Happy Mani Ratnam Day! I’ve reviewed almost all his films here (really, I’m just missing Raavan, Thiruda Thiruda, and the Terrorism Trilogy) and I will be reposing the reviews through out the day today in the run up to Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. Mostly because I have to work a funny day at work to be able to see CCV in theaters so I’ll have no time to write anything new. If you don’t want to be spoiled, here is my no-spoilers review for this film.
Whole plot in one paragraph:
We open with Karthi being captured during the Kargil war and dragged to jail in Pakistan where he is tortured and dehumanized. But he holds on to his memories of his great love, Aditi, and the rest of the film is mixed between him in jail surviving and trying to break out, and his flashbacks of their romance. Aditi was a young doctor recently arrived in Srinagar who took care of him after a car accident. They fell passionately in love almost immediately, especially after Karthi learned that Aditi was the little sister of his best friend, who died in a training accident. Aditi confesses that she has been dreaming of him since she was 18 based on her brother’s letters. Karthi takes her home for his brother’s wedding, and everything is wonderful until his new sister-in-law goes into labor and the family has to wait together at the hospital and family tensions come out, Karthi’s father threatens his wife and son implying that there is a history of abuse, and Karthi’s sister lets Aditi know that she is just one in a long string of women that Karthi has brought home, and Karthi reacts to this by snapping at them all and ordering Aditi to shut up. Back in Srinagar, there continue to be tensions, Karthi alternates between being romantic and adoring, and dismissive and abusive. Aditi keeps trying to leave him but he always wins her back. Finally, she tells him she is pregnant. And he responds by saying that he isn’t cut out to be a father or a husband, and Aditi walks out promising she is a doctor, she will “take care of it”. Soon after, Aditi’s grandfather (who she has been staying with) dies and her parents come for the funeral and snub Karthi. He tries to win them over, at first with charm and then with anger, and Aditi throws him out. The next day, she tells him that she has taken another job and is leaving town and never wants to see him again. Karthi declares he will find her no matter where she goes, she can never get away, and then on his next flight he is captured. Back in the Pakistan prison, Karthi has begun a plan to escape, because he is desperate to see Aditi one more time. He and his two friends dig a hole out of their cell and climb the wall and get free. They plan to go through Afghanistan and get close to the border through bus travel, and then are captured. His friend an explosives expert blasts them out of their cell and they have a last desperate race to the border in a truck they hijack with the Pakistan army chasing them. They make it to Afghanistan and after a few weeks are sent home to India as heroes. But he can’t find Aditi, and every year he spends his leave searching for her, having heard a rumor she might be working at a Red Cross camp somewhere Finally, at the very end, he tracks her down and learns that she had his child, a daughter. And the family is reunited.
So, here’s the thing, the opening is the most swooningly romantic story ever. So much so that it kind of feels like a bad novel. Our perfect hero is suffering in a Pakistani prison, dreaming of his lost love. He sees her as this perfect slow-motion vision in his memory. And when he starts to remember their love story, it is just as perfect. She saves his life in the hospital, and as he comes back from unconsciousness, he sees her face with a glow around it. They meet again at the flight officers ball, woman in evening gowns and men in white uniforms.
And this is the first moment when Ratnam tips his hand a little. The dancing at the ball isn’t a full on “dance number” by any means, not like “Bole Chudiyan” or something. But it’s also not quite what a normal dance would look like. Karthi lifts Aditi and spins her, her friend and fellow doctor does a full on exhibition number with three men lifting her by her legs, and everything is a little too choreographed. The one thing that really sticks out for me is how few people are dancing. Ratnam makes sure we see that there is a crowd of “regular” people, older, dowdier, people just standing around the edges. While in the center, the perfectly uniformed group of Karthi’s fellow officers dance with gorgeous young woman in elaborate dresses.
This is Karthi’s memory of how it happened. In his mind, it was all glowing and perfect and a little bit over the top. And no one was there but the people who mattered to him, his fellow officers and pretty woman.
And that’s how Aditi sees him. It’s a tricky tone to play in her scenes and she manages to pull it off, with great assistance from the camera work which catches her at just the right angle. Dina pointed out in our podcast (listen here!) that the two characters never quite line up in their scenes together, never seem to be facing each other head on or facing exactly the same way. And she’s right, even in this perfect beginning moment, we see that they aren’t really seeing each other clearly.
Aditi plays it very well, she seems a little too receptive, a little too smiley and happy with his merest touch. When she tells him, on their first flying date, that his best friend Ravi was her brother, it all kind of clicks in to place. Actually what she says is “I always knew VC (Karthi) would be the one to fly me over the Himalayas.” In one line, we learn that she has been dreaming about him and built up this whole belief in him before she even met him, and that her fantasy is so strong, she doesn’t even find this an odd thing to say, she assumes he would of course know that she is Ravi’s sister and they were meant to fall in love and be together forever.
Karthi plays his reaction perfectly as well. Especially in contrast with his earlier scenes. He is so cocky and confident, he honestly thought that Aditi was an easy conquest just because women always fall for him. And now he has learned that she was so easy to win over not because of his charm, but because she really truly loves him for who he is (as presented in the letters from her brother), and that she isn’t just an interchangeable young woman to him, but the spirit of his dead friend come back to him.
Mostly this is still the swoony perfect romance. He is the brave air force pilot, she is the pure and nurturing woman. He wins her over with his confidence and charm, she is eager to be won. And the connection they share through her brother just adds to the magic of it, letting them skip all the “getting to know you” bother and going straight to an almost wordless communication.
But there are these little moments and how they are played. After Karthi learns that Aditi is his friend’s little sister, he reacts by grabbing her face and ordering her to smile for him. And Aditi laughs, and does it. Ignoring two alarming things because they don’t fit in with her view of life. Firstly, Karthi is sincerely thrown by this revelation, it makes him lose his cool charming demeanor, makes him suddenly be not perfect. But she doesn’t react to that, she just laughs it off, as though he could never actually be emotional or flawed in any way. And secondly, that he is grabbing her face in a way that is really not okay. It’s not a gentle caress, he is hurting her and forcing her. But she just laughs that off too.
The first moment when the issues in their romance become explicit is also the most romantic moment. Aditi has traveled to his training camp in the mountains to see him. After their first magical flight together when he learned she was Ravi’s sister, he offered to break it off with her, but she couldn’t forget him. And now she has come to tell him how she feels. And, she admits, also because she wants to see the place where her brother died. He takes her there, and she declares that this is the most wonderful moment of her life, standing there and seeing the beauty where her adored brother died, with him. Karthi starts to say “I love you”, she stops him, and then he tells her they have to leave. She says no, he grabs her and tries to pull her, yells at her, says he will hit her if she doesn’t come.
Watching the scene in the theater and not knowing what would happen later in the film, I leaned over to Dina and said “I hate heroines like this”. It seems like she is being difficult just for the sake of being difficult, they way they always do, so the hero can rescue them. Which is what happens, he finally convinces her to get back in the car by pointing out that a storm is coming which could cause an avalanche. And that he can’t stand to think of anything happening to her, she is the most important thing in his life, even though they have just met. Which is followed by that swooningly romantic shot from the trailer, the two of them in the car glimpsed through the windshield of the car, framed by the windshield wipers which are slowly clearing snow in an arc in front of them. This is the moment when they admit their love, possibly have sex for the first time, and are together forever.
But, what was up with him threatening to hit her? Why was she so mad at him and calling him a “bully”? Does this magical moment of love erase all that? And what does it mean that the most romantic thing he does for her, and the happiest moment of the film, is when they are apart? “Azhagiye” comes after this, he records it with his friends at the training camp and sends it to her as a video message while she is stuck in Srinagar unable to see him for a month. It’s a lovely moment, but it’s also a sign that she is in love with the vision of him, this perfectly prepared video message version, and he is in love with providing that vision to her. More than actually being together in reality.
The real end of the “romance” portion happens when they return home for his family wedding in Delhi. At first it is wonderful. His family seems open and welcoming and free-thinking. His mother is a Tamil literature professor (explaining the Tamil poetry he occasionally spouts off), and his father is a wealthy businessman, and he has a teasing younger sister and a younger brother with some form of developmental disability who he clearly loves deeply. And his older brother, the groom, is a nice man who is marrying an extremely pregnant woman, which every seems to take as a huge joke, that they so clearly couldn’t wait until their wedding night. And she is Punjabi as well, not Tamil, which again everyone seems to laugh off.
But when she goes into labor during the ceremony and the family is left to wait in the hospital corridor, the flaws start to come out. His father snaps at his mother, and Karthi snaps back, saying “You are never going to hurt her, or me, again”. And it’s not a joke, it’s a serious accusation. This happy joking carefree seeming family hides an abusive father, abusive to the point that his son feels the need to posture in front of him in order to protect his mother. Aditi tells him to be quiet, because it is a hospital and they shouldn’t yell. And he snaps at her, and she doesn’t ignore it this time, this time it actually resonates with her and breaks that perfect image of him a little bit. Which is even more broken when his siblings snap that she is just one of a long line of girls he has brought home for family events with big statements.
There are a couple of things I find fascinating about how Ratnam chose to show this sequence. Firstly that this isn’t your standard traditional patriarchal kind of family. His mother works, his brother is marrying a woman he already got pregnant, his younger brother is disabled. And they are accepting of Karthi’s constant string of women. But it doesn’t matter if they seem like the most charming and bohemian family in the world, abuse can pop-up anywhere. It fits better with Karthi’s character, that he would be so charming and casual and all that and come from this kind of family. And just like his casual charm hides a mean streak, so does the charm of his family hide a darkness that Aditi is only now beginning to see.
Secondly, I like that Aditi is clearly beginning to doubt her whole relationship with him, and we can see why she would, but we in the audience know at least some of her doubts are unfounded because we know that he is trapped in a Pakistani jail cell dreaming of her. She isn’t just one of a string of women he has seduced and brought home, she is special to him.
The first half of their romance is intoxicating and perfect with these little moments of flaws. But the second half is a real romance. In a way it reminds me of Chalte Chalte, which I was just talking about as a film that consciously takes that perfect filmi romance we always see and asks “yes, but what happens when they return to real life?” Now they are together, Aditi is “his girl” for good. And now is when he starts to get a little more possessive, to yell at her, to grab her arm, to tell her to shut up. And then to offer elaborate apologies, to stand outside her home reciting poems and begging her to forgive him.
It’s not just that it “turns bad” at this point, it makes us go back and look at the opening and say “wait, was this ever good?” Those slight moments of disconnect, of seeming like it is too magical to be real, is because it was too magical to be real. Neither of them ever truly saw each other. Or wanted to, they just wanted the fantasy. And now that they are really seeing each other, they are in too deep to get out. From both sides. Aditi know she is being abused, knows she should leave him, but can’t do it. And Karthi knows Aditi wants to leave and it tortures him, he can’t let her go.
Rewinding for a moment all the way back to the opening. The first time we see Karthi, he is speeding in a jeep with a girl at his side who is asking when they will be married, and he is putting her off. He spins the car to the side of the road and stops on a dime when she pushes too hard, scaring her a little but also intoxicating her. And then she flirtily grabs the car keys and hops out, and he lets her, and his inability to start the car and get out of the tough spot is why he is hit by the truck and brought to the hospital and meets Aditi.
Late one night at the hospital, when Aditi isn’t there, the girl comes back to see him and asks if he spoke to her father, because her father is sending her away, back to Pune. She is furious with him for ruining her life and not even seeming to care. And later we learn that she wasn’t just some random girl, she was the daughter of his commanding officer.
Putting all this together with his family’s comments about his long string of women brought to family events, I think we can see a pattern. He likes danger, he likes forbidden romances, and he likes being in control. Even to the point of controlling the end of it. He could have broken up with her, or let her broken up with him. But instead, he talked to her father and arranged for her to be sent away and out of his life, all neat and tidy. But he can’t control Aditi. Because he can’t control himself. Their romance has reached the point where he would have sent away all those other women. But he can’t send her away. And he can’t let her go on her own either. He is miserable because of his loss of control and takes it out on her. It’s not healthy.
What I find fascinating on second thoughts is how this is mixed in with what we see of him in the “present”. One thing that keeps coming back to me is how he says that he can picture her face perfectly, her beauty, but he can’t remember her voice. In the flashbacks, she calls him a couple of times on how he seems to only care about her beauty and her body, not her mind or her opinions. Now that he is far away from her, trapped in a prison cell, now he can remember that beauty but he has learned to miss her “voice”.
The other bit that I find so well done is that we are watching him so slowly coming to the point of deciding to break out of prison, planning his escape, and finally carrying it out. At the same time in the flashbacks she is going through the same torment about her escape from him. Slowly coming to the decision, planning it, and then carrying it out.
The final decision point was very clear, to me. And it’s a common decision point for abused women, when a child is involved. She tells him she is pregnant and waits for his response. And after thinking about it for a long time, he finally responds that he just can’t do it, he can picture himself as a father and a husband and be happy, but then he thinks more and realizes it’s just not him, he doesn’t trust himself, he can’t do it. Karthi plays this scene sincerely, this isn’t him with his sunglasses on hiding his real thoughts. He is being completely open and honest with her. And the audience, and Aditi, can quickly fill in the gaps that, as the son of an abusive father and husband, he doesn’t trust himself in that situation. It’s not just a simple “fear of commitment”, he is afraid of what he might do to them, what he must on some level already know he is doing to Aditi. And Aditi takes his decision and, when he humbly asks what she is going to do, just grabs her bag and says that she is a doctor, and she will take care of it.
But what becomes clear, at least to me, at the end of the movie, is that she was never going to have an abortion. She knew already that she wanted to have this child, and depending on Karthi’s reaction, she was ready to leave him. When her parents come to town and refuse to even speak to or acknowledge Karthi, it is because Aditi has already told them that she is pregnant and planning to keep the child but not get married and they (rightfully) blame Karthi for it. But can’t say anything, because it is Aditi’s decision and she does not want him to know. Finally, when she comes to him and tells him she already has another job and is leaving town, which seems like such a shock to him, it is the final step of her long term plan. She got the job and the plan in place before he could find out, and now she is telling him at work where he can’t make a scene, and then she will disappear. It’s an escape plan, just like his from prison. Carefully thought out, prepared in secret, and put in action at the perfect moment.
That’s what brings the two halves of the film together. They are both stories of capture and escape. And only by going through his own journey of giving up control and identity and being brought to his lowest point, can Karthi fully understand what he was doing to Aditi and why she had to leave.
I just wish the ending had been different! It’s a traditional “happy” ending, not just traditional, but imitative. The shots of Karthi arriving, sitting on a sand dune with his pack, seeing Aditi working in the red cross tent in the distance, are shockingly similar to Ratnam’s own Saathiya and Alai Payuthay. Once again a hero is so in love that he can’t stand to let her go, and our heroine has told herself she can forget by throwing herself into good works. In the same way, the opening homage to the Aradhana first meeting tells us this will be a romance between a dashing young pilot and a nurturing woman (Doctor’s daughter in Aradhana, doctor herself in this). But this film turns both plots on their heads slightly.
(Okay, it’s more like Saathiya than Alaipayuthay, which was directed by Shaad Ali not Ratnam, but I think we can safely assume that Ratnam as seen it and is aware that he is using a very similar shot sequence)
In Alaipayuthay/Saathiya, the hero is a romantic. He is in love and needs to break through the reserve of the heroine. And when they are married, they fight, but they have healthy fights. He doesn’t scare her or abuse her or humiliate her. In this movie, she has left him not because of “reserve” or fear of offending her parents, but because she is truly afraid to be with him. The ending doesn’t feel entirely earned to me. It more or less works as I have laid it out, with the theory that his time in prison losing control has taught him her value as a person, and his own humility, and now they can come together as equals. And that she didn’t contact him, even after knowing of his survival and escape, because she did not want him to feel pressured to take on a daughter and wife he was not ready for. Which goes back to the idea that she truly understood his arguments against fatherhood, that he wouldn’t take it on until he could be sure he would be a “safe” father. But I would have prefered that he find her only to learn she has married someone else. And he could prove his growth as a person by giving her his blessing and letting her go.
While the Saatihya/Alaipayuthay comparison don’t seem fully investigated, the Aradhana parallels are perfection. Aradhana is a story of poor Sharmila constantly being abused by fate with no power of her own. But right from the start, we see this will be different, because she is no longer only defined by those around her. She is the doctor herself, not just “the doctor’s daughter”. And so when she ends up pregnant by a pilot, she makes her own decisions about what to do next with no input from anyone else. She doesn’t live her life as a sad widow, she continues her career doing what she wants to do with her daughter at her side and no shame. Even when she thinks he might be dead, she doesn’t sink into despair, she clearly kept working. And when she knows he is alive, she doesn’t rush to his side, she keeps doing what is best for herself. This is Aradhana for a new age, where the selfishness of a handsome pilot who seduces a local girl and leaves her with no commitments is fully explored, and the strength of the woman left behind is given it’s proper due.
(We don’t get this fetishization of suffering kind of sequence, Aditi is allowed to leave and be happy)
But mostly this is a film about abuse, and violence, and power. And I think it is no coincidence that it is set in Kashmir and has a military hero. With the backdrop of the lead up to the Kargil War, there are plenty of conversations in which Aditi suggests peace, patience, understanding, forgiveness towards their political enemies. And Karthi refuses to listen to her, declares that only he, a pilot and a man, has the right to talk about these matters. Ratnam is too canny to directly address the suffering of the common man in Srinagar, but one of the first things we see is Aditi arriving in the hospital to find it overrun with sobbing women, bloody children, and all the sick and damaged of the city. While Karthi is there by mistake, because he belongs in the military hospital. This is Aditi’s proper world, the suffering innocents and bystanders. And Karthi belongs in the high perfect world of the military, flying above it all. He needs to literally be brought down to earth in order to understand the effects of his actions.
The “ball” scene, with the uniforms and ballroom dancing, strongly reminds me of images from the British Raj. There are other similar moments throughout. And I don’t think that was an accident. Ratnam wanted us to be reminded that this is an invading and colonizing force. They have their own clubs, their own social events, their own restricted areas that are off-limits to the locals. The very romance of it all is a sign of brutality. They couldn’t have these balls and airplane rides and everything else without the suffering of the common man supporting it. In his usual way, Ratnam has made a romance that isn’t just about these two people. It’s about all the privileged and spoiled and too powerful military officers he see what they want and take it and will never let it go so long as they keep their power.