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Stylistically, Mani's masterpiece

IF ANYONE cares to notice, Mani Ratnam's last two films have subtly changed the way we make movies. Or ought to. His innovations from "Nayakan" to "Dil Se" have been obvious enough in the way they have influenced Indian movies. But with "Alaipayuthe" and now "Kannathil Muthamittaal" he is not looking so much at the big picture as much as the details. Scaling down the drama (from big themes to something more intimate and personal) in both movies has freed him to rework his style a bit. The result is a very stylish, beautifully crafted film with artful little details that you usually miss seeing in our movies. You hear people say "Kannathil Muthamittaal" isn't a hit but it has just completed a 100-day run in Bangalore. (Perhaps what they actually mean is that it isn't as big a hit as "Alaipaiyuthe"). "Kannathil... " isn't my favourite Mani Ratnam film either but stylistically it is his masterpiece. Its sheer craftsmanship had me in thrall, compelling me to see it several times. The overwrought, manipulative ending (not the very last scene - the freeze frame of Madhavan, Simran and Keerthana huddled under the umbrella is perfect) in an otherwise restrained film always puts me off a bit. But the rest of the film reaches a new high in Indian cinema: all through the film - scenes, song sequences, performances - there is such newness, control and inventiveness.

Ratnam sets new challenges for himself with each new film. Not in his stories, themes or dialogue (there is a pattern and predictability to them - the dialogue delivery invariably gets parodied) but in his characterisation (his characters feel so real that you think you know them), setting (the choice of Rameswaram is sheer inspiration) and narrative style. For instance, by now, he can probably close his eyes and shoot the songs and it will still be the most rhapsodic song-sequences you can hope to see in an Indian film. But he's always pushing the envelope - never settling for what he did in the previous one, however well it worked. And he has never been more startling as he has been in "Kannathil... " He reverses his own lush style for something that is austere and gentle. Very striking all right, but still austere. I'm thinking of the two versions of the "Kannathil... " songs — particularly the second version in Sri Lanka with Madhavan and Keerthana as a little Buddha before the giant sleeping Buddhas. Temples, monks, begging bowls and rivers. It achieves a kind of spiritual poetry. And the first version with Simran in blue against hot, bleached-out white sand is beautiful in a Zen-like fashion. "Sundari," the first song with the school kids, is dazzling for its energy, wit and style. A. R. Rahman seems to understand what Ratnam wants for each film. His background score, especially towards the end, feels intrusive but the songs lend themselves beautifully to the new style that Ratnam shoots them in. And Mani Ratnam gets fantastic ensemble performances from his actors. I mean we have all seen these actors before (with the exception of Keerthana of course) but when have they been this good? You cannot miss how good Keerthana is but why aren't more people talking about Simran? Her acting here is brilliant - perhaps the best female performance in a recent Indian movie.

Like Ray, Ratnam is gifted with directing actresses. By chance I happened to recently re-see bits of "Kadhalukku Mariyadhai" and noticed how mediocre Shalini is in the movie - I could scarcely believe this was the same gorgeously talented actress of "Alaipaiyuthe." And that is when I realised how much of what she is in that film is because of Ratnam's characterisation and direction. And what about Madhavan? It is the best thing he has done - but few seem to have caught on to what he and his director have done with his character here - which was to adopt a minimalist acting style. It is Madhavan minus his cuteness and his upbeat, jolly-good, casualness. Here he is understated, quiet, coiled, unpredictable. And it's completely convincing. I believed his ironic, angry, idealistic writer character, found it endearing, and forgot it was Madhavan the actor. And he had what it took to pull it off. One of the things Ratnam has him do here is not react to people and situations or have him react minimally. Or wittily. Or even shockingly — when he does not hesitate to slap his child, for instance. The result is startling: the character feels true, unusual, remarkable. (The idea for his character seems to have been Sujatha , the author and screen-writer) Adults, particularly parents, in Ratnam's movies have a real-life ambiguous quality to them - they aren't very nice people but neither are they not nice. Coming back to those artful little details, my favourite one is the child in the crib slowly morphing into a (typical) pencil sketch from Kumudham or Ananda Vikatan. It's a beauty. The story that Keerthana inspires Madhavan to write is narrated first on screen and then dissolves into Simran reading it in a magazine. From celluloid to paper, from movies to literature. It is the first time I have seen anything like this in our movies (Hollywood is full of such wonderful flourishes) and it gives the film a delightful, unexpected literary quality. Another charming literary detail is Keerthana reading from her diary and later writing in it. The film is full of such lovely narrative surprises. It is a small touch but it fills the eyes and the senses, making us grateful for a director like him.

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

(pradeepsebastian@hotmail.com)

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