As highly regarded as Mani Ratnam is, I have often been told that his Tamil movies are better than his Hindi ones. I can believe it. I have been rather hard on those of his Hindi movies that I have seen. Perhaps because they are so often ravingly praised, I have unfair expectations. They have struck me as uneven in tone, unsure what kind of movies they wanted to be, what message they wanted to send.
Kannathil muthamittal ("a peck on the cheek"), in contrast, is nearly flawless. It is a simple story, simply told, unburdened by melodramatic embellishments or unrealistic characters. These clean lines, these relatable characterizations, allow the movie to explore some large, dense themes without tying itself in intractable knots. Dil se obscures its examination of terrorism with Shah Rukh Khan's hammy and under-motivated stalker romance. Yuva is severely compromised by its absurd superman character who takes bullets and falls off bridges without ever wavering in courage or commitment. But Kannathil muthamittal ranges from an adopted child's search for her identity to the vicious horrors of Sri Lanka's internecine conflicts without ever losing its emotional mooring.
Shyam Benegal's movies often probe big, society-shaking themes and events through close studies of the experiences of a small number of people. One does not always need an expansive cast and an epic storyline to examine rangy ideas. Mani Ratnam succeeds with Kannathil muthamittal because it, too, focuses a tight lens on a small family. Thiruchelvan (Madhavan) and Indira (Simran) adopt a baby girl born in a Tamil Nadu refugee camp to M.D. Shyama (Nandita Das), who has fled the fighting in Sri Lanka between Tamil Tiger fighters and the Sri Lankan army. On her ninth birthday, the girl, Amudha (P.S. Keerthana) learns of her adoptive origins, and demands to meet her mother. Her parents, burdened by guilt and concern for their headstrong little girl, take her to Sri Lanka in search of Shyama.
It is arguably foolish of this family to walk straight into a war zone as they do, all for the demands of an imperious child. The film seems not to judge them for this bad decision, however. We see Indira's anguish at Amudha's suffering, her guilt at perpetrating the implied deception of adoption, and her helplessness in the face of Amudha's drive; the little girl runs away from home twice, set on finding her own way to Sri Lanka, so it is hard to blame her parents for taking her there. And the family seems genuinely unprepared for what they find there, as if the remoteness of the conflict from their comfortable air-conditioned Madras home left them with little awareness of it, no framework in which to form expectations. They are naive in their bold forays, even while accompanied by a local guide (Prakash Raj). They find themselves buffeted in the confusion of a flood of refugees, shelled by army artillery even as they flee their village. They find themselves rubbing elbows with suicide bombers, and caught in the crossfire of rifle and grenade battles. They even find themselves in the jungle, surrounded by suspicious fighters who point guns to their heads and demand they prove their loyalties. In the Sri Lanka the family visits, violence is a way of life.
It is perhaps the film's main message that being aware of this conflict, telling its stories, is of crucial importance to the individual lives that are rent by it. Thiruchelvan is himself a storyteller, a writer; if he had not been hearing and telling the stories of refugees in the camp where Shyama gave birth, he and Indira and Amudha would never have come together to form a family. And so Kannathil muthamittal tells their story, Amudha's and Shyama's and Thiruchelvan's and Indira's. It tells those stories, not with a sweeping focus that outlines the grand history of Tamil/Sinhalese conflicts, but with an intimate focus on a child's perspective. In a child's eye, the violence is not only senseless, but irrelevant. All that matters is the connections of love, the connections that bind families together.
Much of Kannathil muthamittal's expression of the love in Amudha's family is told impressionistically during the movie's gorgeous A.R. Rahman songs. In these stunning picturizations, Amudha dances and cuddles and plays with each of her parents (Indira in the title song, and Thiruchelvan in "Nenjil Jil Jil") across diverse, colorful dreamscapes like those of the songs of Dil se. These picturizations are paintings in motion, visual poetry singing the family's love. Another song, "Vidai Kodu," presents the harsh, dirty anguish of a vast train of refugees against the stark beauty of thunderclouds and wilderness. Red clay soil and the army-green of tank convoys splash the backdrop of this canvas on which the brightly-colored clothes of the refugees are anything but cheerful.
This thematic juxtaposition between the vastness of the civil war and the depth of the family's love is what makes Kannathil muthamittal its own effective and moving story. It is how the movie can say so much, without trying to do too much. Mani Ratnam's Bombay takes a similar approach, and is equally effective. It is not for nothing that these are by far the two best I've seen of his movies. It may also be not for nothing that they are both written and shot in Tamil.