by Aishwarya after knowing that Ajith changed the title Vegam, and of course, the climax-will you marry me?! sequence.
Can write a lot about the movie. It’s simply awesome. Thanks for sharing.

sai16vicky said...

Lovely lovely take on the move, Ram! I can't offhand recall the number of times I have seen this movie, thanks to KTV :).

Regarding the Abbas-Aishwarya Rai arc, Rajiv Menon mentioned in a interview with BR that he himself was not convinced with how he wrote. Two things that stand out for me:

1. The inherent Mani Ratnamness in the movie. Very sharply observed real-life talk especially with Srividya and her daughters. Only later did I realize that Rajiv wrote a lot of the Aishwarya-Tabu portions based on his own growing up years.

2. The song picturizations and Rajiv is a monster in this. The whole 'Kannamochi Yenada' sequence which looks like a gen X upgrade of 'Maraindhirundhu Paarkum'. So is 'Kandukondein Kandukondein', which hints at the future dynamics of their relationship (with the door shutting and all that).

Ram Murali said...

Vimala / Zola / Prasanna / Sai Vicky - thank you for all your kind and thoughtful comments. I am glad to play my bit in shedding spotlight on what is an increasing rarity - an urbane romantic story.
In recent times, I enjoyed Oh My Kadavule for that reason.

Anu Warrier said...

Ram, I've mixed feelings about this film. Especially because, I remember watching the film and thinking, 'Hey, he ripped off Sense and Sensibility,' and then reading an interview in which he claimed it wasn't Sense and Sensibility at all, but based on the experiences of his mom and her sister - or some tosh like that. I remember thinking, 'What an idiot!'. :)

But I loved Tabu, and Aish was a revelation, really - she made her Bharatiyar love so much more realistic; you're so right about Abbas. He was laughable. I did also have a problem with the way the Aish-Mammootty arc was resolved, but by then, I was rooting so much for Mammootty's love to be reciprocated that I didn't care. :)

The songs were great and beautifully shot, as well. Worth revisiting sometime.

RM said...

Anu, thank you for posting your views. Was curious - why did the Mamootty Aishwarya Rai track resolution didn't work for you?

RM said...

*not work for you?