I can watch anything Mani Ratnam makes. I liked even Kadal! Heck, I even liked Abhishek Bachchan as Raavan. But I had my fair share of skepticism when I found out that OK Kanmani was going to be about live-in relationships. In my defence, every love story in Mani Ratnam’s movies starts with the leading couple looking at each other and then getting married within the next hour. The whole idea that a couple would not marry was in itself as anti-Mani Ratnam as it could get.
Also, the fact that the concept of live-in has been so over made across the “-Woods” that I guess I did not expect to see anything new. And that disappointed me. I complained to everyone who I spoke to in the last week. That was before I went into the theater on a fine Thursday evening.
Any shadow of a doubt that I might have had about the movie evaporated within the first 15 seconds in the theater – opening with Kaara Aatakaara (the catchiest tune in the album for me) and a pretty well made animation sequence. In about 2 hours and 20 minutes of the film, Mani Ratnam took me on a journey on the Art of subtle filmmaking, where the style of storytelling took precedence over the simplistic story itself, where the characters were so beautifully written that they transcended seemingly trivial considerations like “good acting”, and where the music, far from being hard-hitting and breathtaking, merged so deeply into the movie, that you could hardly separate it from the storyline.
I cannot stress it enough. In so many films in the Tamil film industry made recently, there’s been so much focus on getting some parts of the movie right that in many cases the parts don’t even have anything to do with each other anymore. Take the case of “I”- fantastic score from A.R.Rahman (not a huge fan personally, but it really worked for some people apparently), stunning and elaborate song sequences splurged with Shankar’s everlasting supply of money and resources, and some pretty kick ass work from Vikram, earning everyone’s collective praise (and groans) for having put the amount of effort he did for the role. The collective result – a big merciless 0 – because not only did the parts not add up, they ended up effectively neutralizing each other. The visuals were so colorful and resplendent, that you couldn’t really use too much of your perception to listen to that orderly cacophony of A.R.Rahman’s genius in the background. The setting and the elaborate song sequences meant the character Vikram so painfully enacted did not get enough screen space to make the kind of impact it deserved.
But being the master that Mani Ratnam is, he uses simple things that people can relate to, to create these amazing moments on the screen that you just cannot get enough of. Take for instance, the song “Parandhu Sella Vaa”. It was my least favorite song from the album, probably because, a little bit like “Sheher Mein” in Rockstar, I felt the song was to be a filler moving the story through scenes. But in the movie, Mani Ratnam creates this 5-minute long intense magical sequence that builds an incredible amount of sexual tension on the screen in every frame – all without having the couple on the screen even kiss! Parandhu sella va was for me the high point in the first half of the movie. Even a good 24 hours after I saw it, just thinking about it makes me go weak.
Then there is the other Ratnamism that he so frequently uses – the Train. In his words, the reason he uses train sequences is as a tool to express motion to the story, but then again, instead of having a robot jump over trains (which btw, don’t get me wrong, I am a huuuge fan of) he uses the perception of motion to make long conversations a lot less painful to follow and watch on the screen. The conversation is critical to establish the chemistry between the lead pair, but having them talk sitting at a park bench ( in Gautham Menon VTV style), or at a coffee shop (also Gautham Menon in almost every other movie) might just cause the audience to lose patience.
So, with simple techniques, even a simple story looks really rich and detailed simply because you can perceive more of the movie. Like Nolan proposes in Inception, the mind kind of stops to differentiate between the visuals and its own imagination, in a seamless flow of perception creating a magical union.
Even with all that, the fundamental aspect of any film as I see it, is still acting. And traditionally that is something that has always worked for Mani Ratnam, because he is normally able to bring out the best of actors. Exceptions would be Madhavan in Alaipaayuthey (yes, you read it right), where he was still to gain a lot of his understated screen presence, and ability to emote (which he does so beautifully in another Mani Ratnam film, Kannathil Muthamittal). But even in films like that, the character is usually developed so well that the actor has little to do in terms of making people understand him/her. Guru is a great reference. Even constrained by a shoddy screenplay, and Abhishek Bachchan’s unidimensional acting, the role of Gurukant Desai is so powerful simply because of how well developed it is.
Which is why, I think in a Mani Ratnam movie, being a stand out actor is so difficult. Starting with Leela Samson, and Prakash Raj, and how they are able to make the kind of impact they make given the limited footage they get, to Dulquer and Nithya who practically occupy every frame in the movie, the emotional investment of the viewer on each of these characters is the same. To put it more simply, I would react in the exact same level of pain or elation, for anything that comes upon any of those characters, no matter how much they feature in the movie.
Having said that, with the risk of contradicting what I just said, I am going to stick my neck out a bit, and call a favorite. Nithya Menon’s stellar performance is what I think gives OK Kanmani that extra bit of mileage which pushes the movie to the next level of awesomeness. Starting with her cutely funny diction, to her extremely realistic expressions, its hard for you not to look at her when she is on the screen. I’ll be curious to see if girls have the exact opposite opinion, which will not be surprising given how lovable Dulquer’s character is. And in all fairness, he has done a tremendous job portraying the role of a happy-go-lucky guy who is maddeningly driven by his girlfriend into opposite extremes, not knowing how to deal with it. But then again, I don’t know if that makes him a really powerful character seeing how that’s quite literally every romcom hero. Don’t know. Maybe I’m just jealous of him.
So, given all my initial skepticism, and polarized view of Mani Ratnam’s view of love and relationships, I think I was quite pleasantly surprised to see how good OK Kanmani turned out to be. Comparisons to Alaipaayuthey, while very reasonable, would be far from fair. They were both different worlds. Think about it for a second – Madhavan had to call Shalini from a landline phone (rotating dial btw) to a Maligai kadai phone to talk to her. Imagine how bad that might be for the 21st century relationship in OK Kanmani. Taking even one more step backwards, I don’t think Arvind Swamy could have even called his “uyire” Manisha Koirala if he wanted, but that’s the evolution we are talking about.
OK Kanmani is not the greatest movie ever made. I don’t know if it will be remembered widely or become an evergreen classic. But that’s exactly the point – it doesn’t have to be! Not every movie needs to advance the science or the art of film making. Not every movie needs to have something technically “unseen or unheard of”. Not every movie needs to provoke a thought for the viewer long after he’s gone from the theater. Sometimes, it is just enough for a simple movie to make you feel strongly without directly telling you anything. And that is what OK Kanmani does brilliantly!