There are two ways to review a Mani Ratnam film. The first is to gush about how marvellous everything looks and how much you love the music and how Mani Ratnam is the indisputable master.
The other way is to commit sacrilege. Which is what I'm about to do now.
Perhaps no Tamil director has explored the institution of marriage as much as Mani Ratnam has - the complexity of relationships, the various factors that come into play when two people decide to get together for life, and the small moments between them that signify greater things.
Mouna Ragam told the story of a woman moving on from a past relationship and finding love in an arranged marriage; Roja was about love blooming within an unlikely arranged marriage; Agni Natchathiram was about a man with two wives and the conflicts that arise within that peculiar arrangement; Bombay looked at an interfaith marriage against the backdrop of religious violence; Alaipayuthey was about that initial period in a new marriage when all is fire and brimstone; Ayudha Ezhuthu had a violent and abusive gangster who still loved his wife deeply; Raavanan was about a married woman falling in love with a man her husband is hunting; and in his last film, OK Kanmani, he looked at the commitment that the institution of marriage brings.
In Kaatru Veliyidai, we catch a glimpse of an abusive relationship. Karthi plays Varun a.k.a VC, a dashing Air Force man who loves thrills and his sunglasses. He's also a jerk, and the film does not shy away from telling us that he is one. So one moment he's wooing Leela (Aditi Rao Hydari) and another moment, he's twisting her hand behind her back and humiliating her in front of his colleagues. But a glimpse is all we get, as the director stops way short of getting his feet wet in the puddle.
This is probably the first time we've seen a Tamil film in which domestic violence committed by the hero has been portrayed as such. However, it's disappointing where the film goes with it. The question of the abuse remains unresolved - apparently because spending a few years in a Pakistani prison can cure you of it?
The best part of a Mani Ratnam film in the good days used to be the dialogues. The people in his film spoke like people you knew, people you could know. They were not melodramatic. Their vocabulary was yours.
So when a Karthik (Madhavan) said "Hi pondatti" to his wife on a bus, you grinned because it felt real. When a Chitra (Revathi) hugged her husband (Raghuvaran) in front of their kids and said, "Yen purushan, naan kattipen, unakku ennadi?", you connected to it.
Kaatru Veliyidai, on the other hand, is a badly written film. There's no nicer way of putting it. The characters speak in the pithy style that has come to be known as the director's signature but the lines are self conscious and sound affected.
Take for instance the beautifully shot scene when VC is trying to persuade Leela to leave before a snowstorm hits them and they...erm...die. She chooses the moment to suddenly launch into an "Are you talking like this to me because I'm a woman?" rant. There are a few more of these aambala-pombala dialogues which sound pretentious and forced.
Aditi is a good actor but her character, Leela, is a product of the feminine mystique that many male directors are fond of. She is made of light while VC is the darkness - she swirls around with a halo around her head, her lush hair mesmerizing us. Very ethereal but also alienating.
We never really empathize with her or feel her pain because the film is more interested in projecting her as this impossible beauty who is VC's redemption. She's a doctor who's come all the way to Srinagar to work in a hospital, but it would seem that she did so only to fall in love with the first patient she treats.
Mani Ratnam is a director who has broken many a convention about marriage casually - Shakti forgetting where she left her thaali in Alaipayuthey is an example of how he breaks away from traditional Tamil cinema without making a song and dance about it. In Kaatru Veliyidai too, he does this by showing us a bride who is pregnant and a woman who decides to become a single mother - however, these touches fail to come together because the characters remain distant.
RJ Balaji, KPAC Lalitha, and Delhi Ganesh are wasted in the film with barely anything to do. Shraddha Srinath appears in a few scenes as VC's girlfriend, but she too disappears after he dumps her unceremoniously.
Ravi Varman's cinematography is spectacular. The visuals unfolding on screen are nothing short of poetic, making the film look magical in almost every frame. AR Rahman's captivating music is addictive and all the more so when you watch it with the beautiful images. Sarattu Vandiyile was the least of my favourites when I first listened to the album but it has soared to the top only because of this wonderful combination. It's these two elements which ultimately persuade us to stay on and watch the laborious proceedings on screen.