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Mani Ratnam Gets His Mojo Back, But Just About

Subhash K . Jha

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So many of the contemporary filmmakers seem to have lost the plot. Imtiaz Ali, the  supremo among avant garde directors,  is struggling to make himself coherent to an audience that  just doesn’t care what happened when Harry met Sejal.  VishalBhardwaj’s  last three  films Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, Rangoon and  the recent Patakha have ranged from the strange to the  ugh.

As for  Anurag  Kashyap, when did any of his films make money?

The  heartening news is that  that another pioneer of new-age Indian  cinema   Mani Ratnam has regained  his  mojo…somewhat.  His  new film Chekka Chivantha Vaanam(CCV)  is  most decidedly not  among Mani’s  best works. But is markedly superior to his  other recent films, the  vapid O Kadhal Kanmani and the weird Kaatru Veliyedai.As for his his last Hindi  film Raavan  it was lost in translation.

Luckily gangsterism  sits well on the  post-60 phase  of Ratnam’s life and  career. Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a virile  and rugged he-man  kind of film.It looks at the sprawling  family life  of a gangster Senapati(the ever-credible Prakash Raj) from the  viewpoint of his violent job-profile. It’s like Sooraj Barjatya meets Francis Ford Coppola.And they both decide to share a sumptuous lunch of dosa, sambhar, idli and rasam.

Go ahead and say, ‘Burp’. CCV is  a work of excessive  selfindulgence. Ratnam  goes  for the (over)kill. There are long shootouts  on the streets of Chennai and in brothels  and other claustropobic settings which  give away nothing of Ratnam’s earlier brilliance in portraying the wages  of  gangsterism in Dalapathi or  Nayakan.

 Not one moment in  CCV  is dedicated to romancing brilliance. Rather , I feel Ratnam made this film to regain lost  boxofficeground, the way Raj Kapoor made Bobby after the failure  of Mera Naam Joker. Or Guru Dutt made the  kitschy ChaudhvinKa  Chand after the classic Kaagaz Ke Phool.  Sometimes a  filmmakers has  gotta do what he’s gotta do.

Except this: Ratnam’s last film was  no Mera Naam Joker or Kaagaz Ke Phool  but a horribly botched-up love story  where the talented Karthi didn’t know how to approach his character’s reckless passion. He plunged into and never came up for breath.

Reckless passion runs through  CCV. Here it is passion for power . Senapati’s three sons, played with varying degrees  of excellence/non-excellence by Arvind Swamy, Arun Vijay and  Silambarasan,  look and behave  like leftovers  from a Shakespearean  tragedy that the bard  would rather  not think about. Betrayed  by  their own ambitions , Mani’s heroes  behave as  if they own the  city of Chennai.The swagger  is  tragically misplaced  in the  context  of  the decadence that  grips the  city.

 I found the  acting to be uneven. With some actors rising to the occasion.Others  just not caring because  there are so many characters being accommodated  into the tank of treachery, that the whole framework threatens  to sink in the abyss of blood and butchery. Not that the shoot-outs are particularly impressive. But this time doing an action  film Mani Ratnam  has not shot himself in his foot the way he  did in Raavan.

 There is a desperate velocity  to the violence in  CCV . What I love about Mani is the way he creates and carves  out the women characters.His women are  full-bodied and  not only in their physicality.  Here  there are two major female characters. Chennai’s  Brando, Senapathi’s wife played by Jaya Sudha who’s the backbone of  the family.The other more powerful female character  is the eldest scion Nawab(Arvind Swamy)’s wife Chithra played with tender firmness by Jyothika. She  is   so  clued in to her husband’s dangerous profession that at one point in the selfimportantly  bustling she sublimates her own  ego, swallows her pride and  stays on with him even after catching him red-handed  with his  mistress.

Oh, Arvind Swamy’s  mistress is played by Aditi Rao Hydari who seems happy being a nonentity in a Mani Ratnam film.  Now I know what Shabana Azmi meant when she had said she would happily take  a broom and sweep from one corner of  a frame to the other in a Satyajit Ray  film.

By the  end  of  Chekka Chivantha Vaanam nearly everyone’s dead. Luckily not   the distributors. This time  Mani’s film has made lots of  money. Hopefully the next one won’t only be  a profit earner, it would  also remind us of the  director’s brilliance in Nayakan , the underrated  Yuva and Alai Payuthe.

Sadly,we don’t see any of that this time.All we see is a lot of blood-red passion and hear a background music that chooses to be strangely estranged from  the narrative, as if the movie playing and the background score  belong to two different worlds. It’s time  Mani Ratnam’s favourite music make A  R Rahman did some re-invention.Mani has already started the  process.Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is an encouraging new beginning.

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