Kaatru Veliyidai and HBO's Big Little Lies: Love in the time of abuse
In Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru Veliyidai, desi Top Gun VC (Karthi) and doctor Leela (Aditi Rao Hydary) meet in Srinagar and instantly fall in love. On the surface, it seems to be the proverbial match made in heaven – he is rugged and macho, she is ethereal and compassionate. Scratch beneath the surface and you realize that VC is both physically and emotionally abusing Leela. One moment he is wooing her and in the next he is twisting her arm in front of his course mates and humiliating her. Yet, she stays by his side.
A male friend of the lead couple wonders ‘why does Leela go back to VC even though he mistreats her’. He is told it’s ‘love’. The director equates violence with passion and love. VC is passed off as troubled and brooding when in reality he is simply an abusive creep. But this is a Mani Ratnam film where love is all encompassing so Leela and VC live happily ever after. The abuse is conveniently sidelined.
Compare this to the HBO mini-series Big Little Lies that just ended. Based on the novel by the Australia writer Liane Moriarty and adapted by David E Kelly and Jean-Marc Vallée, Big Little Lies is about a clique of mommy frenemies whose kids are classmates at picture perfect Californian suburb. If Kaatru Veliyidai has gorgeous snow-covered mountains of Kashmir as a background, Big Little Lies is set in sun-kissed multi-million-dollar mansions with panoramic ocean views.
Like VC and Leela’s seemingly perfect love story, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) are the perfect couple. Parents to two sons, they are good looking, successful and so in love. Except Perry is an abusive husband. From controlling Celeste’s schedule to pushing her around, beating her and raping her, Perry demonstrates all the traits of a classic abuser. Like VC, Perry is possessive and domineering. Both men regularly make apologies and promises to change but never do. While Celeste dabs on concealer to cover up her bruises, Leela tries to defuse the situations with a smile.
The degree of abuse might be very different but there is no denying that Leela and Varun’s relationship is toxic. Not toxic enough to show as physical bruises but signs of an abusive relationship aren’t always as obvious. Some time it could be subtle like the time VC calls Leela to the registrar’s office to get a marriage license and then forgets about it or mistreats her parents in front of her.
Like Leela, Celeste is an intelligent, independent woman. It takes her a while to admit that she is in an abusive relationship but when she does, she figures out an exist strategy. In Kaatru Veliyidai, Leela also leaves VC but ultimately she forgives and goes back to him.
Since it premiered in February, Big Little Lies has prompted a stealth public awareness campaign about domestic abuse and martial rape. Instead of airbrushing the horrific violence in Celeste and Perry’s marriage, director Jean-Marc Vallée chooses to linger until it’s impossible to ignore it. Kaatru Veliyidai could have been the progressive film that triggered a conversation about emotional or physical abuse in relationships; instead it normalises it. There is a moment of terror on Leela’s face as VC boasts to his friends about her being ‘his girl’. That moment is lost when she cloyingly professes her love to him in the next scene. And, the romanticisation of violence continues.