Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is like a game of chess played by Mani Ratnam: Ambition trumps morality in this gangster saga

TS Sudhir

September 28, 2018 09:55:37 IST

Don't ask who the hero is in Mani Ratnam's Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (CCV). There is none. Who are the villains in the movie? There are none either.

None of Mani Ratnam's characters redeem themselves by the end of the 150-minute bloody drama. Each of them is caught in the trap of naked ambition, deceit, greed and violence, that has turned their soul not just grey, but dark. As AR Rahman put it succinctly, this is a movie about the beauty of the evil.

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam poster.

With Chekka Chivantha Vaanam — that translates to crimson red sky — Ratnam returns to the gangster thriller genre. His last such movie was Thalapathi in 1991, with Nayakan preceding it in 1987. These two movies, starring Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan respectively, have easily been among the best in Mani Ratnam's body of work. CCV shows that the man who created movies like Anjali, Alaipayuthey, Roja and OK Kanmani is equally at ease with the blood and gore of the world of gangsters.

(Spoiler alert)

But in an Indian movie ecosystem, where every third or fourth film is about guns and violence, what is really the big deal about CCV? The difference is that in a star-dominated movie set up, Mani Ratnam succeeds in taking us into the world of Varadan (Arvind Swamy), Thyagu (Arun Vijay) and Ethi (Simbu). This is one family but each is on their own, willing to back stab anyone to get ahead. The raw energy is almost Anurag Kashyap-like, the characters from the same school of mutual hate.

Also read: Chekka Chivantha Vaanam movie review: Mani Ratnam's direction triumphs in a story-driven crime thriller

The movie is about the relationship between three alpha males, three brothers driven by desire to succeed their father. Prakash Raj who plays Senapati is someone who has evolved from a dreaded gangster into a powerful figure in Chennai, with the backing of the political class. But the movie does not slip into the familiar Ram Gopal Varma-like Sarkar explorations of the political-underworld nexus.

Instead Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is about how a powerful man's family and empire collapses like a house of cards because it has no foundation of values. His sons are cut of the same cloth as their father, having no qualms about doing to him what Senapati did to his father-in-law. It is about women accepting whatever the men do including their extra-marital affairs, a son's resentment at being treated as one among 35 henchmen, of another son feeling unwanted, of the desire of a mistress, Lady Macbeth-like, to see her man succeed his father even if it means killing him.

In Ratnam's world, the good is not always good and evil is not always completely evil.

He left the question of whether his protagonist Velu Naicker is a good man or a bad man in Nayakan unanswered and the canvas of Raavanan was about the dark in the so-called good. In CCV, Ratnam the writer is more forthright about the end that the evil meets.

Ratnam creates a world of a criminal regime where money and power are the only calling cards. Nothing highlights it better than Ethi asking if he really needs to come to India after his parents survive an attack on their life and Thyagu haggling for transfer of funds to his bank account in Dubai even as his father's last rites are being performed in Chennai.

The messaging from CCV is that you cannot escape karma. Each of the brothers suffer in their quest for Senapati's throne. They want to control Chennai, Dubai, Serbia but their end comes in the back of beyond in Kadapa, amidst the quarries.

Insecurity is at the heart of the four male characters. Thyagu and Ethi are as insecure as their father and elder brother, either worried about the money tap being shut off or about what the ascent of Varadan will mean for them. Senapati knows one of his sons is out to get him while Varadan fears a palace coup. The mansion in Chennai by the sea is an abode of vulnerable men.

It is perhaps after Aaytha Ezhuthu in 2004 that Mani Ratnam is directing an ensemble cast. And he has done a fine job of using every character, every line they speak to move the story forward, peel another layer off the mask they wear. When Ethi tells his mother that he needs her to be with him, her immediate reaction is to ask, "You want to keep me captive?'' It is a reflection on her mental make-up that captivity in a relationship is the only equation she has known.

Trust deficit is at the heart of CCV. As Swamy says, "never trust a friend''. His schoolmate Rasool (Vijay Sethupathi), the police officer serving suspension is willing to go with the highest bidder, preferably someone who doubles his price. His character gets the smartest lines in CCV but in keeping with the tonality of the movie, even the humour is wicked.

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is like a game of chess played by Mani Ratnam. There are no emotions as the pieces make their moves, driven by ambition to be king. In a scene where Varadan is asked to name his sister's newborn, he decides on the name Raja. Not surprising because that is the only identity he knows.

Updated Date: Oct 01, 2018 13:55 PM