Kadal in The Time of #Vishwaroopam

NS Ramnath
Published: 09, Feb 2013

I have been with Forbes India since August 2008. I like writing about ideas, events and people at the intersection of business, society and technology. Prior, I was with Economic Times. I am based in Bangalore. Email: ns.ramnath@gmail.com

Film fans in Tamil Nadu could finally see Kamal Haasan's Vishwaroopam this week. On Thursday, the day of its release in the state, crowds started gathering outside cinema halls from 5.30 a.m., and house-full shows followed ever since. The reviews in mainstream media were good, as were the comments in social media. The drama around the movie seems to have helped Kamal Haasan. He might not have to lose his house after all.

Amidst all this drama one movie got completely lost: Mani Ratnam’s Kadal. Critics have panned it, and fans are ignoring it. Sometime last week, a Christian organization registered its protest against the movie saying it offended religious sentiments. The government, which was so quick to ban Vishwaroopam did nothing about it, and the mainstream media mostly ignored it. Long before there were even hints of protest, a smart-ass reviewer from an increasingly popular Kollywood website called Tamil Talkies made a comment to this effect: “There are a few scenes that might offend you. But, don’t protest against it and make it run for a week. Just ignore it, it will be out of the theatres within three days”. (As Manu Joseph says in Illicit Happiness of Other People, cynics have a better grasp of reality.)

That’s a shame. For Kadal is one of the best movies to hit the screens in Tamil Nadu. Long after Vishwaroopam is forgotten (except for the controversies around it) Kadal will be remembered, discussed, and recognised as one of the milestones in Tamil cinema. For three reasons.

One, it pushes the boundaries of mainstream cinema even while adhering to many of its conventions. Many things define what's mainstream in Tamil cinema: the structure (with its three acts, and a Kokki, or hook, right before the interval), a mix of songs, some melodious, and some energetic, a few fights, archetypes and so on. But nothing defines mainstream as much as a tendency to tweak the film for the average film-goer.

Tamil Nadu is a culturally diverse state. It has a range of: cuisine, like Chettinad (from around Sivaganga, P Chidambaram’s constituency), Kongunad (from Coimbatore) and so on; literature (Naanjil literature from the southern tip is distinct from Karisal literature from around Sivakasi, Vandal from the Thanjavur area is different from Sembulam of Pondicherry area); and more apparently, accent and usage (if Shaw’s Higgins were in Tamil Nadu, he would have had too much work to spare time for Eliza). Film-makers spend a lot of time in pushing a film downwards so that it appeals as much to an auto driver in Chennai as it does to a fisherman near Tuticorin. The accent is neutralised. The usage moves towards written language (in Tamil, there’s a big gap between written and spoken language), nuances are deliberately blunted.

In Kadal, Mani Ratnam seems to have ignored these conventions, and tried to be faithful to the setting of his film. This has irritated some critics. One of them suggested he should have used subtitles for the movie. In Tamil. Yet, in realistic portrayal of life in the coast, he is setting a trend that's as significant as the one he started during the early part of his career: emphasising the visual aspect of cinema. In a world where long speeches often passed off as dialogue, his characters used to be accused of speaking too little. Sujatha, a writer who has collaborated with Mani Ratnam, once said that his standing instruction was: "if something can be conveyed visually, leave the dialogue out". That’s the norm now. So it could be with Kadal.

Two, the film gives a lot of space to the audience, like all good art should. In commercial cinema there are no loose ends. Illogical sequences are rarely intentional; they are mistakes. The films are marked by over-communication: a point is often made visually, and through symbols, and through dialogue. (Someone who needs to be shown as a strong man will display his bulging muscles, break a few bones and some furniture, and in addition, have someone acknowledge that he is a strong man indeed). The audience has very little to do. In fact, if the film doesn't insult their intelligence, it's not mainstream. (Just look at the number of ways and the number of times Kamal Haasan conveys that the Islamist terrorists are, well, Islamic in Vishwaroopam. By forcing Kamal to remove the repeated reference to Qur'an and Allah, the Muslim organisations probably did something good for his art. Film critics in Tamil Nadu don’t talk about it, because they believe that’s how mainstream cinema needs to be, if it has to reach the audience across the state.

Kadal questions that assumption. Yet, it’s not a complex movie. You don’t need a degree in humanities to understand the film. But, it gives a lot of space to the audience, both in its economy and in the way it is structured. It re-raises questions that were answered a few scenes ago—and leaves the audience figure things out. It gives almost the same experience that a short story or a novel does. Part of the reason could be that Mani worked with Jeyamohan, a novelist and short story writer, in making the film. Mani asked Jeyamohan to write the story as a novella, and then worked along with him to turn that into a screenplay. (Jeymohan wrote the dialogue.) It’s not the first time that Mani has worked with a novelist. Balakumaran wrote dialogue for Nayakan. Sujatha has worked with him in at least four movies. But neither was as ambitious as Jeyamohan in demanding more from art. Ashokamitran called his magisterial Vishnupuram the biggest effort in 100 years of Tamil literature. Kadal combines Mani’s desire to be in the mainstream with Jeyamohan’s ambition to stretch the limits of what art can do.

Finally, many critics have placed Kadal in the framework of Good versus Evil – Aravind Swamy’s Sam Fernandez versus Arjun’s Berchmans. This certainly provides the central conflict of Kadal as a mainstream movie—and an amazingly well executed fight sequence in a raging storm in the sea. But, another layer, in fact, its real central conflict, is around the question of goodness and the role of religion in shaping one’s morality. That conflict resolves itself with the moral evolution of Sam.

It’s not good versus evil, but goodness dictated by strictures of religion versus goodness dictated by one's humanity. Sam in the initial parts of the movie is good in the first sense of the term, and towards the end, he gets a truer vision of the teaching of Christ. It's about the inner struggle and the moral questions, something that mainstream media doesn't get into. In Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg uses the presence of a small girl in red frock to mark the evolution of protagonist from a practical businessman to a humanitarian. Mani doesn't use such visual tricks in Kadal. However, three scenes stand out: when Sam, back from prison, confronts Thoma about his new path; when Sam realises that a girl is behind Thoma’s transformation; and finally when he sees that Thoma has surpassed him in the spiritual journey during the climax.

The film is case for humanism. AR Rahman said of Mani Ratnam once: “I try to be a man of faith. And here’s a man who’s an atheist by choice. We coexist as opposites. When I have a problem, I think that tomorrow will be better; that’s because of my faith in spirituality. But what does he do? I wonder about this.” Kadal, in some ways, is the answer. Most reviews I have read seem to have missed the point.

Towards the end of January, when I wrote about Vishwaroopam, I thought Kamal’s controversy ridden movie would face tough competition from Kadal. I had only seen the trailer, and I thought Mani Ratnam, after getting flak for Ravanan, would give us a good old love story. Kadal is definitely that, and it’s also much more than that. Still, in the marketplace, it seems to have lost out to Vishwaroopam.

I have wondered why, and I could think of no better reason than this. Perhaps, the reviewers and film-goers invested so much of their emotional and intellectual energy in supporting Kamal Haasan and defending his freedom that they have none left to absorb a much superior offering. It happens all the time. Consider the diminished status of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Russia after the break up of Soviet Union. In the New Russia, he was mostly ignored.

All societies see a phase where the predominant source of danger to good art moves from censorship to indifference. In Tamil Nadu, the shift happened pretty fast .




  • Abinand

    This is the only review that coincides with my point of view over the film!! None can make such a great a movie, but Mani Ratnam. To everyone who say Mani has lost his touch : Mani Ratnam, after receiving the Jager Le Coultre Glory to the FilmMaker award, is in the leagues of Akira Kurosawa and Steven Spielberg.. So if you didn't get the point in his film, it is not his mistake.. Try to grow a brain :D
    And I have to disagree with the reviewer at two points :
    1. Kadal is not a failure. It is a film made on roughly 50Cr. It had collected 82Cr in 18days and still counting. Just becoz some distributors didn't fetch returns in some areas doesn't mean the film is a flop.
    2.Raavanan is the greatest movie I have seen. No one can show something as common as the Ramayan in such a lateral point of view, but Mani Ratnam.
    I love Mani Ratnam!! <3

    on Feb 21, 2013
  • Peter Vas

    a primer and a backstory: The Pearl Fishers of Mani Ratnam's "Kadal" http://wp.me/s4Mc7-kadal

    on Feb 13, 2013
  • Mani_Kamal

    Hi writer, its a really good article that I have read in recent times. Being a mani fanatic I really loved the way you chose to present the film. I totally agree that Mani`s vision is what has transpired into Kadal. Having said that It would have been nice to leave out vishwaroopam out of the context. I think we should not be comparing both. While Kadal was like a Illayaraja musical - slowly it goes into your heart and breaks you down, Vishwaroopam was a like a rock music from AR... Infact, I did watch both the movies on the same day. I would consider both the movies had one thing in common - taking tamil cinema to another level.

    on Feb 12, 2013
  • bingu iyer

    The downfall of MR has started with the following: 1. His stories started going beyond his comfort zone of TN. Infact, MR is at his best when his movies are based on Chennai. Eg: Mouna ragam, agni nakshatram, anjali and alaipayuthey. 2. All his best movies had Ilayaraja. I still think, Raja fufils the portrayal of MR. It is high time, MR goes back to Raja.. It is high time, MR takes a chennai based story with hopefully Raja as the MD...

    on Feb 12, 2013
  • charles

    MR has failed for kadal. It is not a film what he done in 90's(anjali, thalapathy, roja, bombay.) with small story he is concentrating on the technical aspects. In raavan its a good script but the presentation of the scenes are not good(ex. You can see talapathy- a single seen cannot be eliminated, any time you can watch the film). The same was kadal. Coming to AR, is a good MD and the songs are good. But while watching the film it is not touching to the story, situation and background. AR kindly do music for our culture, dont go for international standard. I thought its is wonderfull love story like mouna raagam, Ithayathai thirudathe, roja, alaypayuthe. But it is not a MR film. Better we can expect next time sir.

    on Feb 11, 2013
  • Joann

    A good read and a very nice observation of the movie Kadal. I enjoyed the Movie. It is definitely not mainstream and you need to know a little bit about the Catholic Church and some Christian references. Most people expected a remake of the Radha - Karthik starer and this movie is nothing like that!! It's sad to see how dumb our audiences are becoming. In the age of micro blogging and tweets they expect everything to be instant!! The development of characters and the build up to the climax is becoming a thing of the past. Kadal is a beautifully woven movie about human nature and the inherent need of belonging.

    on Feb 11, 2013
  • Dinesh

    Dear Author, A question and am curious ? - Does this fall under under the ambit of business / Technology I thought Mani Ratnam, after getting FLACK for Ravanan, would give us a good old love story Should it be FLAK or FLACK in the above sentence ? A suggestion, As a regular reader of your columns, I take this liberty, Please stick to business / technology - waiting for your razor sharp analysis on comparison of results among the IT majors.

    on Feb 11, 2013
    • NS Ramnath

      Thanks Dinesh. Both spellings are fine. It's an informal usage anyway

      on Feb 11, 2013
  • Starwin Miranda

    #KADAL: For General audience, lil draggy and slow tempo movie in the scale of Mani's previous projects. But …if you know, what does that "MESAI KARAN" means? or "FERNANDO" means? or whom are they? Which part of community? what's theology? Whats CHURCH's role in costal area? or CHRISTIANITY in costal area? Whose st.XAVIER? Whats Father's role in those areas? Then you like this movie. And love the detailed work of Mani. Thanks Mani ji for making a celluloid registry of a very small group of southern coastal christians life in detail.

    on Feb 11, 2013
  • rejath

    excellent article.. watched kadal 4 times already... its very very sad that a film like kadal got this fate

    on Feb 11, 2013
  • Vivek

    I am an avid lover of quality cinema and thats why I am proud that Tamil cinema has always been leading the way for Indian Cinema... now coming to Kadal.... yes I havent seen it yet... I am a big fan of Maniratnam... surely none can forget his masterpiece Nayagan though he had the best actor GOD OF CINEMA Mr. Haasan to support him, still he has given gems like Mouna Ragam, Agni Natchatram, Anjali, Thalapathi, Roja, Bombay and many more... but oflate he seems to have lost that magic in terms of story telling and is focusing more on the technical aspects... agreed they are also important but if the base that is the story is not right... then others will fall flat... As regards Vishwaroopam, it is one of the better movies in Indian Cinema... ofcourse, Kamal has to keep the economics in mind and hence has ensured that he incorporates certain things to please the majority... but even in visharoopam a majority of the film is kept authentic in terms of the characters speaking in Arabic, Pashto and English... come on give us a break and dont blame Kamal Haasan or Vishwaroopam for Kadal's demise.... I still consider Maniratnam as the best director in India but surely we have Kamal Haasan, Bala, Ranjith try to take away that crown from him!!!

    on Feb 10, 2013
  • a filmmakers opinion

    I saw Kadal. I went to watch it without reading any review. After all it was a Mani Ratnam film. And he taught me like possibly many others of my generation that a film is a director's vision. I was very disappointed. Tamil cinema has grown leaps and bounds. Kadal felt like Tom and Jerry in front of other films that some of the younger directors in tamil are making. After the film I check the review. All reviews were neutral. Maybe out of respect for the man, maybe out of other compulsion. But this article is so bad that I was forced to look up the writer. And I laughed. So its one of those. If-you-can write you are a writer and if-you-have-a-dslr you are a filmmaker kind of article. What authority in your tone, what confidence in your voice, NS Ramnath. You should write more reviews so that people like me can understand your sensibility and will be able to put your review in a context. Till then cant make out if you were bought out or not. Forbes can do better.

    on Feb 10, 2013
    • NS Ramnath

      Hi Filmmaker, Two points about this post. One, it's not a review. You might have noticed it says nothing at all about some of the key elements of the film; nothing about the actors, their performance, nothing about music, nothing about cinematography, and that it can't possibly pass off as a film review anywhere. Two, it makes a simple argument: that the movie is important and will be remembered for a long time, and it gives three reasons to support that point. Please do feel free to poke holes in that argument. I don't think you have done that yet. --------- I absolutely agree with your point about young directors. I also think some of them are fantastic (but I wouldn't know if we are talking about the same ones). And, you will probably be surprised to know many of us who saw the movie loved it.

      on Feb 10, 2013
      • Sakthi Prasad

        Who is this condescending "filmmaker" hiding behind a pseudonym and pontificating as to who should be qualified to review a film? It is people’s prerogative to talk, write, discuss about a film once it is released in theaters. By the way, Tom & Jerry is a work of sheer brilliance. By equating the flamboyant cartoon series with “Kadal,” the "filmmaker" is inadvertently admitting that the film is also brilliant -- contrary to what he wanted to say.

        on Feb 10, 2013
  • PArthi

    As a commenter on a site succinctly put it, kadal oothikkichchu! I find it a bit patronising to simply dismiss the failure as something caused by the failure of the lowest common denominator to grasp the movie's theme. Good movies made with reasonable budget regularly reap benefits. Mani ratnam has simply become out of touch with the Audience's tastes. Case in point, the mediocre Ravanan.

    on Feb 10, 2013
  • ashok pai

    I would watch a mani ratnam movie just for the visuals. however, the storyline seems interesting and also the choice of actors are usually good. sadly, the movie goers are now overdosed with over the top masala movies. I hope the tide will change soon.

    on Feb 10, 2013
  • dharshini

    kadal maybe not mani sir's typical movie, but its worth to watch. i really njoy it from the casting till the music. thumps up

    on Feb 10, 2013
  • Amar

    Forgiveness or Revenge: When faced with the criminal destroying everything you stand for, which path would you choose? What leads to spiritual enlightenment, following a preacher formally educated in a religious discipline, or a peek into a heart filled with childlike innocence. Can a human truly be classified as being God or Devil, or are both entities inside each of us, and only the circumstances dictate who manifests outside? With a biblically inspired tale set in the backdrop of the lives of Christian fishermen in Southern Tamil Nadu, these are some of the questions director Mani Ratnam seems to be asking. While the ideas of sin, redemption, revenge, forgiveness in cinema have been around since the beginning of cinema itself, the choice of the sea as a backdrop allows the director to use the various moods of Mother Nature to elevate the emotions in the depicted events, and credit, in this regard, is due to the cinematographer, Rajiv Menon. For a movie with seemingly lofty intentions, the actors do not disappoint. Arvind Swamy as the pragmatic priest who uses carrots and sticks to straighten a boy with an adverse past, Gautham as the enigmatic young hero in constant struggle to grapple with his place in the society around him, Thulasi the young convent girl who refuses to grow up, and Arjun, the man who made a deal with the Devil, and would stop at nothing to get ahead, all of them play their characters convincingly. The disappointments in the movie are the under utilization of some songs in the excellent soundtrack, and the final showdown which, although shot splendidly, could have packed a stronger emotional punch, either through better dialogue or by tweaking the storyline. Part of this could have also been an outcome of editing, and one hopes that an uncut version of the movie releases on DVD at some point that better explains these problems. Following Thalapathy and Raavan, this is the director's third venture to be inspired by a religious epic. While the other two movies were more direct retelling of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, Kadal is not quite a reinterpretation of an epic, but characters and events were certainly inspired by the stories from the Christian faith (the betrayal, crucifixion, resurrection). Is it mere coincidence that the hero, born as a child to a woman named Mary, and constantly referred to as God's son in the movie, sported longish hair, mustache and beard on his thin visage almost reminding us of the Biblical son of God. Of course, if indeed the purpose was make a movie inspired by the story of Christ, then unlike Raavan and Thalapathy, why is religion an explicit element in this movie. Perhaps, since the question posed is that of choosing a path for life, a religious backdrop is inevitable. In a tale about forgiveness, Christianity may have provided the ideal landscape. Director Mani Ratnam, it appears, has indeed traveled a far distance from his evergreen hits such as Mouna Ragam, Roja, Anjali, where the movie takes you through an emotional journey without necessarily asking you to stop and think about what you just saw. Movies such as Raavan and Kadal have through their sub-textual intent made us question our premises about their stories and possibly, our own.

    on Feb 10, 2013
  • Vidya Senthil

    Thoroughly enjoyed Kadal..highly recommended from my end... Stunning visuals,lilting music ,outstanding performances, a movie worthy of Maniratnam's stature.. Kudos to the Kadal crew!! Looking forward to MR's next..No pony calling it a classic ten years down the line.. Watch it now guys!!:)

    on Feb 10, 2013
  • shakila ramesh

    I thoroughly enjoyed kadal.it was a fulfilling movie.congratulations to manirathnamon seving a gourmet cuisine.except the movie goer seems to be mess likersmaybe he shold think of screening his next movie in very f select theatres fofor a discerning public.againthe experience of moviewachingig is very subjective.

    on Feb 10, 2013
  • Kadal = Dry

    Kadal = Dry...very flimsy & not engaging..

    on Feb 10, 2013
  • sid

    Though i enjoyed reading your article, I cannot accept your conclusion or the reasons that you have provided. Kadal would have done better if not for Vishwaroopam... but just because the other release david wasnt good either... in your attempt to differentiate your review from the others, you have given me enough reason not to read your reviews henceforth...

    on Feb 9, 2013
  • Raghu

    Whatever might be the technicalities involved in making this film, the basic ingredient for a movie is to keep the viewer engrossed. At which, Kadal utterly fails. Mani Ratnam should have spent more time on making the script tighter rather than concentrating on the visuals which he is already good at.

    on Feb 9, 2013
    • Krishna

      For your information. He has taken only 70 days to shoot entire visuals of Kadal. Ofcourse, if you feel the script is not good he has to come also like his golden movies - Mouna Ragam, Anjali, Thalapathi, KM, Bombay, Alaipayuthe, AN, IT - Note all these movies' screenplay and dialogues written by himself. Sujatha contribution is just for dialogues that too only 5 films. My suggestion is always mani has to write the script and dialogues.

      on Feb 11, 2013
  • Siv

    Kadal didn’t fail by market place competition with Vishwaroopam. Kadal was released much before Vishwaroopam. If it had a good story line, good narration, familiar faces for lead characters and little LESS ARROGANCE from the director from the start, it could have easily won any competition!! He thought he could make better movie than Alaigal oivathillai and failed miserably to the level where the distributors are asking their money back. Keeping brilliant technical crew (one main component that helped all his movies to get much hype before it gets released) and but sticking to his half-baked stories he thought he could be still successful with current moviegoers. Failed three times in row with different themes. Good sign for retirement! This happened to all famous directors and now it is Mani's turn.

    on Feb 9, 2013
    • Ajith

      Totally agree with your assessment! Mani & Rahman are way too over rated. Both have lost their touch a long time ago & keep dragging their feet when it comes to giving up. Mani thinks that having good technicians is enough to have a hit movie. What about good storyline & screenplay? When one thought Ravanan was the abyss, here he comes out with another dud! Rahman on the other hand spends way too much time searching for an 'inspirational song' that people cannot easily make out is copied. No quality, no originality. Both of them need to stop living in past glory (though that was a decade ago) and wake up to the fact that there are much better directors & music directors out there who are miles ahead of them. They are both on borrowed time - a case of having over stayed their welcome. @Ramnath, I found your analysis quite comical! Blaming the colossal flop of Kadal on a much superior and logical movie that is in tune with the times. No matter if 'Vishwaroopam' was released around the same time as Kadal or not, this movie is bound to be a dud, just like Ravanan, Ayudha Ezhuthu etc. Even a Kanna Laddu Thinna Aasaya, Samar, why even Alex Pandian would have been too tough for Kadal to survive. RIP a good director & a seriously hyped up music director! Hope they have the strength in them to see the truth! They are not a Kamal Hassan to keep going from strength to strength for well over 5 decades.

      on Feb 10, 2013
    • Suresh

      I'm 100% in agreement with your analysis. Guys pls dont read too much into this ordinary movie. There are no layers what-so-ever. Mani ratnam still does item numbers except that it looks odd & out-of-place in kadal. At one point in the 80-s , 90-s, mani ratnam was leading the way & deservedly so. But the reality of today is the balas & vertimaarans of tamil cinema are much better. Same in bollywood. With onset of rang de basanti, bollywood directors have gotten very good at experimenting in the commercial format.

      on Feb 10, 2013
    • karthik

      Agreed! First bharadwaj rangan & now this one - a case of applying lipstick to a pig. Mani was once a good director - but kadal feels so old - the kind of movies mani helped me move away from - ironically ! While tamil cinema is growing by leaps & bounds over the last few years, here is a man, who once was leading the way, decides to turn regressive.

      on Feb 10, 2013
  • Aditya Siddharth

    Bharadwaj Rangan, here comes competition... Great piece...

    on Feb 9, 2013
  • Lakshman


    on Feb 9, 2013
    • jagan

      Check this Out A Great Review http://ajithanmotherearth.blogspot.in/2013/02/kadal.html

      on Feb 11, 2013
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