In Kaatru Veliyidai, Mani Ratnam’s much-awaited 25th film, a number of lines stood out for me.
When Dr Ilyas Hussain (played by an awkward RJ Balaji) asks why Leela doesn’t leave her abusive boyfriend and that surely there are many smart guys out there, Nidhi, another doctor played by Rukmini Vijayakumar, replies, “Where?”. Hussain’s answer defined the movie when he says, “enna love-oh (what love is this)?” He’s right—because what we see isn’t romantic love between the protagonists; it’s a love for control over the other person and a compulsive need to break down their self-esteem.
When the protagonist VC (Varun Chakrapani), played by Karthi, reminisces (he is a captive in Pakistani jail) about his time together with his girlfriend Leela, played by the gorgeous, porcelain-skinned Aditi Rao Hydari, he stresses that they were as different as chalk and cheese—here, darkness and light. VC is the darkness and like all Mani Ratnam heroines, Leela represents light. VC says (translated roughly from Tamil), “What is light without darkness?”
To me, that line stood out not because it was deep, but because it should’ve perhaps been, “What’s darkness without light?” Because as cheesy as it sounds, there is darkness in this world without light; you just have to close your eyes. I say this also because Leela can easily survive, exist and live a comfortable life without VC—we see that when she finally decides to walk out on him after months of surviving his abuse—but VC cannot even fathom an existence without Leela, as he himself admits.
Abuse might be the central theme on which this film runs, but Mani Ratnam taps into his often explored subject of the coming together of two people who don’t normally go together—diametric opposites falling in love. True, most romantic movies fall into that category: the hero is the alpha and the heroine the beta; the hero is macho and hardwired for violence and the heroine is a wisp of a woman, who loves astonishingly beautiful days in Ooty and Kashmir and walks with a spring in her step.
It’s the same contrast that Ratnam explores in Kaatru Veliyidai: VC is too cool for school, we are shown, by the way he steadily clings to his aviators—if he was Captain America, that’d be his shield—the way he walks with a swagger, his haughty smile when one of his girlfriends asks him when they’ll get married, how he playfully talks to his disapproving senior in Telugu even though said senior asks him to stop, only before making an inappropriate, misogynist quip about how a fellow colleague should’ve brought up his daughter better.
Leela is his polar opposite—she lives in the moment without any thoughts on the potential repercussions (especially the scene where they are in the midst of a snowstorm where all Leela wants to hear is VC if wants her or his ex), she sings beautifully (like Tara of OK Kanmani), she dances gracefully (like Anjali of Agni Natchathiram), she prances in the snow wearing just a sari, she arrives at Kashmir to find VC and make him fall in love with her, she travels to Leh when she hears he’s off to a camp…
This theme of attraction towards what one is not is something Ratnam is very familiar with. We see this in Mouna Ragam, where a college-going Revathi, initially sends her lover, a petty criminal played by Kathik, to jail, only to end up falling in love with him. She is everything he is not—she has a family, he has friends who are like family; she wants to get her father’s permission before marriage but he insists on a secret wedding; she is an upstanding citizen who reports him to the police, while he fights against the system, but promises to give it up only on her insistence.
The legendary Thalapathi starring Rajinikanth and Shobana also explores this theme well. Again, he is a crusader of justice, helping the poor in Robin Hood-like ways. He’s an orphan, counting on his neighbours and friends as family. She, meanwhile, comes from an orthodox Brahmin family who is drawn to him, despite her disgust for the violence he swears by—and like all the women who are shown trying to “change” the men in their lives, she too urges him to give it up.
What separates Mouna Ragam and Thalapathi from Kaatru Veliyidai is that while in the former two films, the protagonists or the lovers don’t unite because of their differences (in Mouna Ragam, Karthik unfortunately dies so that is ruled out and in Thalapathi, the heroine’s father refuses to get her married to an non-Brahmin orphan), in the latter, even after Leela forcibly takes herself out of the equation, moving away to a place where VC can’t find her, he tracks her down (around 10 years later) and they come together in an abrupt tearful union: on seeing his daughter, VC breaks down and hugs them in a tight embrace. Apparently, all is well and forgiven.
It doesn’t matter that VC uttered lines like “aambla vera pombala vera (men and women are different); it’s biological, nee doctor thaane (aren’t you a doctor)?”, or that he twists her arm in front of his colleagues, says sorry but again pushes her away forcefully that she falls down, or that he yells at her in front of his parents while standing up for his mother, or that he promises to marry her and that he’ll meet her at the registrar’s office—only to not show up. When she confronts him away from the milling crowd of his colleagues, he yells: “My princess is angry.” Because somewhere he is confident that she will come back. She does, but she also goes away. Only to be found later by him.
Kaatru Veliyidai, which is set in Srinagar, is something of a throwback to another Kashmir film by Ratnam—Roja. In Roja, Arvind Swamy (a cryptologist working for RAW, another similarity as VC isa fighter pilot for the IAF) is kidnapped by terrorists. And it is Roja (played remarkably by Madhoo) who saves him physically, by running from pillar to post, pleading with politicians, the military—all while overcoming a language barrier. In Kaatru Veliyidai, the heroine is again the saviour, except she tries to help him mentally, by questioning everything that’s wrong about him—his chauvinism, his utter disregard for other people and their opinions, his misogyny. Two-and-a-half decades later, the hero has changed but Ratnam still wants the heroine to “rescue” the hero, albeit a jerk.
What about Leela and her struggles—how does she take it, months of abuse inflicted upon her by her boyfriend? But we never get to see her perspective—unlike in Mouna Ragam where Revathi has a flashback dedicated to her story. Or even in Alaipayuthey, where Shalini comes from a lower middle class family who is determined to be a doctor and Madhavan is the rich kid who depends on his father for money. It’s only after marriage, that a huge hit of reality forces him to start his business; the business is like their marriage, rough and rocky and requires a lot of work. Which we see in the movie, when Madhavan searches for a missing Shalini and we’re shown their time together in flashbacks. Finally, when he realises that she has met with an accident and is fighting for her life, he confesses to her that he should be a better husband and that he will.
Kaatru Veliyidai just gives us the movie satisfaction of “happily ever after”, which is problematic given that their “sadly before this” was riddled with unsolved issues.
Co-published with Firstpost