She is bathed in light, her iris widens, and those lips gasp. Even if I had seen her in person, I could not have noticed the details of her face, those thickened brows and the rose-tinted nose. The camera seemed to pause, as though marvelling at its megapixel power every time she came into focus.
After watching Kaatru Veliyidai on Sunday, this is what I thought—wielding the camera is a form of power. One person does the framing, there is a gaze at work, and there is an object at the receiving end. Lots of objects. If oil paintings, as John Berger wrote, ‘reduced everything the equality of objects’, high-definition visual imagery stretched out on a wide, wide screen is the oil paintings’ logical conclusion. Not only every thing—every act, every word, every emotion seems to be an object.
Take Srinagar. In Kaatru Veliyidai, it has the well-defined contours and colouring of a picture postcard. It is as tame as an old Colonel’s retirement home. It is as lulling as a sufi-music-bgm birthday party. It is as safe as a bike ride in silk draperies. (Ok, prancing around in silk draperies must come with statutory risk warnings, but never mind that.)
Take her. She is called Leela Abraham. She is a doctor. She has a brother who died in a plane crash. In one almost-forgotten dialogue she says she rebelled against her parents to work in Srinagar. But in those snow-clad vistas, any smidgen of spirit seems to melt like a snowflake on a tin roof. She is now the face. The face with plucked and pruned eye-brows even in a Red Cross camp. The face bathed in light, widened irises, parted lips, and rose-tipped nose. Even the voice-over speaks of her curled earls. She wears raw silks, embroidered silks, handwoven shawls, and tasseled dupattas. You even notice her lobe —it dutifully holds up silver danglers of intricate aristry. She is labeled, with curated couture, with a long-suffering lobe.
What of what she thinks? Does she think? Does she work, does she have plans? Does she wake up at nights having dreamt of failing organic chemistry? The camera does not care. When it does bother with these questions (no, unfortunately the concerns relating to organic chemistry are my own), it feels like watching an advertisement. You know where there are notes played, forming a crescendo and a horse running near an unnamed beach, and a word like ‘Audacity’ is spelled out in a thickish font. And you are supposed to imagine a combination of Laxmibai and Phoolan Devi riding into the sunset and feel the ‘audacity’. Whenever Leela is made to speak, the words she spouts are such thickish font abstractions—they don’t mean anything. It is what advertising does—it divorces the image from the reality and panders only to a certain kind of visual effect. You are ‘supposed’ to feel audacity. You are ‘supposed’ to think Leela has faint ideas about men and women being equal, and that she doesn’t like men who use force on women because she feebly enunciates it. It tells you to think that, but does it show it?
The showing tells you otherwise. The showing tells you that the camera is interested in Srinagar only for its white-clad vistas. The showing tells you that Leela is a manicured, couture-clad, burdened-lobe object. The singing tells you she is a ‘Azhagi’, a doll who is asked to ‘smile di’. She and VC (more about him later) keep referring to each other in the third person, as though they are talking about the now empty Vicco Vajradanti dabba. There is no engagement with the person, the subject-hood, the woman. And where there is, it is token, an afterthought almost. That tokenism almost made me want to gag.
There is one scene where these two friends of Leela speak to each other about her relationship with VC. It is a sort of narrative device—two characters ask the question which the audience is supposed to have. The guy asks, why doesn’t she leave him? Especially, when he treats her so badly? And the friend says, “Love,” with a smile, for the friend, the contortionist-doctor-tango-dan
You would think something like female friendships cannot be made into an object. Think again. Two women meet. A minor miracle ensues. They both speak in this faintly non-accented Tamil, as though someone took those words and made them into programmable phonetic strings. And then one proceeds to smile, and continues to smile, while the other prances in silk draperies. You are ‘supposed’ to think this is the friend character, but the showing tells you she is there because she can dance. Another doll, one who can effortlessly pirouette. Another object added to that list that now comes to its most important character. The man.
Take him. He is called VC. He is a fighter pilot. He was the one who was supposed to be in that ill-fated flight in which her brother was. He has a thick lower lip, long brows, large eyes that periodically widen to indicate that he is a bit off. Now, the camera is interested in knowing what lies beneath. But gets bored soon. So, what we have are songs to cue in emotion. What we have are big-Tamil-words (no troubles with his accent) about his ‘Azhagu sundari’. He has few words with his boss-military-man who compares a father taking care of a daughter to an officer controlling a battalion. He has a few words with his father who wishes to shut his mother up with a well-aimed blow. He has a few words with his sister, who calls him ‘arakkan’. He says ‘I love you’ and ‘I am sorry’ not once but three-three times. He has words.
He twists her arm. He clutches her waist. He keeps entering her space even when she tries to shy away. The camera now peels one layer of that onion. And that’s why when he prances out of a Pakistani prison and prances around mellow-lit landscapes in silhouette, you are sure he is going to catch her and land some well-aimed blows. Instead, he tells you he has changed. He will now think about her. He will not be self-centred. He will not be only a dick. He will be more. And you are ‘supposed’ to believe. And cheer when the silk-draperies-clad doll hugs the Ray-Ban aficionado. You are ‘supposed’ to believe in happy endings.
Instead I shall wait for the sequel. Where she leaves him. He goes into counselling and has visiting rights on alternative weekends. She is a person who gets a job, not one where she acts as a hanger for heavy silk draperies and prances around vague looking hospital people. There is no speaking in third-person when the person is f*(%%ing near your nose and biting your eyelid. There is a law against vague feminist-spout, and everyone is given a course on gender theory, where her contortionist-doctor-ballet dancer-friend learns to name abuse. Delhi Ganesh’s ghost sips rum and sings some songs (he plays the old Colonel in peaceful Srinagar retirement). We get Delhi Ganesh’s backstory (uff, that black-and-white photograph near the body). It is set in Mudichur. For there is a song featuring the pregnant woman of Mudichur. And it is NOT a f#$%^&ing wedding. No more wedding songs.