The first 40 minutes or so is a poignant journey into the bewildered mind of a four-year-old, and later into the harassed psyche of a 10-year-old. Nitish, who plays the child, is absolutely spontaneous — the innocence will haunt you for long. The slightly grown-up version of the part is donned by Master Saravanan, whose boisterousness and display of defiance brings out the insecurity of the character beautifully, though his expletives grate on the ear.

Every Mani Ratnam attempt that features children has had the director bringing out the best in them. It happens in Kadal (U) too. These and a few other typical Ratnam touches make the early segments of Kadal engaging.

Kadal has the high tide of goodness and valour juxtaposed with the lows of villainy and vendetta. And representing the two extreme ends are Arvind Swami and Arjun. Swami enters after a hiatus, but sans the verve and energy of his past films. You miss the hero of Roja all over again when you watch him in Kadal. His performing skill is intact though. Fit as a fiddle Arjun the leading man of innumerable films proves he can be effective as a chicaner too. The vicious glint in his eyes is quite forbidding!

Good vs. Evil isn’t a new premise by any means, yet the story has some interesting twists, and a fair share of ambiguities. Like, the reason for a rich man like Arvind Swami (at least that’s what is said) choosing to become a father in a church is touched upon but remains a mystery. As Ratnam doesn’t believe in being explicit, certain happenings stay unexplained.

If you expect the hero to wreak revenge on the man who harms his mentor, it doesn’t happen. But for the initial anger, he’s busy with his romantic overtures, criminal acts and grieving the death of his dad. That takes us to the much-hyped arrival of Gautam Karthik in tinsel town. A dream debut for any aspirant and the young actor utilises it well. He dances, fights and emotes with ease. Way to go, Gautam. In comparison, heroine Thulasi has little to do. Initially you are flummoxed by her childish grin — till of course you are given the reason for it. Did Ratnam want his heroine to be a little plump? If so, why, you wonder!

Bolstered up, as it is, by an ace technical team, Kadal weathers storms in the form of glitches (that aren’t like Ratnam at all) and protractions. A. R. Rahman’s ‘Nenjukkula’ is a chartbuster, but the way it’s shot is passé, while ‘Elay Keechan,’ a catchy first number for hero Gautam has been excellently choreographed. Many of the short lyrics used as fillers in the re-recording are awesome — the ‘Maram Ondru Vizhundhal’ quartet is an example. Vairamuthu and Madhan Karky share the honours. When an entire film is set in the lap of Nature it’s a field day for the cinematographer, because the milieu lends itself to aesthetics. So visually, Kadal is Rajeev Menon’s exotic portrait in motion. Art (Sasidhara Adappa) deserves special mention — be it the dilapidated church and its precincts, the fishing hamlet or the marketplace on the seashore.

Figuratively, if you are at sea at many a turn the reasons are obvious. The lingo of the fishing community isn’t completely familiar and before you can decipher what’s being said, ARR’s RR works with a vengeance to make the dialogue in many a sequence absolutely unintelligible. This becomes an exasperating exercise for the viewer and makes the film lose its grip on him. As somebody in the audience suggested, probably subtitles in Tamil would have helped! All the same, wherever it’s audible Jayamohan’s dialogue sparkles.

The snag is that Ratnam has set a high standard for himself. If you are willing to settle for a few twists in the line, some commendable performances, a couple of lilting melodies and visual splendour in a Ratnam film, fine. But if you expect a film in the league of his Mouna Ragam, Agni Nakshatram or Nayakan, you could be disappointed.