At Mani Ratnam’s latest film O Kathal Kanmani‘s music launch, his wife and acclaimed actor-director Suhasini Ratnam said that only qualified critics should review the film. Despite Mrs Ratnam’s tall claims and an apparent talent overload in the crew, it is best to keep your expectations at bay while watching OKK, because it is one of the weakest films to have come out of the Madras Talkies banner in recent times. Ratnam is a filmmaker who has almost always got it right when it came to moving with his times and depicting real life romances onscreen. Love and relationships have been an underlining thread that has bound his stories together. Be it Velu Nayagan’s love for Neela (in Nayagan), which blossoms, most unconventionally, within the four walls of a brothel; or the love Chandrakumar had for his wife Divya (in Mouna Ragam), which manifested itself as a sweet cocktail of patience, maturity and understanding, Ratnam has been a champion of bringing to us many facets of love. From the coming-of-age of Karthik and Shakti (in Alaipaayuthey), who get into marriage thinking they can survive on love and fresh air; to the the raw, passionate longing that Inba has for his wife Sasi (in Aytha Ezhuthu); the persistence with which Roja fights for her husband Rishi’s life (in Roja); the struggles of Shekhar and Shaila Banu (in Bombay) in coming to terms with each other’s faith in a riot-torn Bombay; and even the life and death affair Amar has with the suicide bomber Meghna (in Dil Se…), his love stories were always unique, yet so relatable. Although Ratnam celebrated the grandeur of love with exemplary soundtracks and carefully choreographed song sequences, at the core of it always lay a story of two people, just like any one of us, discovering themselves, their partners and the ways of life itself through their relationships.
And, this is where OKK fails to deliver. Right from the opening credits, Ratnam pounds it into our head with the video game animation that this is going to be a “youthful” ride. Youthful, according to OKK, means fast, lively and cute. Adi (played by Dulquer Salman) is a gamer and Tara (played by Nithya Menen) is an architect. Ratnam’s protagonists are both educated, upper-class, ambitious youngsters who do not believe in being tied down by the institution of marriage. They are level-headed because they do not want to give up their careers in the name of love, but they are also romantic because they do not want to sacrifice what they share just because they may not end up with each other in the future. Adi and Tara are today’s youngsters–they are liberated, they make their own choices, they do not make a fuss about premarital sex, they enjoy the moment, they are responsible, they have strong opinions about what they want in life, they are in short “very sorted”. So far, so good. But what Ratnam forgets while painfully etching all this into his characters is to clearly draw out what forms the basis of their relationship. Why do Adi and Tara fall for each other the first time they meet? “Oh, It is love at first sight!” Why do they decide to live-in in less than a week? “They are young and reckless, right!” Are they in it just for the sex? “Oh no! They are in love!” But where is the love? In all those songs in which all they are shown doing is navigate through Mumbai in every possible means of transport–local train, BEST buses, motorcycles, jeeps and even in a boat.
For a film that talks about live-in relationships, OKK not even once shows how the couple adjusts with each other living in a space together. The couple does not share anything much in this space and they also never fight, never telling us how they deal with the real-life problems that come in with a live-in relationship. Because everyone in Adi’s and Tara’s world are simply conspirators of their ‘happy-go-lucky’ theory of life. All it takes to get a room to stay with your girlfriend in Mumbai is to bowl the Tam-Brahm owners over with a semi-classical number! The perfect Tamil ‘ponnu’ weapon, which is usually otherwise on display during prospective groom visits. Having convinced the old couple that the girl he has brought with him is “marriage material”, Adi and Tara continues on their fun ride. Thrown in to contrast all the jazz of the young couple is some old love between the landlords–the retired bank clerk Ganapathy (Prakash Raj) and his wife Bhavani (Leela Samson). It is unclear why Adi, who has witnessed the old couple’s relationship even before he starts living in with Tara and exclaims that he would never be able to take care of someone the way they did, completely transforms to the other end. Yet again, because we are not clear why he feels so strongly for Tara. Or vice versa. The film then boils down to the same old rom-com dilemma of “to commit or not to commit”. And, what started out with the ‘no strings attached’ characters turn into your usual Indian film that says a relationship can stand against all odds only if it culminates in a marriage. If knowing that Ganapathy and Bhavani have kept their love alive even in a difficult marriage could turn the young couple around, then why didn’t the many other seemingly happy relationships they saw around them have the same effect till now, we wonder. Tara has an excuse of a broken family to fall back upon, but what is Adi’s reason?
As the end credits roll out, we are shown (again through animation) that Adi and Tara follow the conventional path of living the happy family dream, complete with a dog and two kids, that most people around them are living in. So, again, what was the whole point? What led two commitment-phobic individuals to finally choose marriage over a live-in relationship remains unanswered in the film. As for the performances, Salman tries to imitate Madhavan from Alaipayuthey, playing the ‘cool dude’, and is at times borderline annoying. The saving grace of the film is the pretty Menen, who emerges as the most nuanced performer in the ensemble and convinces us that Tara is, indeed, a real person. What works against OKK is the near-perfect production design, which gives off an artificial vibe. The perfectly wallpapered walls of Ganapathy’s house and the artistically-lit lodge room in Ahmedabad, complete with an antique swing, is way too frustrating to be spotted in a Ratnam film. With the uber-cool music and camera, Ratnam seems to have tried hard to pander to the youth, but unfortunately gets it all wrong. It is disheartening and hard to believe that this film came from the man who gave us gems like Iruvar, Nayagan, Kannathil Muthamittal, Roja, Bombay and Alaipaayuthey. As for Mrs. Ratnam, the youth of today are not just reckless and cute, they also have a voice and you cannot silence it, especially with a strictly mediocre film like O Kadhal Kanmani.
Film: O Kadhal Kanmani
Director: Mani Ratnam
Cast: Dulquer Salman, Nithya Menen, Prakash Raj, Leela Samson