Boy meets girl. Boy behaves in horribly toxic manner. Boy gets girl. The truth is most of our cinematic romances end with the hero riding into the sunset with a woman who deserves better. The petulant man-child who still ends up with the gorgeous, level-headed heroine is practically a movie genre by itself. Yet, “Kaatru Veliyadai” (Breezy Expanse), Mani Ratnam’s latest, stings harder because it sets itself up to subvert the expectations of a romantic drama. Before it flies off the rails in its abominable third act, the movie does something audacious. It puts us on the side of its female lead who calls out the male protagonist’s toxic behaviour. It also does something that I think is a deliberate choice – the hero’s misogyny is quite closely linked to his army background.
When it starts, “Kaatru Veliyidai” sets itself up as an epic romance. Indian Air Force pilot Varun Chakrapani aka VC (Karthi) is captured by Pakistani soldiers during the Kargil War. As a prisoner of war, he is forced to endure foot whipping and the dreadful singing of his prison mate. So his memories whisk him off to his time in Srinagar where he met and fell in love with the beautiful and sensitive Dr Leela Abraham (Aditi Rao Hydari), the sister of a deceased colleague. All the classic Mani Ratnam elements come into play – stunning cinematography by Ravi Varman with a focus on panoramic vistas of snow-capped mountains, soul-stirring earworms by AR Rahman, and finally, a pair of attractive leads. Aditi Rao Hydari has never looked more ethereal, like a cold desert mirage that could melt away any moment.
The meet-cute happens like an act of destiny. After a car accident, Leela Abraham, in a case of ‘Florence Nightingale effect’, is smitten with her foolhardy patient. Soon they start dating. After a wonderful first date in the skies, the relationship starts crashing down to earth.
It becomes apparent that VC isn’t interested in a relationship of equals. Leela first becomes aware of his controlling ways when she visits to pay tribute to her dead brother. Their relationship gets progressively worse. VC insists that men and women aren’t equal. He, in the words of Leela herself, treats her like a queen one day and kicks her down the next. He displays all the signs of an abuser and a narcissist. He insists her love for him won’t match up to his. He gets emotional anytime she questions the relationship. VC is cruel and controlling. Yet, like a fly, Leela is drawn deeper into the web of this toxic relationship.
The movie tantalisingly seems to suggest that army culture has a role in VC’s misogyny. In one scene, Leela playfully dons an army officer’s cap and asks VC if he dismisses her opinion because of her womanhood or her civilian status. VC yells at her to take off the cap. In another, after having stood her up at the marriage registrar’s office, he is instead seen instructing a junior officer how to dehumanise the enemy in battle. It’s also notable that VC’s awful behaviour seems to be enabled by his army colleagues. He twists her arm in front of his colleagues, all of whom proceed to ignore the scene in front of them. Later, he makes amends with an upset Leela, only, we eventually find out, to actually win a bet with his Air Force buddies. Early on in the movie, his superior, a brigadier, jokes with him that another air commander can’t lead a battalion because he can’t even control his own daughter. Is VC’s toxic masculinity driven by a kind of parochial army mindset? The movie definitely throws breadcrumbs in that direction.
In Mani Ratnam’s cinema, the collision of the personal and the political is inevitable. In “Bombay”, an interreligious couple and their children get caught up in the violence of the Bombay riots. In “Iruvar”, two close friends become political rivals. In “Dil Se”, the hero pursues a relationship with a separatist. In “Kannathil Muthamittal“, the child protagonist’s birth mother is a Tamil Tiger. The first two-thirds of “Kaatru Veliyidai” offers a lot to chew on, about the links between the violent fault lines of war and love.
Of course, that’s not the movie that “Kaatru Veliyidai” eventually chooses to become. By its third act, Kaatru Veliyidai aerial ambitions catch fire. It goes from examining the façade of a would be military hero into becoming a paean to him. After a preposterous escape across the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan (a truck even rams into a border post and rather unsubtly brings down a Pakistani flag), VC comes back to India as a celebrated war hero. A few years pass and he finally meets Leela, who as it turns out gave birth to their daughter. Now reunited with his lady love and their cherubic kid, VC now has the love of country and family. What a load of bullshit.
What a load of bullshit.
There’s no denying that the real world is replete with examples of the beauty and the beast dynamic represented by Leela and VC. Many women are magnetically drawn to men who use and abuse them. Yet, if the aim was to capture a slice of real life, then Kaatru Veliyidai fails miserably. After all, what reality does the movie exist in? Its painterly frames belong to the heavens but its disturbing relationship moments are recognisably human. Abuse has never been this beautifully filmed, always bathed in warm amber hues.
The movie also undercuts its character building in the songs it chooses to foreground. The way characters behave in songs are usually seamless in Ratnam’s movies because they are integral to the narrative. Contrast the way Manisha Koirala shimmies while still remaining an enigmatic vision in “Dil Se” or how Madhoo reveals her childlike ebullience in many of the songs in “Roja”. In “Kaatru Veliyidai”, Leela is frequently depicted as careful and reserved around people, including VC (on their first date she dutifully asks him if she can scream with glee while they are mid-air). Yet, she dances with abandon at VC’s brother’s wedding in one song and flails dramatically while cooing to him in another. We don’t see a side of Leela outside of these flights of fancy – which is an impediment to a movie that tries to have its feet firmly planted on the ground. Moreover, if realism is the goal, as an interview with a member of the creative team seems to suggest, what’s with the absurd number of main characters speaking Tamil in Kashmir or the fact that Rao Hydari with her light eyes and porcelain skin scarcely resembles a typical Tamil woman?
For “Kaatru Veliyidai” to pass off Leela and VC’s dramatic reunion as a happy ending is preposterous and reprehensible. Even the women in Mani Ratnam’s movies who don’t have agency are multifaceted. Yet, despite Aditi Rao Hydari’s excellent performance, Leela is more lovingly caressed by the camera than the screenplay. In the moments where we are left alone with her, the movie isn’t interested in capturing who she is outside the confines of her toxic relationship. The camera always lovingly deifies the heroine but never lets us inside her head.
The film ending the way it does is equivalent to “The Shining” ending breezily after its first act, with Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and their adorable tot in a tight embrace. All you can do is grimace in horror and wonder why the heroine has reconciled with this narcissist, who in all likelihood, will turn out to be an axe murderer. For this, “Kaatru Veliyidai” only has only one answer. This is true love. Welp.