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Mani Ratnam and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam: The twilight saga continues

A still from ‘Chekka Chivantha Vaanam’.

A still from ‘Chekka Chivantha Vaanam’.  


With Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, fans will have to accept that their beloved Mani Ratnam is past his prime

Finding new ways to worship a hero whose powers are fading in front of your eyes is an essential element of sports and cinema tribalism.

Football fans will readily recollect the final five or six years of the English club Arsenal under the legendary Arsène Wenger, whose reign lasted 22 years. Wenger is widely credited to have revolutionised English football by bringing in sports science, better scouting of players, and hastening the end of a player culture where meat pies and pints were as essential as oxygen. At its best, Wenger’s Arsenal played a brand of football that was slick, technically superior, thrilling to see.

In 2003-04, Wenger’s Arsenal remained unbeaten over 38 league matches, earning the nickname ‘Invincibles’. Yet, by 2007, Arsenal fell off the pace irreversibly, thanks to a mix of self-imposed financial austerity and new owners at rival clubs with virtually endless resources.

In the final Wenger years, when the team was firmly in also-ran territory, it was amply clear that the manager had overstayed his welcome by at least two if not five years.

Feeling tricked

However, for a vast section of his devotees, Wenger still knew best and a future without him sounded even worse. For a while, when chances of silverware had vanished but the occasional high-precision play was still in display, the silver lining for the committed fan was that even failure had an echo of glory with Wenger around.

There was much harking back to the glory days and painstakingly built explanations of how Wenger had pragmatically reinvented himself for the new context, but little acceptance that after all, time may have passed him by.

I came out feeling pretty much the same, tricked into watching Mani Ratnam’s Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (CCV) after having given up on the director in 2010, after Raavanan. Fawning reviewers had billed CCV as the veritable “return of the master”.

I was eager to believe, and curious to see if Mani’s march to mediocrity that began two decades ago, after Iruvar, could have taken a U-turn. “No one knows the underworld or can capture the Chennai zeitgeist quite like Mani,” said one. My mind swiftly began replaying that fantastic transition-of-power scene in Nayakan when a young Velu Nayakar in a somewhat ill-fitting chalk stripe suit enters the assembly of Mafiosi with peak swag unburdened by his pidgin English, Hindi and Telugu, to establish his credentials. And, of course, Mani could do ample justice to Chennai or big cities in general — period (Iruvar), contemporary (Agni Natchathiram, Mouna Ragam) or suburban (Alaipayuthey).

Where’s the story?

“A pacy, poetic tribute to Kurosawa,” claimed another review. That should have been the deal-breaker, as is usually any review that bills a film as a tribute to Nayakan. You can accuse me of delusion. “What a camera, what a lighting, what editing, what an ensemble cast,” gushed several YouTube reviewers.

“All ok, but where is the story,” asked my wife halfway into the first half, puzzled by my uncharacteristic involvement with the screen. “Look at the furniture, the fabric... Oh so fab. My Diwali shopping list is made,” I whispered.

From then on, the film was incredibly more fun. The inhabitants of gangster Senapathi’s (Prakash Raj) household, who killed people for breakfast, had a design sensibility to rival that of India International Centre members.

“Did you see that sheesham chest of drawers in Senapathi’s bedroom?” “The ikat patch on Jyothika’s kurta is so cool. But I like Jayasudha’s handloom copper sulphate sari better. We should plan a trip to the shops in Baba Khadak Singh Marg,” the wife proposed.

The abode of Senapathi, the man whose business interests stretch from arms dealing to real estate townships to deal making in Dubai (of what kind we don’t know, but striking them necessitates worsted suits and champagne swilling in swanky yachts) resembled a Fabindia Experience Store. Aditi Rao Hydari’s (love) pad has a similar aesthetic but also a dash of flea market (because she is a brave mike-shoving TV journalist who also has a DSLR camera, you see). Our shopping gupshup didn’t bother fellow viewers because fortunately there weren’t too many, and there was anyway incessant gunfire to keep us inaudible.

Don’t drag Kurosawa

Perhaps reading a Kindle edition of CCV’s script might have been a more gripping affair like, say, Sidney Sheldon’s Morning, Noon and Night Tamil knock-off? Thanks but no thanks. If I have a craving for crime-fic in native language, Rajesh Kumar will do just fine. Small ask: just don’t drag Kurosawa into this dirt.

In CCV, screen writers Mani and Siva Ananth’s characters don’t speak. They talk. A lot. Staccato. Even by Mani standards. Flesh aplenty. Fleshed out characters, none.

In the newsrooms of The Financial Times, one of the world’s best newspapers, writers and editors are trained to constantly seek “the bollox”.

The bollox is the label FT editors have, over several years of compelling newswriting, come to attach to the vital component in any story. Bollox infuses every story with a sense of why the events being reported are important, the background that led up to them, the context in which they occurred, what consequences and wider significance they may have and what other people of influence are saying about them. Usually, there will be one condensed paragraph, very high up in the story, which contains the core bollocks.

In CCV, almost every major character gets a bollox paragraph. It is either read out by the characters themselves (Arvind Swamy explaining his brutal ways to his wife dying of bullet wounds; Vijay Sethupathi’s two-minute, personal history monologue climax Bollox to morally trump everyone else’s bollox); or someone else narrates it for our express benefit (Arun Vijay’s Sri Lankan Tamil wife describing his two faces; Prakash Raj absolving his brother-in-law of the plot to kill him because he was an unalloyed loyalist).

Too much ‘bollox’

Safe to conclude that bollox paragraphs work for newspapers stories not films, especially those with averagely talented actors. Compare that to a fairly innocuous scene in Iruvar this writer regards as Mani Ratnam’s best.

The Tamil Nadu chief minister of Malayali origin (Mohanlal) meets confidante and police chief, Nair (Major Sunderrajan), to take stock of the situation after the arrest of his friend-turned-political-foe Tamizhselvan (Prakash Raj). The police officer says that victory in that high-risk gambit was his political master’s. Mohanlal, in part-Tamil, part-Malayalam, wonders what victory really means. “Pazhaya koottukkarana jailla akkiyatho?” Before explanations can happen, Mohanlal asks by gesture if Nair has eaten. “Veru veru,” he says, dragging his top policeman to the dinner table with nothing more than a hint of his left palm touching Sunderrajan’s shoulder. That’s a bollox scene. In under 30 seconds.

Sadly, Mani Ratnam’s films for nearly two decades have relied upon ancient curiosities (pairing debutants Thulasi Nair-Gautham Karthik in a seaside romance, Kadal, just as their parents Radha-Karthik had been in a similar setting in Alaigal Oivathillai by Bharathiraja) rather than his ability to tell a darn good visual story.

That he shot Kaatru Veliyidai for the first time ever in locations outside India was that film’s chief marketing plank. Even when it comes to capturing the underworld or the rhythms of modern Chennai or any other metropolis, there are countless younger directors who have upped the game, and come and gone.

As with Arsène Wenger, it’s perhaps the fans trapped in the 1980s and 90s who need to realise that time has passed their beloved Mani by.

The Bengaluru-based writer, translator, classical music addict and fountain pen freak makes the world’s best rasam.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 12:59:24 AM |

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