Mumbai is India's Vegas in Mani Ratnam's O Kadhal Kanmani: A place where wild things happen
No matter how much you adore Mani Ratnam, at some point, it will strike you that the Mumbai in O Kadhal Kanmani has a staggering number of Tamil speakers. From entire offices to security guards, everyone seems to be fluent in Tamil even though O Kadhal Kanmani is not set in Matunga, the neighbourhood that's traditionally been Mumbai's Southern comfort.
Of course, our cinema has a talent for locating Indians in the unlikeliest of places -- remember Abhinay Deo's Game? It was less of a thriller and more a collection of mindboggling desi expats, including Anupam Kher as a politician in Thailand and Abhishek Bachchan as a casino owner in Turkey -- but if Ratnam needed an all-Tamil cityscape for OKK, you'd think Chennai would be a more logical setting. Why set it in Mumbai?
OKK is the story of Aadhi (Dulquer Salmaan) and Tara (Nithya Menen), two 20-somethings who are anti-marriage but pro-romance. When they meet, both are about a month away from leaving India. Aadhi, who is a gamer, is hopeful that the project he's developing will earn him a ticket to the US. Tara's dream is to go study architecture in Paris and she's waiting for her admission to come through.
Since love and lust don't care about future plans, the two find themselves attracted to one another. They decide to live together for the last few weeks that they have in the country. Since Tara lives in a hostel, she moves in with Aadhi, who is a paying guest with an adorable elderly couple, Ganapathy (Prakash Raj) and Bhavani (Leela Samson). Initially, Ganapathy is completely opposed to the idea, but Tara wins him over and soon, a strong bond develops between the four. They become a family of choice, with Ganapathy and Bhavani becoming surrogate parents who support, indulge and guide Tara and Aadhi. Meanwhile, the young couple find themselves wanting more than the freedom to cuddle out of their relationship.
After the disaster of his last film, Ratnam needed to prove his critics wrong and to that end, OKK is successful. It is a sweet, little film that is thoroughly entertaining and doesn't bore you for a minute even if is disappointingly fluffy by the standards that Ratnam's past films set. Still, it shows the director is able to forge a connection with those who are decades younger than him. To be able to create characters and a world that people across age groups wish were real is remarkable.
On the face of it, you'd think OKK could be set in any Indian city. However, Ratnam chose Mumbai as his backdrop, which suggests that a young couple being able to live together freely, without getting married, is too crazy an idea for anyone to accept in Chennai, even if it is in the movies.
Mind you, with Tamil films, we're talking about audiences that have grown up watching gravity-defying cars, flying cigarettes and Rajinikanth stunts. So a man catching a bullet between his teeth is fine, but a couple living "in sin" in Chennai is too much of a stretch for the imagination.
So Mumbai becomes India's Vegas in OKK -- the place where "wild-a" things happen. It's immune to Tamil Nadu's (and the rest of India's) conservatism, as is evident from the way Tara calmly fields the criticism flung at her for living in sin. Here, women don't have to be under anyone's thumb, men can have unconventional careers, and love is more powerful than tradition.
The city that Ratnam shows in OKK is charming, but a complete fantasy. Ask anyone who's single and rented in Mumbai how rare it is to find a landlord who will not frown at the idea of the tenant having a girlfriend or boyfriend. If you find a bus or train that's as empty as the ones in which Aadhi and Tara travel, then a zombie apocalypse must be underway because nothing less would uncrowd Mumbai's public transport to the extent that we see in OKK.
For generations, filmi heroes and heroines from rural India have shown up at Mumbai's glorious CST train station. Once upon a time, those who came to Mumbai had little more than their poverty and their ambitions. They came with the hope that the city would be fairy godmother to their Cinderella.
Ratnam's OKK isn't about that everyman. It forges a connection with the aspiring middle class. Apparently, even in the fantasy world of films, today's Mumbai offers hope only to those who can afford it. And so, Ratnam's heroes are both financially comfortable and unhampered by details like rent and the cost of partying in Mumbai. Sure, they travel in local trains and BEST buses, but from their clothes to their sea-facing offices and home address in Opera House, everything about Aadhi and Tara exudes privilege.
Yet, even in this gorgeous, sepia-tinted Mumbai, women get the short end of the stick. Nithya Menen is a delight on screen. Her Tamil dialogue delivery may be a little clunky, but her face is beautifully expressive. As Tara, she's vivacious, confident and doesn't shy away from grabbing the man that she adores. Menen is able to milk nuance out of every potentially complex scene she has in OKK and almost manages to distract you from the fact that the film is in love with the hero and treats Tara as a sidekick.
It's somewhat telling that in the video game that Aadhi develops, there's a character that looks like Tara, but is gagged and bound and needs to be saved by the hero. OKK spends as much time with Aadhi the professional as with Aadhi the lover. We're told about how he researches, we see him in his office, and a significant chunk of the film's running time is spent in the video game world that Aadhi creates. Emotionally, as the story progresses, Aadhi's carefree temperament doesn't change, but he does grow up.
In contrast, Tara becomes shriller and more hysterical as OKK meanders towards its gentle climax. She realises before Aadhi that she wants more from their relationship, but she deals with this realisation in a rather adolescent manner. Menen is able to make the change in Tara's character feel poignant instead of annoying, but it's interesting to place Tara next to Ratnam's past heroines and see how much more layered and nuanced the female characters were in his older films.
Professionally speaking, we know only a few vague basics about Tara's ambitions. There's just one charming sequence (set in Ahmedabad's Jama Masjid) in which we get a sense that Tara is interested in restoration architecture, but that's just a hint. We're told she's an architect who wants to go to Paris to study. But why Paris and what kind of work would she like to do? We don't even find out when she gets accepted by her dream university.
More often than not, we see Tara being dragged away from work by Aadhi. A city like Mumbai, with its historical and modern architecture, could easily have been used to talk about Tara's interests as an architect, but OKK prefers to dive into Aadhi's video game world instead. It's a fantasy within a fantasy -- that's how deeply one has to delve to make dreams come true and feel like a hero, even in a film.
There's nothing wrong with an imaginary Mumbai, particularly when reality is increasingly tightening its noose-like grip around ideas of freedom and being carefree in the actual city. Ratnam's Mumbai is a haven for those who feel stifled elsewhere and the unconventional. What's interesting is noticing how Ratnam envisions a modern Indian city and what is nurtured in that urban cradle.
Updated Date: Apr 21, 2015 10:53:22 IST