This is a strange review, because it’s a beautiful movie with a lot of strong elements that somehow fails to come together. But then on the other hand, the only version I was able to find was for some reason missing 8 or 20 minutes (depending on which source I see), so it’s possible it would have come together if I had seen the full version. But I still kind of doubt it somehow. It’s just an odd odd plot, a strange combination of Agneepath and Thalapathi and “Joote Bole” from Bobby expanded to full film length. And also Christian philosophy which is never quite defined.
From the pure art side of things, it’s Mani Ratnam, AR Rahman, and Rajiv Menon doing the cinematography. So there are this moments of pure beauty. But strangely empty beauty. Not empty like in a Bhansali film or Rangoon, where I feel like the director got drunk on his own visuals and forgot the point. This doesn’t feel like the point was ever forgotten, more that it was just somehow lost. There was a reason for all of this at one timet and somewhere in the process of creating the film, everything that was built around the point was kept, but the point itself was removed. Or, again, it was edited out in the strangely abbreviated version that was the only one I could find.
It’s a highly Christian movie, Christian iconography and so on. And based on what was still in the film, I think it is supposed to be about being reborn, about the Devil and God fighting for a soul, about Baptism. About sinning and resisting sin. About the knowledge of good and evil. But everything isn’t quite on target with the point it needs to make.
What I mean is, for instance, there is a moment when our young hero is clearly baptized and washed free of sin. He has a conversation about whether he can be saved, is told he has to find something pure he can believe in, finds that thing, and then joyfully washes himself in the surf of the ocean. The sequence on it’s own is very well done. But it is placed at a non-significant point in this character’s journey, I don’t really feel the change his baptism has given his life. And it is smashed in the middle of other sequences involving other characters, so we are immediately distracted from it. And it has no emotional reverberation with an earlier sequence which similar referenced his possible baptism. Heck, there isn’t even a reminder of why baptism is so important in Christianity and what it means.
If this had been done well, not only would it have given greater meaning to what happens to this particular character, it could have helped strengthen the underlying message of the film, pure faith versus faith based on rules and traditions. There is the earlier baptism involving procedures and things written in books versus this baptism of nature. There is also a formal church with a steeple versus a handmade church built on a beach. A priest in a robe versus a priest in a common shirt. And so on and so on.
I use this baptism as an example, but it is just one part of the film that failed, and there were many other parts. Moments that should have felt more meaningful for the characters, should have had more space to breath for the viewer to notice them, should have more clearly tied back to other parts of the narrative, should have helped to create an underlying meaning to it all. And they just didn’t. The pieces were there, but they weren’t used correctly.
I have to blame the actors for this a little as well. Ratnam is usually so wonderful with actors, he brings out just the right thing from them to support his plot. A weak actor looks strong, and a strong actor looks brilliant. But in this case, I felt like they didn’t really know what they were supposed to be doing, and maybe couldn’t have done it even if they had known.
This was Arvind Swamy’s first film in 12 years, and he looked ROUGH. Like, I could hardly recognize him. From the little I can find, leaving films wasn’t a problem for him, he made a decision to switch to business. But then he injured himself. And his marriage fell apart. And he was given custody of his children, which makes me think his marriage really really fell apart. A father getting custody instead of a mother means something is terribly wrong with the mother.
Arjun Sarja, the other “grown-up” actor in the film, he does a good job with what he is given. But he isn’t given much. His scenes go from pleasant to angry to remorseful to murderous with no stop in between. I think he is supposed to be a dangerously charming figure, one who seduces you to the dark side more than pressures you. But it doesn’t quite come off, instead he just feels kind of empty, like he is posturing rather than confident. There aren’t enough scenes showing his charm, and too many showing his anger, we can’t see why anyone would ever be won over by him.
And then the characters who get the most back story and development are played by the least interesting actors. I feel guilty for even thinking it, but is it possible they were only cast because of who their parents are? And because Ratnam felt he owed their parents a debt? Gautham Karthik’s father Karthik did a cameo in Ratnam’s early film Mouna Ragam. And Thulasi Nair’s mother Radha was in Ratnam’s Idaya Kovil. Or maybe they were cast because their parents Radha and Karthik debuted opposite each other in another movie set among the coastal fishing people with a young romance.
What I am saying is that it is possible Gautham and Thulasi were cast for reasons besides their actual ability to play the roles. They were both fine, nothing actually wrong with them, but I never got that sense of something more. There were so many scenes that were wordless, where we had to understand what they were feeling without them saying it, sometimes despite what they said. I’m thinking of how Arvind, when he was younger, was able to convey love, lust, and understanding all without a word in Roja. In Gautham, I got “young carefree man” because he was saying “I am a young carefree man”, but I didn’t get much more than that. And Thulasi, we had to be told over and over and over again “she is like a child” because her performance alone wasn’t quite enough to convey that to us.
And so it all kind of added up to nothing. Moments that should have been meaningful, I found laughable. Or boring. Moments that should have been meaningless stood out to me, randomly, because the performance happened to be right just then, or for once the scene was edited well. The plot felt like it went everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And most of all, and this is a strange thing to say except that it was clearly the intention of the filmmakers to include it, I missed the “Christ” of it all.
Christianity has some really basic ideas. Martyrdom, dying for someone else’s sins in order to cleanse them. Forgiveness of sin, being reborn clean. And a constant battle of Good against Evil, defeating the “Devil”. And I could see, vaguely, how this film was structured to address all of these points. There is a clear “Devil” character and a “God” character, various moments of sin being washed off, and the occasional idea of “taking on” someone else’s sins. But none of these ideas landed with a punch, with a sense that this film HAD to be within the Christian community instead of anywhere else, that there was something unusual about this religion that drove all of our main characters towards it. Besides pretty churches and unusual clothing and the occasional reference to baptism and Jesus.
(This is the best part of the movie, and then it all goes downhill)
But at the same time, there were these moments, these little moments, that made me think maybe at some point there had been an idea of why this film should be Christian, should be about a Priest, what makes all that different. And for that I have to get in to SPOILERS.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Here’s the film I wanted. I wanted a film about God and the Devil fighting for a soul. And I think that might have been the film Mani Ratnam wanted too. We open with Arvind arriving at seminary to find Arjun Sarja already there, the star student, and the charming popular one while Arvind is more quiet and serious. Arvind find him having sex with one of the maids, Arjun begs him to keep silent, and then tries to kill him, but can’t quite do it. Arvind has him thrown out.
The reason Priests are not supposed to have sex is not just because they can’t have sex, it’s more that they can’t marry. And they can’t marry because they are not supposed to have families, to be more connected to one part of their “flock” over another. It is not something that dates back to Jesus’ time or anything like that, it was part of later church reforms when too much church money and power was going towards children of Priests instead of the community as a whole. This isn’t esoteric knowledge or anything, this is something I would imagine most Christians know and certainly Mani Ratnam would have learned if he didn’t know it before while he was preparing for this film.
Arvind is later framed for having sex with a woman and thrown out of the church in shame. But before that, he does truly “sin” in that he forms a bond with Gautham, a bond tighter than that he shares with the rest of his flock. That is the real sin, to play favorites in that way, no matter how lovingly it is done. And that is his punishment, to lose this young man and only get him back when he has dully let him go, when he is no longer playing favorites and focusing only on him.
At least, that would be a better version of the film. To explore Arvind’s character, a man who gave up his family and his money and his past in order to join the Priesthood (as you are supposed to do), and then sinned by building a new family with his “son” Gautham. Only to come to finally understand that he had to let Gautham go, and dedicate himself again to God before all. All the elements for that story are there, but they aren’t brought together in such a way to make it clear.
And then there is Gautham’s character. Maybe he is supposed to be a Christ character, born without a father to a single mother, tempted by the Devil, finally finding his salvation. Or maybe he is supposed to be Dante, lead through the Inferno by Beatrice (the name of Thusali’s character) and eventually coming out the other side. Or maybe he is a Job like character, made to suffer torments in order to prove his faith as God and the Devil battle for his soul. All of these ideas are there, but none of them are clear. In one scene he can appear to be the battleground between good and evil, in the other a Christ suffering for the sins of society. There is no consistency.
Part of the problem is that the story is so very predictable and common in Indian film. It needs the Christian philosophy in order to give it anything original at all. Our young hero suffers terrible torments in his youth.
He grows up damaged but hopeful. His believe is lost when his leader falls. He turns to crime in order to gain power and try to set his world right again. Then he falls in love and the love of a good woman reforms him, he returns to the right leader and fights against the criminal who lead him astray. This is essentially the plot of any Amitabh Bachchan movie between 1973 and 1994. And, you know, India-the-country (terrible torments in its youth=Partition, fallen leaders=Everyone accused of corruption ever, turn to crime in disillusionment=rise of the black market and acceptance of corruption, redeemed by the love of a good woman and return to the right way=the hope presented to the country in every political campaign).
As soon as we were introduced to Gautham as a young man as a loving follower of Arvind Swamy, we knew the whole rest of the plot. I kept waiting for a twist to it, but it never came. The good woman really was good, the bad man really was bad, our hero wasn’t pretending to be seduced by evil he was actually seduced by evil. There was nothing really new here.
Compare this with, for instance, Thalapathi. Which was the Mahabharata, we knew that Karna was going to end up fighting against his half-brother, that he would lose Draupadi to him, and so on and so on. But they changed the ending, they changed the way people reacted emotionally to situations even if the actions were the same as always (for instance, Duryadhana truly loved Karna, more than anything else, he wasn’t just pretending for an advantage). In this movie, I kept waiting for a revelation that Gautham was still loyal to Arvind, that he was just infiltrating Arun’s gang. And then the twist ending would be him about to exact revenge finally, but then stopping because he found forgiveness in his heart.
Heck, even the “happy ending” could have been an opportunity to do something new. At the end of the film, Thulasi’s purity has reformed Gautham. But then Arjun tries to kill her (because she is his daughter, this film is way too complicated), Gautham thinks she has died, fights Arjun with Arvind, Arvind is ready to kill him but Gautham saves him because he is “good” now.
Remember how a Priest is supposed to love all of humanity equally? What I would have loved is if, after Thulasi’s death, the love she inspired within Gautham for all humanity (which was implied by his instinct to save even Arjun) drives him to the priesthood, if he becomes the truly pure Priest that both Arjun and Arvind failed to be in their own ways, having fully lost everything already.
But, nope! It was all a mistake, somehow, Thulasi is alive and Gautham easily gets her to remember him and they are happily in love again.
I am not blind, I do understand what the story was supposed to be, at least in the end, Arvind has turned into that which he hates, prison changed him, he is ready to kill his enemy. Gautham stops him, because he (the student) has surpassed his Guru in forgiveness. And Arjun in the end shows some spark of goodness within himself, having saved his daughter. Good triumphs, and restores Arvind’s faith, so he goes off singing with the religious procession. But none of that quite works, not with the rest of the film, Gautham’s changing moment happened much earlier, we would expect him to save Arjun’s life by the end. And Arvind’s fall wasn’t shown enough, or consistently, he seems tough in jail, but then returns to the beach to build a new church for himself, so surely he is “good” still, and then he turns “bad” at the last minute just long enough to be saved. Even Arjun, he never has that dangerous charm that I expect from the Devil, which makes the Devil’s redemption something we long for.
There are so many ways this film feels like it could have been better, moments it missed, characters that failed. And I wish I knew why. Yes, Ratnam is past his late-90s peak. Yes, the cast had no strong lead actor in it (Arvind was shakey on his return to film). Yes, he was dealing with a different culture from his own, Christian fisherfolk instead of educated Tamilian Hindus. But none of that explains just how bad this ended up.
So I have to land on “sometimes it just happens like that”. There is something missing in this film, some (literally) Divine spark that would have given it greater meaning. And instead it is an empty vessel. The wine never turns in to the blood, the bread never turns into the body.