Shyama (Nandita Das) and Dileepan (Chakravarthy) have hardly begun married life in war-torn Sri Lanka when she finds herself alone. She boards a boat to Rameswaram and... cut to nine years later, to the home of writer Thiruchelvan (Madhavan), TV newscaster Indira (Simran), and their three children, Amudha (Keertana), Akhil and Vinay. When Amudha learns that she`s been adopted, she sets on a quest to find her biological mother, causing much emotional turmoil to all.
One of my pet peeves in our films is the cliche when someone, usually a parent, finds a kid after a long time, and immediately proceeds to smother its face with kisses. You know, it`s not just a peck on the cheek, it`s going round and round the child`s face planting one wet smack after another, one of the most artificial, melodramatic devices to show how much the child has been missed.
It`s a sign of what a beautiful piece of filmmaking `Kannathil Muthamittaal` is that such a scene occurs at the end and I was nodding in total sympathy and agreement. To revisit cliches and actually make them relevant in the context, that`s the mark of a great director.
And Manirathnam keeps growing with every film of his. Here, he bravely casts off most extraneous elements and sticks admirably close to the main story of a child`s agonising journey. If this Manirathnam were to make `Agni Nakshatram` today, we wouldn`t have Janakaraj screaming `en pondaatti oorukku poyittaa`!
Oh, there are the requisite commercial sprinklings. In the `Sundari` number, where the sea of kids and their lightning-paced antics remind you of `Anjali`. In the director`s pet visual signatures like the all-cleansing rain at opportune moments.
There are also the topical political overtones. When Thiruchelvan and his Sri Lankan friend (a good cameo by Prakashraj) began discussing Bosnia and Chechnya and war in general, my heart sank like a stone. I wondered if this was where the film would be opened up to include commentary on the Lankan struggle and become another `Bombay`, with its simplistic let`s-all-hold-hands-and-unite platitudes.
Thankfully, these veering-toward-the-heavy-handed political moments are kept to a minimum and it`s Amudha`s story that takes centre stage, playing up to the director`s greatest strengths. His ability to bring out the best from child actors. His mastery of the emotional canvas of the middle class. And the way he makes romantic subplots cute without their becoming cloying.
As Amudha, Keertana is extraordinary, from her introduction doing a `me and my family` type recitation to the ending that has her confront ordeals that no nine-year-old should have to endure. Even in scenes that have her react in overly precocious ways, like when she`s told the truth about her parentage, she does such good work that you accept her as a child-woman, the truth having brought her to the end of innocence.
Equally good is Simran, who does the most full-blooded work of her career here. She has a new look; her hair cascades in ringlets in a style that somehow manages to evoke both the glamour of a television personality as well as the practicality of a mother of three. Her romantic flashback with Madhavan (convincingly slipping into the role of the prototype Manirathnam hero, vacated by Arvind Swami) is an utter delight, filled with wry humour and sweet sentiment.
When she says she`ll commit suicide if asked to marry someone else, he enumerates the ways she can achieve this, in one of Sujatha`s bits of dialogue that flit impressively between the ornate (`sudhandhiram pirakkaamal kuzhandai pirakka vendaam`) and the ordinary (`enakku azhugai varudhu, azhudhuttu poren`). Madhavan`s being a writer is brought out in imaginatively roundabout ways, like Simran calling herself an `ilavasa inaippu` and a shot morphing into a drawing like the ones that accompany stories in Tamil magazines.
Das and Chakravarthy have fewer scenes, though again extremely well written. Like when she says she likes the Lankan soil more than him, and a potential political statement becomes quietly sensual as they proceed to smear this earth over one another. Das is fantastic in the climax, where she wordlessly conveys her confusion and emotion.
The cinematography (Ravi K Chandran) is expectedly brilliant. There are some can`t-miss shots, like one of a giant Buddha by a waterfall, but more impressive is a battle sequence that reminds you of `Saving Private Ryan` with its jerky, hand-held camera movements and falling rubble from one of art director Sabu Cyril`s astounding sets.
A scrupulous attention to detail is evident everywhere. In a casual stain on Simran`s nightgown. In the special effects of a boat caught in stormy seas. And in the on-screen writing that appears when Thiruchelvan is cooking up a story (there`s even the crossing out of an extra `suzhi` in a `moonu suzhi na`).
Rahman`s background score makes you wish for a little more effort, even if an acoustic guitar version of the boisterous `Sundari` delivers an unexpectedly plaintive tinge to the scenes it underscores. But he shows his soft corner for the director by giving great tunes, never mind that the exquisite `Vellai Pookkal` is interrupted by chatter and gunfire. (Why have Vairamuthu dip into his inexhaustible supply of nature imagery -- `malare sombal murithu vizhugave` -- if the song is going to be used as little more than background noise?)
In his determination to break new ground, Manirathnam constantly takes cues from Western cinema. In the way these songs are used behind-the-scenes. (They even get listed in the end credits, like in Hollywood films.) The way scenes end without a conventional sense of closure, leaving you to imagine the rest.
But each technique and narrative device borrowed from the West is used in the telling of a story that has a mother addressing her daughter as `dee` and where the hero is proudly named Thiruchelvan. Inside the western trappings of this magnificent film beats a gloriously, defiantly Tamilian heart.
This review was written by Baradwaj Rangan.