Kadal is a difficult film to write about especially because a lot of why it doesn’t work lies in spoiler territory.
So do come back to read this only once you’ve seen the film. And yes, that means you must watch it. Even knowing that it is bad. Simply because even a bad Mani Ratnam film is better than most films made.
To begin with, the faulty Prologue should have been done away with at the editing table. It gives away too much information that makes a significant plot twist before interval predictable. We were better off not knowing how exactly Arvind Swamy and Arjun know each other. Because once we know their equation, it’s easy to see a twist coming the minute Arjun returns to the scene. This weakens quite a bit of the first half of Kadal.
The prologue is a weak first scene because Arvind Swamy’s priest comes across as a little too uptight for us to see him as good. He’s like that pest in class who gets you caught for copying. Which is a pity because the character actually blooms into a real person a little later when he enters the village the film is set in. He smiles a lot, he likes people and as tolerant as he is with mischievous urchins, he doesn’t hesitate to slap the kid when needed. And just like that, an uptight stereotype became a real person. Wish we saw more of this human side with his nemesis, who takes character exposition to new heights by taking the name of the Devil in almost every scene he appears. Saataan this, saataan that! Yes, we get it. You don’t have to come in black-and-black to talk about Saataan post interval, we understood who you represent from the very first scene.
It’s not just the simple black and white, good and bad stereotyping that fails Kadal, it’s also the lack of character motivation… What are the these people doing in the film?
An orphan boy who wants his “father” and the whole village at his feet, signs up with the Devil halfway into the film… So far, good. But ten minutes after interval, his “father” is dead and there’s nothing left for the boy to do but wait for the climax to redeem himself. So he bides his time romancing the heroine. A couple of songs with almost similar visuals – and at least one same reused shot of the couple in a bicycle on the shore in both songs – put the film into a time warp.
Nothing happens. One principal character is away and the other free to do what he wants to.
The priest who has to prove his innocence and win back the trust of the villagers… does it instantly on return! And the Devil of the villain has absolutely nothing challenging him till the climax.
To re-emphasise, as the film does again and again all through the second half, the villain’s graph coasts along gloriously smooth, the boy’s is stuck in a time warp and the other is in exile finds himself suspended from the film and the story.
We have the boy turn all out killer without the slightest hesitation and turn soft again almost instantly every time a romantic song sets in. This is as uni-dimensional as any Tamil masala film, not what you would expect from Mani Ratnam. But it also wants us to learn lessons of forgiveness from the church! Only Mani Ratnam would have thought of making masala meet gospel!
There are some great moments where you can see the class of the master – like the scene during the opening credits when we see the child for the first time, as he discovers that his mother is dead. It’s such a powerful sequence all the way to the burial and you wonder why he didn’t just open the film with this compared to the weak opening at the seminary.
The first half has many such moments – especially the first half hour when the village warms up to the priest who employs a tape recorder to break the ice, the priest’s relationship with the orphan, his attempts to tame the runt all the way to the arrival of his wounded friend from the past! The subplot involving Lakshmi Manchu is quickly forgotten in the second half and the boy’s transformation from bad to good happens with the weakest of Mani Ratnam’s heroines… a girl who behaves like a child (like Priyanka in Barfi, not as over the top). Mani Sir, this is not a new type. Almost, all Tamil film heroines behave like they are 14 year olds with a crush on the hero!
Rahman’s songs are picturised great and the film looks fantastic no doubt but the overdose of the simplistic Biblical good versus evil discourse turns the film predictable. But for the unbelievable unprecedented technical excellence in the picturisation of the climax (Rajiv Menon’s cinematography brings the storm alive), there’s very little the second half offers in terms of good cinema.
The actors are mostly good. Gautham Karthik reminds us of his father and gets a dream debut, the girl is bad but that’s probably because of the ill-etched character she’s been assigned while Arvind Swami gets to make a superb comeback and Arjun gets to be all out bad, even if uni-dimensional. But they have all worked hard on getting the diction right. The technical team gets the milieu somewhat right. Rahman has given us a rather eclectic unusual soundtrack and if the film is let down, it’s only by the weakest material Mani Ratnam has ever been associated with (the screenplay and dialogues are credited to Mani Ratnam and writer Jeyamohan).
For a more superior and authentic film set in this milieu, go watch Neer Paravai (incidentally Jeyamohan wrotes dialogues for this too) which had a lot more to do with the sea than Kadal, where the sea, barring the spectacular climax, is just pretty wallpaper for the rest of the moral science lesson set inside a church!