Well, that was a Ratnam movie all right! In that, while watching it, I thought “this is kind of okay, sort of interesting, very pretty”. And then I’ve spent two hours thinking about it and I haven’t even gotten close to unpacking all the themes and metaphors and so on and it just gets deeper and deeper the further I go.
I think, and I might change my mind entirely about this after sleeping on it, but I think this movie is primarily about deconstructing the typical film romance, you know the one, between the confident charming brave perfect hero and the innocent fragile slave to love heroine. It gives both of them the extra gloss of a military hero and a nurturing saintly doctor. And the casting is on point as well, Aditi is so pale and thin and tiny, against Karthi who is tall and large and confident. But all those things that start out seeming so romantic and wonderful slowly come apart.
At a certain point in the film, Karthi talks about how he can remember everything about Aditi’s face, but he just wants to hear her voice again. That’s the problem in their “romantic” relationship. He never seems to hear her. She is his perfect beautiful romantic ideal, but that’s all he wants.
The film itself could have made her an ideal as well, made her the total innocent in the relationship. But instead she is just as flawed. He is dashing and handsome and she can’t resist him. Even after she is warned over and over again, she just doesn’t listen to others, or if she does, she just brings that into her romantic fantasy of the “bad boy”.
All of this is kind of spoilers, maybe? But I don’t think so. I think Ratnam wanted us, right from the start, to see the flaws in this relationship. To be aware that he was consciously heightening the romance, and that the characters were as well, because they were in love with the fantasy as much as with each other.
This isn’t the greatest Ratnam movie by any means. But it’s a lot deeper than it looks on the surface. It’s not about a war hero and a beautiful doctor, it’s about how we perceive the war heroes and the beautiful doctors in our films. And he tells you that, right at the beginning, when we open with Aradhana, the classic superficial romance film. Through to the end, when we close with Saathiya/Alaipayuthay.
(Opening of the movie! Not literally, but a clear homage)
There are other issues, of course. The Kashmir setting is fascinating. Because it makes the romance feel heightened. Not because of the beauty of the scenery (although it is gorgeous), but because of the constant danger and the freedom that comes with it. When you live in a war zone and work in a hospital surrounded by dying people, worrying about commitment issues or planning for the future just doesn’t seem worth it. It’s easier to just fall into a passionate love affair and obsess over that, and stop thinking about everything else that is happening in your world.
I think this might be Mani Ratnam’s first straight up military hero? I could of course be wrong about that. But I was interested in the idea, because usually he is so anti-military, or at least conflicted about military. But he ends up folding his ideas of focus and control and self-interest in the military all into the hero.
There was also some interesting stuff with the multiculturalism of the armed forces. Once again, Ratnam uses the language barrier to his advantage, building a little world within a world for our hero and heroine through their shared culture and language in a foreign land. And an immediate bond with their few other friends who also share it. And then we see how our hero changes when he is in his other world, with his fellow pilots who speak a whole variety of languages from all over India.
Oh, and the songs are great! Of course. And perfectly thematic, taking us through the perfect joyful happy moods of love all the way through to the more dreamy and romantic and obsessive ones. I still like “Azhagiye” the best, and we are supposed to like it the best, because it is in the happiest and peppiest moments of first love, very “Chaiyya Chaiyya”. But the others are pretty pretty too. And they are the usual brilliance when Ratnam and Rahman come together.
One final note, to give you a sense of where the quality of this movie came from and why people were excited for it. The opening credits start with Mani Ratnam, and in my theater, there were massive cheers and applause. And then Karthi, Aditi, the other actors. Occasional tepid applause, no one really cared. And finally, the very last name in the credits “Songs by AR Rahman”. Massive cheers! Theater shaking cheers. That’s why we were all there opening night (almost sold out theater, by the way). Not for the stars or the war hero plot, or anything else but to see these two geniuses coming together one more time.