The summer is a chance to watch some of my archive of videotapes and transfer those worth using to DVD. Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek) is one of two films made back in Tamil Nadu by Mani Ratnam after his Hindi experience with Dil Se. The other was Alai Payuthey (2000), one of my favourite films that I have watched several times. Although my experience of Mani Ratnam’s work is limited, I’m reasonably confident in asserting that his films shot in the South are better than those made elsewhere in India. When I watch the Tamil films, I really do wonder why anyone bothers to watch the majority of Bollywood films. The cliché is that Bollywood represents a fantasy India constructed just for the vicarious entertainment of the cinema audience. By contrast, Mani Ratnam’s Tamil films deal with real social issues set in ‘real’ environments. I use the scare quotes to emphasise that Ratnam’s world is not a simple reflection of reality (which we all know is impossible on film) but that his construction of reality does draw on the experiences of families living in a recognisable world.
Kannathil Muthamittal tells the story of a child born in a refugee camp for Sri Lankan Tamils in India and subsequently adopted by an engineer/writer who marries the girl next door in order to qualify as an adoptive father. The couple then decide to tell the child about the adoption on her ninth birthday. Mani Ratnam reportedly based the story on the experience of American parents taking their adopted daughter back to the Philippines to meet her mother. The trip from Chennai to Northern Sri Lanka is much shorter, but much more dangerous. The combination of an emotional struggle within a family and an attempted reunion literally in the midst of guerilla war is potentially overwhelming. But Mani Ratnam knows how to handle it, as he had already demonstrated with Bombay (1995), set amidst communal violence.
How does he do it? First, it is important to recognise that he has a conventional popular narrative approach. The adoptive couple are middle class with the resources to do things. Father is a production line engineer who conveniently has plenty of spare time to write short stories (using his wife’s name, ‘Indira’, as a pseudonym). But his wife is no stay at home housewife. She is a morning newscaster on a Chennai TV station. So far, so glamorous and the father is played by Madhavan, Mani Ratnam’s discovery from TV who has become both a Tamil and Hindi star. Madhavan is a likable presence and I think he plays the role well. Mother is played by Simran, who I haven’t seen before, but who I thought very impressive. The trick is to have this middle class couple played by attractive stars, but to create a mise en scène which doesn’t turn them into fantasy creatures. They have children who wet the bed and squabble, a grandfather and in-laws who behave normally and they live in a recognisable community. In many ways, Ratnam achieves what the best Hollywood directors often managed in the studio period – the creation of heroic characters who were in one sense ‘just like us’ and in another ‘able to do impossible things’.
But for this story to work, the child actor playing the child Amudha has to be perfect and Keerthana is. In the brief intro to the film as screened on Channel 4, Mani Ratnam described how he looked at many girls but chose Keerthana even though she had no experience (but her parents did). She then quite naturally became a high profile character on the shoot. Her performance is extraordinary. I’m sure some of it must come from sensitive direction, but the institutional apparatus of casting and preparing children for auditions must be important too. I strongly believe that this is something Hollywood could learn from the approach here, in Japan and often in the UK (at least for social realist films). Most of the time, I can’t bear to watch Hollywood children, who seem like tiny aliens. Keerthana as Amudha is sparky, sulky, excited, intelligent, vulnerable and assertive – a real, live girl with believable behaviour and emotions.
My main prompt to watch the film was the appearance of Nandita Das (who strikes me as a younger version of Shabana Azmi). She plays the birth mother, Shyama, in the prologue and again in the closing sequence – and she’s very good. Both Das and Simran are from outside Tamil Nadu. I mention this partly because Mani Ratnam’s script includes at least three references to skin tones. Indian film stars are generally light-skinned. Darker skin is a marker of both lower social class and also ethnic difference so that Southern Dravidians are generally darker. The subtitles inform us that Shyama means ‘black’, yet Nandita Das is noticeably ligher skinned than the other women. Back in Tamil Nadu the adoptive father’s sister wonders why he is adopting a ‘black baby’. The other use of language that I found intriguing was in the references to Chennai/Madras. At home everyone refers to Madras, but in Sri Lanka, father says that they have come from Chennai. I’m not sure what to make of this. Is it exactly the same as the decision to use Mumbai/Bombay or Kolkata/Calcutta?
The other reason why the film works so well is the combination of A. R. Rahman’s music and Ravi K. Chandran’s cinematography. I thought Rahman’s music for Guru was disappointing, but here he is on top form. The cinematography is just wonderful. It helps to have locations as stunning as those in Tamil Nadu, but I particularly liked the shot selection and especially the use of long shots. Although a different cinematographer was on Alai Payuthey, I thought the overall use of sound and image was similar.
Kannathil Muthamittal is available on DVD in the UK from Ayngaran.