Movie Review: Mani Ratnam's Kadal (Sea) is a damp squib

by Gautaman Bhaskaran

Tamil director Mani Ratnam’s Kadal or Sea opened bang in the midst of Kamal Hassan’s Viswaroopam controversy, and will probably enjoy additional mileage. For, had superstar and demigod of sorts Hassan’s film opened now, it could have kept many away from Ratnam’s latest work.

This time around, Ratnam played it low key, unlike during his earlier bilingual Raavanan/Raavan, which disappointed fans and the box office. Against months of run up to Raavanan/Raavan, including a much publicised campaign at the Cannes Film Festival (where we were told among other things how difficult the actual shoot had been in hostile terrain), Kadal arrived without much of a roar.

Yes, we knew that two new actors had been taken on, Gautham Karthik and Thulasi Nair  -- both children of yesteryear Tamil artists, Karthik and Radha, who interestingly had debuted together in Bharathi Raja’s Alaigal Oivathillai/Waves Never Cease, set in a Christian village, much like Kadal. We were also told that a trimmer Aravind Swamy (once a Mani Ratnam favourite) was facing the camera after a hiatus of 12 years. There was also cinematographer Rajiv Menon’s statement on how challenging it had been to shoot a scene during an actual storm off the Chennai coast, Cyclone Nilam.

Kadal

Kadal ultimately trickles down to some awesome visuals, shot in some of the most beautiful coastal regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala

Though the storm sequence pales in comparison to the one we saw in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (which was of course simulated in a gigantic tank in Taiwan), Menon’s camera work is extraordinary, often setting the mood for a story which is swept in sorrow. Even in those few moments when the narrative manages to pop above the waves, there is a sense of melancholy, which Ratnam in his classic style tries to dispel with exuberantly costumed dance numbers.

The narrative begins depressingly with the death of a prostitute in a fishing village and the travails of her young son, who goes through hunger, humiliation and ostracism before he is taken under the wings of a Christian priest, Samuel (Swamy). Samuel does more; he not only gets the village church into shape, but also evokes a sense of faith in a community which drinks, swears and kills at will. But as the movie conveys, the path to true salvation lies through fire, and Arjun’s Berchmans nursing a grudge against Samuel tries to destroy the priest. And what better way can there be than setting up the community  against Samuel who is battered, driven away from the village and defrocked.

But the story strays from what it had initially  set out to tell – about good and evil, retribution and forgiving – to accommodate a romance between Thomas (Gautham Karthik) and Beatrice (Nair).  A trifle forced, even silly it appears. We are foxed when we find that Beatrice despite having the IQ of a two-year old (or something to that effect) is adept as a midwife, handling complicated cases. She also falls in love with Thomas and sings a couple of songs (one in an exotic costume), that is when she is not playing hop-scotch. There are other holes in the script, like, for instance, why does Berchmans wait for years to take his revenge against Samuel – and that too after an accidental meeting.

Unfortunately, Kadal disappoints. Ratnam is yet to come with a classic as great as the 1987 Nayagan or the wonderfully touching and intimate Mouna Raagam (1986). His latest offering has nothing really new, and A.R. Rahman’s score is nothing to hum by. His Roja still remains his best. Kadal ultimately trickles down to some awesome visuals, shot in some of the most beautiful coastal regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Menon uses the sea as a brilliant metaphor to convey the mood of the village as it goes about fishing sometimes on a placid ocean, and at other times, on an angry one.

Yes, Arjun as “Satan” is riveting, and Swamy as the epitome of goodness holds our attention in parts.  But the lead pair fails to sparkle, unable to evoke the kind of chemistry needed to take the plot across the waters. The business of fishing recedes to the background or, at best, provides fodder for a song and dance, of which there is quite a few, some positively sticking out of the narrative. What is worse, often dialogues are drowned in the intrusive background music, and this gets compounded by the dialect, peculiar to some fishing groups in southern India. One expected more from Mani.

Gautaman Bhaskaran may be contacted at gautamanb@hotmail.com.