The sound of waves lashing against the coast, heavy downpours and dark, overcast skies constitute a visual imagery we associate with several Mani Ratnam movies of the past. In Kadali (dubbed version of the Tamil film Kadal), the sea, sand and the sun contrast a barren, stark land and its people. The sea is calm and soothing when love blossoms between a young couple, it is ferocious (some portions shot during cyclone Nilam) when the ultimate battle between two strong characters is played out and the roaring waves work as an allegory when a little boy weeps over the dead body of his mother. Some of these frames remind us of Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal (Amrutha in Telugu). But, in content, will Kadali stand the test of time like KM did?

It isn’t easy narrating a complex tale of battle between good and evil, a journey from sin to redemption with plenty of biblical references thrown in. Our expectations are high because a master craftsman is at work.

Two strong individuals, Samuel (Arvind Swamy) and Bergman (Arjun), are products of a theology college. Samuel, we are told, chooses religion and spirituality over the comforts of his home. Bergman wants an easy way out in life, even if it means choosing a path the church wouldn’t approve of.

Much of the film lies on the talented shoulders of these two men. Arvind Swamy makes a strong and dignified comeback. Arjun shines as the mean baddie who prides in his ‘satan’ic ways. After years of going with the flow of mainstream commercial potboilers, he seems to relish this role.

In between these two men unfolds another story of an orphaned boy, Thomas (who grows up to be Gautham Karthik), ostracised by the village. He redeems from his waywardly ways under the care of Samuel only to be torn apart between his mentor and Bergman later. Along comes a child-woman Beatrice (Thulasi Nair) whose innocence makes Thomas want to start on a clean slate again. Gautham Karthik makes an assured, terrific debut and completely gives in to the vision of the filmmaker. Thulasi Nair has a long way to go.

In her brief role, Lakshmi Manchu manages to make her presence felt.

Kadali starts off as an absorbing social drama. There are snatches of brilliance in the initial face-off between Sam and Bergman and the troubled childhood of the boy. Arvind Swamy entering the hamlet amidst constant chatter of the villagers bring a smile, reminding us of Roja. But the film tests patience in the latter portions. A better screenplay and some amount of editing would have helped salvage it from getting tedious. The climax is a huge letdown. What works for this romance by the sea is stunning cinematography by Rajiv Menon, true-to-life art direction by Shashidar Adapa and an excellent music score by A.R Rahman. Rajeev Menon makes this grimy fishing hamlet with its barren seaside appear like a painting, framing his shots against carefully placed crucifixes, catamarans and an occasional broken tree trunk. The art director’s eye for detail is evident from the placement of fishing nets, the market place and even the rundown church. Rahman’s ingenious mix of Blues with gospel works wonders for the film.

Kadali is a visual and musical treat but content wise, the sailing isn’t smooth.

KADALI

Cast: Gautham Karthik, Thulasi Nair, Arvind Swamy, Arjun, Lakshmi Manchu

Direction: Mani Ratnam

Plot: A universal tale of good vs. evil woven around two polar opposite characters.

Bottom line: A mixed bag.