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. Vishal Bhardwaj’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 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 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 self-indulgence. Ratnam goes for the (over)kill. There are long shootouts on the streets of Chennai and in brothels and other claustrophobic 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 box office ground, the way Raj Kapoor made Bobby after the failure of Mera Naam Joker. Or Guru Dutt made the kitschy Chaudhvin Ka 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 a 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, Senapati'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 self-importantly 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 non-entity 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.