KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL (2002, d. Mani Ratnam)
This astounding drama from south India’s Tamil cinema is one of the most brilliant works from acclaimed filmmaker Mani Ratnam. Known for his controversial and hard-hitting ‘terrorist trilogy’ of the 90s, made up of 1992’s Roja (centered around the Kashmir conflict), 1995’s Bombay (a gut-wrenching portrayal of the religious-fuelled riots that ravaged the city in the early 90s) and 1998’s Dil Se (a juxtaposition of the extreme state of mind driving a suicide bomber and her equally obsessed lover/stalker). Ratnam again turned to terrorism as a subject for his first film of the millennium, but on this occasion used the theme instead as a mere backdrop for the more intimate central story of a young, mischievous girl named T. Amudha. Amudha (P.S. Keerthana) has just turned nine and has her world turned upside down when her mother Indra (Simran) and father Thiruchelvan (Madhavan) reveal to her that she is adopted. Angry, confused and determined to seek out her biological parents, she embarks upon a quest with her family that leads them to strife-ridden Sri Lanka where they are caught up in an ensuing war.
Commercial Tamil cinema is often mocked by many, even within the country. Though local audiences lap up the undemanding masala action from their favourite home-grown stars, outside it is known for its obviously low budgets, impenetrable language and culture, crude and clichéd storytelling, amateurish editing and direction, ageing (and expanding) male actors and a seemingly endless revolving door of pale, nubile female performers with careers shorter than your average Big Brother contestant’s. Nonetheless, for all its foibles, the industry has also produced some of the finest talent ever seen in Indian films such as hugely-revered actor Kamal Haasan, music maestros Ilaiyaraja and A.R. Rahman, expert dancer/choreographer Prabhu Deva and, of course, writer/director Mani Ratnam himself. Ratnam’s pictures certainly stand head and shoulders above those of many of his peers in ‘Kollywood’ - and even by his high standards, Kannathil Muthamittal is still an exceptionally accomplished piece of work indeed. Less intense and much lighter in tone than many of his previous efforts, the film nevertheless tugs at the viewer’s heartstrings with ease as they journey with each acutely-crafted character in their respective emotional voyages which the ensemble cast all play to perfection.
The Chipmunk-esque Madhavan tones it way down as Amudha’s father Thiruchelvan; a thick-skinned, hot-headed poet who yet can’t bring himself to discipline his daughter or hide the truth about her past as she has forever inspired his poetry. Simran has our sympathies with her sweet turn as his wife Indra; constantly driven mad by her little she-devil’s antics, she no such qualms about telling her off though her paranoia about losing her girl’s love to her birth mother reveals her vulnerability. Meanwhile, the superb Nandita Das makes a lasting impression with her brief role as Shyama; Amudha’s true parent, torn between the duties in her war and the daughter she’d been trying to forget she had. And then there’s the little hell-raiser herself; all credit to Mani Ratnam for not going the usual route of creating a cuter-than-cute kid character, dimples ‘n’ all. Amudha is in fact a supremely selfish brat, throwing tantrums at the drop of a hat - so kudos then to wonky-toothed child actress P.S. Keerthana for still garnering audience empathy thanks to her wonderfully brassy and likeable performance.
Kannathil Muthamittal is a movie which is entirely character-driven. The plot is utterly basic and with Ratnam’s trademark political and social messages no longer at the forefront, all 135 minutes are instead simply devoted to covering each of the family members’ relationships, conflicts and own personal journeys. Some may search aimlessly for a point to it all, but those willing to just be swept up by the absorbing narrative will surely reap the rewards. Ratnam’s scripting is after all impeccable here as is his direction, painting a glorious picture of emotions and visuals on his celluloid canvas that is free from any cultural barriers - this is one movie that will be accessible to all. Innovative camera angles add a trippy touch to some already mesmerising musical interludes that make excellent use of A.R. Rahman’s energetic and uniquely offbeat songs. And cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran adds invaluable support in the form of some of the most beautiful photography you’ll ever see on film - Kollywood, Bollywood or otherwise. No matter whether you’re a casual or die-hard fan of Indian cinema, Kannathil Muthamittal is unquestionably must-see material.
The available DVD release from South Indian label Ayngaran International boasts generally excellent quality both in the audio and visual department, though the presentation is marred by a large on-screen logo that appears on several occasions as an anti-piracy measure. The optional English subtitles provided are translated fairly well, though there are numerous short gaps in the dialogue and no lyrics are offered for the song sequences. This seems to be a frequent occurrence in Ratnam’s films as the same subtitle problems have arisen in his other works such as Dil Se as well as the recently-released Guru.