With Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, Mani Ratnam ditches the romance genre and returns to his Nayakan days
It is unfair to celebrate Mani Ratnam for his poignant romantic films because he paved the way for young filmmakers to explore gangster dramas
Mani Ratnam has always been celebrated for his enchanting romantic films. There is no doubt in the ability of the maverick filmmaker who flawlessly depicted love stories of three generations in films like Mouna Ragam, Alaipayuthe, and O Kadhal Kanmani. However, it is unfair to celebrate him only for the aforementioned films and the aesthetic romance which we have been witnessing ever since he marked his debut with Pallavi Anu Pallavi (1983).
When Tamil cinema portrayed the lives of underworld gangsters just like any other rich thug, Ratnam broke the myth and made the audiences root for Velu Nayakar in Nayakan, Tamil cinema's equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Nayakan also opened the gates for Selvaraghavan (Pudhupettai), Ranjith (Kaala) and other young filmmakers to make serious films on the life of underworld gangsters. If you look at films like Pudhupettai and Kaala, you will find traces of Nayakan just like how you can find the shades of The Godfather in Nayakan.
Besides gangster films, Mani Ratnam is also the pioneer in making stylish action entertainers in Tamil cinema. The director's Agni Natchathiram was a trendsetting film in the 1980s, especially for portraying the rivalry between two brothers from different mothers and for the glossy climax. His heist film Thiruda Thiruda (1993, co-written by Ram Gopal Varma) was another landmark movie in Kollywood but unfortunately, it wasn’t a commercial success. The action and chase scenes in Thiruda Thiruda were on par with the Hollywood action movies of the nineties.
Nowadays, biopics have become the go-to genre to mint money but the director proved his grasp over biographical films long before they became fashionable. Nayakan, Iruvar and Guru are excellent source materials to know about Varadaraja Mudaliar, the friendship of MGR-Karunanidhi and the rise of business tycoon Dhirubhai Ambani respectively.
Even before Nayakan, Mani Ratnam wanted to make a stylish spy thriller with Kamal Haasan but producers said big ‘no’ to the project and it was shelved. In an earlier interaction with Firstpost, Kamal had said “After watching Vikram (a spy thriller), Mani Ratnam was worried because film market scientists didn’t allow him to direct a spy thriller featuring me in the lead. Tamil cinema missed the lovely combo of Mani Ratnam and Sujatha and Kamal Haasan because of those analysts”.
His soft-spoken yet deadly villains are memorable. Most of them are either politicos or gangsters. In Thalapathi, Amrish Puri was an aged local gangster and politician but he never mouthed punchlines or challenged the hero; things were kept subtle in his characterisation. Later, many filmmakers followed this trend in Tamil cinema. More than Amrish Puri, Thilakan’s role as the deadly politician Arumai Nayagam in Chatriyan (Ratnam's credited as the writer) is easily one of the best-sketched villains in Tamil cinema. In both Chatriyan and Thalapathi, the antagonists were aged and physically much weaker than the protagonists, yet Ratnam convinced us that they were dangerous. In real life, not all gangsters are young and muscular. Therefore Ratnam adds a touch of realism and to these villains.
The storyteller is a master when it comes to humanising deadly gangsters. His movies are celebrated because he doesn’t only focus on the underworld, the filmmaker actually depicts the life story of gangsters on the screen. If Nayakan and Thalapathi glorified underworld gangsters, Inba (Madhavan) from Aaytha Ezhuthu is a fast raising rogue who fails in his personal and professional life because of his anger issues, whereas Veeraya (Vikram), a tribal gangster kidnaps the wife of a police officer to seek revenge before falling for her in Raavanan.
After back to back romantic dramas O Kadhal Kanmani and Kaatru Veliyidai, Mani Ratnam is now once back to the gangster space with Chekka Chivantha Vaanam which is about the rivalry between three brothers (Arvind Swamy, STR, and Arun Vijay). They all want to occupy their dad's (Prakash Raj) position who is an underworld gangster in Chennai.
Karthick Naren (Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru) who is a big fan of Mani Ratnam says: “We still remember Inba, Velu Nayakar and many other characters because Mani sir clearly defined why they became gangsters with their backstories. I would say that he used the gangster element to talk about the brothers' rivalry and family issues in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. Even before the release, I would constantly check with Arvind Swamy sir on how Chekka Chivantha Vaanam was shaping up”.
As Karthick pointed out, it is interesting that although Chekka Chivantha Vaanam set against a gangster backdrop, the film highlights the brothers' quest to become the successor of their dad who treats each of them differently. Varadan(Arvind Swamy) wants to taste the power and feel the freedom as he never got the opportunity to lead until his father died. Thyagu (Arun Vijay) is a greedy businessman whose motive is to earn more money and stop living like a criminal. He is embarrassed to his dad for the funds to close business deals. The youngest brother Ethi (STR) longs for affection; he is not an expressive man but at the same time his love for his parents is evident. In fact, among all the brothers, Ethi is the most curious to get to the murderer.
Despite being popular for his poignant dramas, Mani Ratnam's men in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam are not passionate lovers. Both Prakash Raj and Arvind Swamy have extramarital relationships while Vijay Sethupathi doesn’t have a pair in the film. Arun Vijay’s wife chides him for not spending time with her and STR’s lover Dayana longs to be loved. All the women in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam undergo tremendous pain owing to the greed of the men. Therefore, with such flawed characterisations, Ratnam goes beyond his own school of films in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, proving his are the closest Tamil cinema could come to The Godfather.