Dir. Mani Ratnam
It's difficult not to compare this movie to Shuddh Desi Romance, as both take on the charged topic of a young couple living together without marriage. The trouble is that it's not at all a fair fight; OK Kanmani bests Shuddh Desi Romance by a wide margin in just about every aspect. Its characters are more rounded and likable; their background and motivations are fleshed out enough to provide some meaning to their resistance to marriage; their relationship to the world outside their relationship carries force and substance; the movie is more balanced in focus, showing us events sometimes from the young man's perspective, and sometimes from the young woman's. It is so much a better movie than Shuddh Desi Romance that I'll stop comparing them right now, and focus instead only on OK Kanmani's own merits, which are plentiful.
To start with the basics, I've observed before that romance movies share a narrative challenge with sports movies: You know how the story is going to end, so the movie had better make you care how it gets there. In a romance, if you aren't invested in how the principals find their way to happily ever after, you have better ways to use your time than to watch the movie. OK Kanmani's romance is gentle and sweet; the relationship grows delightfully and the lead pair's happiness is thoroughly engaging. Tara (Nithya Menen), an apprentice architect, and Adi (Dulquer Salmaan), a video-game designer, are both averse to the idea of marriage. Both are rising stars in their fields, and the prospect of career advancement abroad makes each of them reluctant to forge ties at home. Too, Tara's parents' divorce has left her with a bitter view of marriage as only a source of anguish. And so when Adi and Tara fall for each other they pledge to live in the moment, enjoying the time they have together before their respective ambitions take them to different continents.
Their joy together is conveyed from many angles; Mani Ratnam presses into service every device imaginable, from cheerful song montages, to teasing banter and jokes played on one another, to stolen touches and kisses that project their unrestrainable desire. The people around them perceive their joy as well and share in it; this is not the kind of relationship that isolates lovers in their own world, but one that their friends see and believe in. Contrary to filmi convention, even their families support the match, though they adamantly want to see the couple married, not living together as lovers.
What starts to steer Tara's and Adi's minds toward the notion that commitment might not be so bad after all is perhaps the sweetest aspect of OK Kanmani: The relationship of their landlord, Ganapathy (Prakash Raj) and his wife Bhavani (Leela Samson), a famous Carnatic singer now slipping into the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Ganapathy is a gruff, orderly man; when Adi moves in to Ganapathy's guest room, the older man squints at him skeptically and barks a list of rules. But Ganapathy treats Bhavani with patient tenderness that all but awes Adi. When Adi asks Ganapathy and Bhavani to let Tara move in with him, Ganapathy is, as you would expect, thoroughly opposed to such a relationship under his roof. But just a few minutes watching Tara sing with Bhavani, watching the music bring the life back to his beloved wife's face, softens Ganapathy, and he lets the couple share the room. There is no limit to what he can tolerate to make Bhavani happy, and with each gesture of support that Adi witnesses, he is moved and inspired toward building that kind of bond with Tara.
Tara, too, has resistances to overcome before the pair can reach their happy ending, and the film doesn't short-change these; OK Kanmani is very much both Tara's and Adi's story, not just Adi's. Tara is as moved by Ganapathy and Bhavani as Adi, but she is also increasingly aware of her own sense of loss as the time of her separation from Adi - he to the US, she to Paris - approaches. In a pensive moment she tells Ganapathy that she feels both tremendous joy for what she has, and tremendous grief for what is coming to an end. And while Adi hides his trepidation (sometimes effectively and sometimes less so) behind a facade of smirks and jokes, Tara grows increasingly vulnerable.
All of this is rendered with both vividness and compassion; both the lead actors give performances that add dimension and resonance to the script. Nithya Menen is especially grounded and effective; she brings to Tara a hugely appealing mixture of youth without ingenuousness, agency without rashness, confidence without swagger. Tara is a refreshingly competent young woman, able to articulate her convictions and live by them, and also, when circumstances require, able to question them without a complete meltdown of character. When Tara and Adi fall for each other, they do it with appealing symmetry; Adi's attraction to Tara is transparent, but Tara too is not afraid either to articulate her desire or to act on it. Nor is she coy about her ambitions and what they mean for the relationship's long-term prospects. Adi brings perhaps a touch less maturity to the table, but he is far from the overgrown horny man-child that one all too frequently sees in romance movies - and most importantly, he is sensitive enough to understand what the universe is trying to teach him through the example of Ganapathy and Bhavani.
The result is an uncomplicated and utterly delightful romance, not weighed down by lots of symbolism or a heavy-handed message or a politically significant backdrop. It is nothing more - and nothing less - than an engaging and wonderful story about kind-hearted people finding their way toward happiness.