Wednesday 29 June 2022

On demand: "Kannathil Muthamittal"

Much about Mani Ratnam's 2002 film is remarkable, not least the ruthless economy of its opening stretch. We're introduced to Nandita Das as a blushing bride being married off, with evident reservation and trepidation, in the rural backwaters of Sri Lanka; in the forest, we see her finally starting to bond with her rugged other half when those fighting the country's civil war enter the frame; we then see her pregnant and alone as bombs rain down on her family home; then - and it's the last time we will see the character for some while - on a boat overloaded with her fellow refugees. In its first ten minutes alone, Kannathil Muthamittal (mildly inadequate translation: A Peck on the Cheek) has described just how quickly the bottom can drop out of some people's world. Any despair is countered by Ratnam's assured feel for the contours of this narrative - we're in safe hands, we're being led somewhere, albeit forcefully - and his eye for visual pleasure. Those forest scenes propose what the later Raavan would confirm: that this filmmaker is to sylvan greens what Almodóvar is to Iberian reds. There is still beauty in this world, even as it tilts towards despoilment. T
his prologue is all the more remarkable given what Ratnam's film reshapes into in the immediate wake of its opening credits: a peppy, bright-as-a-button family drama, centred on one Amudha (P.S. Keerthana), beloved child of doting parents Thiru and Indra (local stars Madhavan and Simran), introduced tearing through the Chennai school system. How did we get here? The film raises and answers that question for us. On her ninth birthday, Amudha has to absorb some long-withheld, life-changing news: that she was the Das character's war baby, given away by her birth mother and subsequently adopted by these good-hearted replacements. Once again, we find Ratnam - who announced himself as a major Indian filmmaker with his Nineties "terrorism trilogy" (Roja, Bombay, Dil Se...) - using the popular form to worry away at a key theme of his: the consequences of conflict for those unlucky enough to have to live alongside it.

A mainstream melodrama is thus invested with a jittery, nervous energy; the film's fight-or-flight reflex has been embedded uncommonly close to the surface. What you first notice about Kannathil Muthamittal is its relentless movement: that's there from its opening musical number, in which the camera literally turns cartwheels while the lyrics set about comparing Amudha to drifting clouds. Our young heroine's restlessness, a double-sided inheritance, is both intensely cinematic and intrinsic to the film, a necessary condition to connect that prologue to the rest of this girl's life and Sri Lanka's past to its present in two hours. What's distinctive is that, for much of it, Ratnam is working backwards, first reversing into a vaguely postmodern flashback that establishes how engineer-turned-writer Thiru made Amudha the subject of a short story he wrote while volunteering at a Red Cross camp. (His wife-to-be confronts him with a question Ratnam may have asked himself at one stage or another: "Are your ideals limited to your writing?") Then it's off to Sri Lanka once more, where a decade on we find Amudha's mother barely better off and the crushing cycle of violence and retribution gearing up all over again. (To precisely measure the ground the film has covered, think back to that first song, which resembles an outtake from Matilda.) Our girl's quest to reunite with her flesh-and-blood tests credibility in places - certain officials are more helpful than you suspect they would be in reality - and cues at least one scene of overt, clunky editorialising. Yet the film's strengths outweigh those weaknesses: several genuine (and quite nasty) surprises, as the universe is prone to throwing up; a quietly astonishing performance from the fierce-eyed Keerthana (later Keerthana Parthiepan), yearning for a homeland she was never old enough to see; a typically diverse and dynamic A.R. Rahman score, gilding and finessing every curve of this plot; and a properly widescreen deployment of beaches as a liminal space between one world and another, offering a few grains of peace with which to offset the murderous chaos elsewhere. Those bombs keep landing close to home, but then all wars fall too close to someone's home, and the movie never lets us forget it: certainly, Ratnam's shots of refugees huddling on shores or padding over mountains haven't got any less evocative, representative or haunting over the past twenty years.

Kannathil Muthamittal is available to stream on Netflix. I'll be in conversation with Nandita Das at London's Ciné Lumière tomorrow night as part of the London Indian Film Festival - details/tickets here.

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