Tuesday Tamil ReRun: My Favorite Mani Ratnam Movie, Kannathil Muthamittal/A Peck on the Cheek

When I first saw this, I had only seen a few Mani Ratnam movies and I really loved it.  Now I have seen almost all of Ratnam’s movies, and I just appreciate it even more.

This movie is structured so well, and so distinctly Ratnam-like.  That’s one of the things I was told before I watched my first Ratnam movie, that he has a different way of dealing with time and information.  He actually reminds me of Yash Chopra in that way.  If you think of a movie like Silsila, the actual timeline doesn’t make sense.  How long were Amitabh and Jaya married before Rekha re-appeared?  Long enough to start making their peace with each other, and for Rekha to marry someone else and start a life with him, but not long enough for Jaya to give birth?  How long did the affair go on before things came to a head?  When did Jaya get pregnant again?  It doesn’t make sense if you try to draw it out on a graph, but it makes complete sense when you are watching it because Yashji confidently skips from scene to scene in a way that makes emotional sense, and sense for the characters, even if all of the details and times don’t work.

(Also in common between Yashji and Mani Ratnam-Pretty pretty pictures!)

In Kannathil Muthamittal, it works a little better, because we are in the perspective of a 9 year old little girl (ignoring the prologue section which I will deal with later).  And this is how time and space function for a little kid, the big moments are big and memorable, but the little moments all kind of blur together.  Memory and the past is made up of these huge landmarks floating in a sea of things that don’t matter.  And the present is always firm and certain, there is no sense that relationships might change or people might be different.  All of that is conveyed through Ratnam’s story structure, especially the way he handles the opening sequences.

We are introduced to this world through Amudha’s voice.  Her father is a writer and an engineer, her mother is a newsreader and housewife, her grandfather sits around the house and reads books, her little brothers run around and disobey, her father’s sister visits them a lot along with her older cousins.  This is her life, everything has its place, including herself.  She is the beloved daughter and granddaughter of her indulgent father and grandfather.  She is the daughter of her mother, with whom she constantly clashes.  She is the bossy big sister to her little brothers.

The first cracks in her world show up for the audience as they would for a small child, half heard conversations, worried faces quickly hidden from her.  And when she is told the big secret, that she is adopted, it hits her like it hits the audience, as a shock and a surprise, but not completely unexpected.  We already knew, just as she already knew, that there was something a little scary and a little wrong going on.  During the conversation at the beach when her father tells her, she keeps running around and around in a circle, interrupting him, doing all those things little kids do because they think maybe if they delay long enough, the bad thing they know is coming will never happen, whether it is being told an unpleasant truth or being told to go to bed.  The camera follows her, giving the audience the same effect of “I don’t want to look this truth in the face, I don’t want to think about it!”

It is only after she has processed the fact in a variety of ways, from running away to crying to yelling, that she is able to sit down and hear the whole story of how she came to her family.  This flashback story is the most traditionally “filmi” part of the movie, with a romance and fate and all of that.  And also, c. 2000 clean-shaven Madhavan, aka peak-hotness Madhavan.

(Peak Hotness)

I have a slight issue with this section, in that it presents adoption as such a fated special thing.  It’s kind of hard for me to articulate, but for me adoption is basically an everyday thing.  For instance, I had to pause this movie halfway through to go to church and teach Sunday School, as I do every Sunday, to a class who is 50% adopted.  When I was growing up, the church I went to was also about 50% adopted kids.  For these kids and their parents, there wasn’t a remarkable once in a lifetime kind of happenstance that brought them together, or no more than there always is when a parent and child come together, it was a matter of filling out paperwork and having a home visit and waiting to hear from the agency, and then being a family.

Making it this sort of fairy tale magic version, for me, just serves to make adoption seem like less of an option.  Like, you can only do it if there is some incredible bolt from the blue falling in love at first sight kind of thing, and if you do it by paperwork and home visits, it doesn’t count as much.  I guess my problem is similar to the argument you hear sometimes against really really over the top romantic films, that they make people think they have to wait for “the one” and not count relationships that naturally develop over time with a lot of work and effort as being equally valid.  I don’t know if I agree with that argument so much, mostly because everyone has experienced romantic love either through observation or experience, so they can usually tell what is movie magic and what is reality.  But with adoption, not everyone has seen it, so I would prefer a movie that shows the nuts and bolts of how it happens for millions of families every day.  But that’s not nearly filmi enough!  So Ratnam made it into a cute story of the couple getting married partly so they can qualify as parents for the baby they have both fallen in love with.

However, this is where I think Ratnam’s structure comes into play.  He doesn’t start with the romantic adoption story.  He starts with the every day life of a family.  So maybe the start was a fairy tale, but the end result is a little girl who doesn’t do all her homework and teases her little brothers and her mom yells at her to clean her room, and so on.  It undercuts the romance of the adoption, makes it clear that was just the first part of the story, the rest of it is a family like any other.

I also like how the rest of the adoption story plays out in the modern day.  Although again, it is a little odd to my eyes from my particular perspective.  In America, cross-racial adoption has been the norm for about 30 years.  Which means the whole “when do you tell them they are adopted” question is kind of out of date.  They know they are adopted, there’s no way to keep it a “secret”.  So for the adopted kids I have always known, it was something they knew and everyone else know from forever.  There’s no moment when you “find out”.  But it was totally a thing in America back in the 50s-60s and into the 70s, back when the common wisdom was that adopted kids should look just like their parents.  But if I can accept that it is a thing to “tell them or not tell them”, then the whole array of emotions the family goes through feels very realistic to me.  That Amudha would immediately leap to wondering about her biological mother, that her family would feel their own pain in acknowledging that she wasn’t completely theirs, and that the end result would be an awareness that for the health and happiness of their child, they needed to deal with her questions.

Which goes back to the actual start of the film, the prologue I promised I would deal with later.  The prologue lifts right out, it has no connection with what comes after it.  But that’s the point, that these actions and events feel so unrelated to our lives, that we forget they are even happening, until they are forced onto us.  It’s the same trick Ratnam uses in Roja, starting with the arrest of the terrorist in Kashmir, and then going straight to “Choti Se Asha” and continuing with the little village love story.  The audience forgets about the horrific events that are going on elsewhere in the world, just like the characters do, until they slowly intersect with the lives of our main characters, showing that nothing is really disconnected, and any distance from violence is just an illusion.

It’s slightly different here, because we are seeing things from the perspective of Amudha’s mother, we are seeing why she would leave her.  This is the clean cut of adoption.  On the one side of the divide, we have a desperate mother whose life is hopeless and filled with pain.  And on the other side, we have a happy and loving family who can’t possibly understand why a woman would leave her daughter.  And in the middle, we have Amudha, raised on one side of the line, but feeling echoes of the pain on the other side of it.

There is another line in this film, the line between father and mother.  Amudha’s parents are a loving couple who agree on most matters.  And they love their daughter.  But her father’s relationship with her is different from her relationship with her mother.  And it is that difference which clearly drives her quest to find her biological mother.  At first glance, it appears that Amudha is closer to her father.  He is the one she runs to when she is hurt or scared.  He is the one who tells her the truth about her birth.  He is the one who seems to really understand her.

Her mother, on the other hand, is a constant source of conflict.  They fight all the time, over cleaning her room or doing her schoolwork or anything else.  Amudha clearly doesn’t think she is as loved by her mother as she is by her father.  And the audience could be lead to the same conclusion.  Her mother refuses to be there for the conversation about her adoption.  Her mother yells at her when she is found after running away, instead of hugging her.  Even later, when they are traveling in Sri Lanka, her mother calls her brothers on the phone and is visibly upset over leaving them, possibly indicating that she would rather be home with her biological children than here with her adopted one.

At some point in this section, she is complaining to Madhavan that Amudha never listens to her, won’t even talk to her, is getting worse and worse with age.  And Madhavan points out “It is because she is so like her mother.”  That’s the key.  Both Amudha and Simran (Simran is the actress who plays her mother, I am sick of typing “Amudha’s mother” all the time!) retreat from emotion into anger and stubbornness.  They can’t handle this situation with the ease and grace that Madhavan has, because it hurts them so much more than he can understand.

(This is Simran.  Look how happy she is!  But then, who wouldn’t be happy hugging c. 2000 Madhavan?)

This all comes to a head in a very small moment at the very end of the film.  We have had so much drama up to this point, our little family has been almost kidnapped, caught in fire fights, explosions, experienced the horror of guerrilla warfare and everything else that is tearing Sri Lanka apart, but this little moment is the most important of the whole film.  In their final attempt to connect with Amudha’s mother (who they now know is connected to the resistance, as they got word to her through a rebel group), they agreed to meet her in a public park, and while they were waiting for her, they were caught in a firefight between the army and the rebels.  The next day, the family is ready to go home, having decided that it is too dangerous to stay any longer.  But as they drive to the airport, Amudha’s mother asks if they can drive by way of the park.  Madhavan and their host both point out that it is dangerous, as the army is still patrolling.  But she insists that they do it.  And as they are driving through the deserted and bombed out park, she looks carefully out the windows, calling out for them to halt as soon as she sees another vehicle approach.

Ratnam doesn’t bother with dialogue to explain this and if you weren’t paying close attention, it could feel like a magical coincidence, that somehow Amudha’s mother “sensed” they should go through the park.  But it’s because she understands Amudha’s biological mother better than anyone else, because they are the only two people in the world who love Amudha that much.  Amudha’s biological mother will be there, because she would need to make sure her daughter escaped the fire fight uninjured.  She may not come to a meeting if she knew her daughter was happy and healthy and didn’t need her.  But knowing there was a battle at a place where her daughter might have been, if there was a chance that Amudha was wounded or dead, she would risk capture by the enemy to to make sure that she had escaped safely.

It’s the same instinct that leads Amudha’s adopted mother to slap her for running away, to force her to do her homework, to clean her room, to stop fighting with her brothers.  To love her sons so much that it breaks her heart to leave them, but to love her daughter so much more that she can break her heart over and over again if it will help her daughter’s heart heal.  Amudha’s father doesn’t love her enough to make the hard choices, doesn’t understand her well enough to know what those hard choices need to be.  She knows that a mother may have many reasons for avoiding a chance to meet and talk with her daughter.  But there is nothing that would keep her away if her daughter might be lying (laying?) hurt and calling out for her.

Amudha’s adoptive mother, who has never even met her, is able to understand Amudha’s biological mother better than her own brother.  We saw Amudha’s biological mother (played by Nandita Das, by the way.  She had to have her dialogue dubbed, but it was worth it, because she has such amazing screen presence) learn of her existence from her brother.  Her brother expects that she would naturally wish to meet with her daughter, why not do this small thing when they have come such a long way to meet her?  But Nandita looks around at their camp where girls Amudha’s age are being trained as fighters, and says that she can’t afford to have one daughter, when she has 300.  You can see her brother doesn’t understand, thinks she is a little heartless, thinks she doesn’t care at all, because otherwise why not do this one small thing?

(Nandita Das is so cool)

But this is where the structure comes back, the way Ratnam showed us the events that lead to Amudha’s birth and then abruptly cut to her happy life in India.  In just this little moment when Nandita looks at the camera and her face twitches, you can see that abrupt cut come back up, you can see that is how Nandita sees her life and her daughters.  There is a huge line between her desperate struggle for survival in a life which turns little girls into soldiers, and Amudha’s happy peaceful existence in India.  And she wants to keep that line in place.  She isn’t saying that she loves her “300 daughters” more than Amudha, she is saying that meeting Amudha would risk making her but another of the 3oo, another child raised in violence and despair, she needs to keep her away from all that.

It feels like the whole movie has been building towards Amudha’s meeting with her biological mother, but that’s not true.  It has been building towards an understanding between her two mothers and, by extension, between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.  The most important moment of their meeting isn’t when Nandita finally takes her in her arms, it’s when Simran is able to let her go and send her to her other mother.  And the final moment of the film, and the moment which gives it its title, isn’t when Amudha and Nandita embrace, or even when Nandita walks away forever, its when Amudha finally stops crying out for Nandita, turns in Simran’s arms and kisses her cheek.  The culmination isn’t a reunion with her biological family, it’s a renewed understanding of how she is a part of her adopted family.

Phew!  Just writing about that made me cry and cry!  Time for a break to make sure my mascara hasn’t run at work, and maybe to think about writing about a Telugu film next.  Those almost never make me cry!

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11 thoughts on “Tuesday Tamil ReRun: My Favorite Mani Ratnam Movie, Kannathil Muthamittal/A Peck on the Cheek

  1. My problem with Mani Ratnam is that I know how good he is, I know his movies are usually better then others, and I apprecciate the beauty, but I’m not able to LOVE his work.

    Do you remember the question you asked on Sunday about scenes which can ruin entire movie? so for me Kannathil Muthamittal has that one scene – it’s when Amudha and her family are waiting for Nandita to come, but isntead of her, the military come and start shooting? It was so frustrating! 3 adults are not able to handle one little girl’s tantrums. I was angry even earlier (Why they come with a child to a war zone? Why nobody control this girl? Why she is free to go where she wants? Why nobody told her it’s dangerous? She was mature enough to know she was adopted but not to understand she can’t wander in the forest in Sri Lanka? And how many other bombings they have to survive to understand they must go home?) and this scene when Amudha refuse to leave the park was too much.
    But other things: the beginning with Nandita, flashback love story , current live in Chennai, it was all so good, and beautiful. I only wish Sri Lanka part was a little different, maybe less violent.
    It was my first movie with Simran, and I couldn’t belive how beautiful this woman is. And Nandita Das too.

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    • A comment! Thank you!

      I felt that way about Anjali, I could admire how well made it was and what a unique story it was. But ultimately it just didn’t connect with me. So I know what you mean. For some reason though, this story really connected.

      Interesting point with that one moment being too far. They needed it, for plot reasons, but surely there was a better way to do it, maybe someone got their foot caught in something and it delayed them leaving the park.

      I love the flashback love story. It is so sweet and simple, and unspoken. And works so well since we have seen them as “grown-ups” before that, arguing and raising kids together and all of that.

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      • Yes, we needed this momet, but maybe if there was less violence earlier this moment would come as a real shock. Make them a little ingenuous, let’s say they don’t believe somebody will start shooting in the middle of the city. But they faced the violence and bombings from the first day, everyday they (and the girl) should have known better when it’s time to run.

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    • The waiting in the park scene is setup after the family has started losing hope on finding Amutha’s mother. Amutha is shown walking around restlessly & Simran makes a comment that she tried several outfits in preparation for this meeting. That’s how much eagerly she’s waiting. Now when Amutha is told that they have to leave immediately cos a war is about to erupt, she’s annoyed & disappointed. She even stubbornly & stupidly tells her father ‘tell all these people to go away from here & tell my mother to come here’. That’s how much angry & irrational she gets at the thought of losing the chance to meet her mother. But after seeing Simran getting wounded & being in pain, she is not that eager second time around to look for the mother. It’s on Simran’s insistence they wait again at the park. I think the idea was to show that for Amutha, the dealbreaker is Simran getting hurt or wounded. That her quest for Nandita may result in losing her real mother.

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