In 'Kaatru Veliyidai', Mani Ratnam Subtly Subverts the Classic Love Story

Kaatru Veliyidai's portrayal of toxic masculinity through the lens of a successful love story is much more intelligent and unsettling than it lets on.

Mani Ratnam pulls off a neat trick at the start of his latest release, Kaatru Veliyidai. In the film’s opening segment, we’re introduced to Varun (Karthi), a squadron leader in the Indian air force, held captive by the Pakistani army during the Kargil War. Varun’s locked in a small prison in Rawalpindi, and his only solace is the memory of his girlfriend, Leela (Aditi Rao Hydari). Ratnam structures this bit meticulously, cutting from the past to the present, from Varun’s voiceover in the prison to his times in Srinagar, where he fell in love with Leela. Nearly nothing about this portion is remarkable, or something we haven’t seen in many films before. Boy meets girl, sparks fly, they fall in love and eventually separate. In such films, we root for the leads to get together. That wish, of a happy climax, is the lifeline of any romantic drama. Moreover, we don’t need to question our expectations, because the filmmaker makes the hero and heroine likeable. Besides, who wouldn’t want two people in love to live happily ever after?

But what if you don’t know the full story? What if you find out, later in the film, that the boy isn’t right for the girl – that she can’t see him for who he is? What if the boy has himself not figured out the meaning of love, questioned his own troubling worldview about the opposite gender? What if the two people in love don’t have all the answers? In such a movie, where will your sympathies lie? Will you still want a happily ever after for them? And if not, will that make for a lesser film? Kaatru Veliyidai is much more intelligent, much more unsettling than it’s willing to let on.

Most movie watching experiences, especially romantic dramas, are based on an implicit understanding between the filmmaker and the audience: That they’re on the same page, watching the same things, thinking along similar lines. Ratnam, however, wants to upset that equation; he wants to pull out the rug beneath our feet slowly and carefully. But first he shows us what we want to see.

Varun and Leela’s romance starts off on a straightforward predictable note. The guy flirts; the girl reciprocates. They start meeting often, knowing each other better. There’s some hesitancy, fear and excitement, but these are largely bookended by a feeling of relief: of having found one’s soulmate. Varun and Leela gradually fall in love. When he’s posted in Leh, Leela pays him a surprise visit. When Leela returns to Srinagar, Varun sends her a videotape, where he’s singing a song, proposing marriage. When Varun travels to Delhi for his sister’s wedding, Leela accompanies him, making their relationship public. At the wedding, Leela meets Varun’s family: his mother, a professor in Delhi University; his father, holding a glass of whiskey, cracking a joke at his son’s expense; his brother, a young jovial man in a wheelchair. But the most striking presence of the lot is Varun’s sister – not because she is the bride-to-be, but because she is pregnant. Ratnam shoots this entire segment – the banter between Varun and his family members, the marriage rituals, the song – quite beautifully. So what if the girl is pregnant?

A few scenes later, however, the film starts to turn on its head. At a hospital in Delhi, during the course of a conversation, Varun shouts at Leela, shutting her up. And that’s it. The man has spoken; the conversation ends. Slowly, we get to understand Varun, the man, better. He says, “men and women are made differently”, “a man’s natural instinct is to hunt” and that women are defined by their looks. He’s not interested in Leela’s opinions or desires, for he’s too busy bossing her around, telling her what he wants. But, more importantly, the troubling bit about Varun is not his anger and arrogance, but their origins, stemming from misplaced entitlement and a warped notion of masculinity. And yet, he’s the film’s hero. When Leela gets upset with him, he breaks into a song, apologising for his behaviour, saying, “I’ll love you till the end of time”, adding, “this is not an equal relationship; I’m beneath you” and “I’ll love you even if you don’t.” At one moment, he’s angry, unreasonable and domineering, at another he’s sweet and quasi-patronising, calling Leela, “My gorgeous, my angry, my headstrong girl.” It’s difficult to understand this guy, and you often wonder, “Does he really mean what he says?” And that’s when it really hits you – that men like Varun are all around. They’re sophisticated and polite, confident and charming. They like single malt. They’re multilingual and well travelled. They dance well and flirt with ease. They claim to love and respect their women. And yet, deep within, they’re insecure and scared – not that they’re aware of it.

And that’s precisely the most notable achievement of Kaatru Veliyidai – that it takes a regular upper-middle class guy, makes him the film’s hero, and then lays bare his latent toxic masculinity, bit by bit, scene by scene. Think about that for a moment. Think about the fact that Ratnam achieves this in a mainstream film, with well-known actors, dancing to songs composed by A.R. Rahman. Think about the film’s timing, releasing at a time when, in the last few weeks, four Indian men have been accused of sexual harassment and threatening behaviour (web entrepreneur Arunabh Kumar, filmmaker Vikas Behl, Jude Anthony Joseph and anti-nuclear activist Kumar Sundaram). Kaatru Veliyidai isn’t centred on sexual harassment; it is, in fact, a love story, and that makes the film even more unsettling, for it shows how sexism and patriarchy are deeply internalised in Indian men.

On the other hand, when viewed from Leela’s perspective, the film elicits another important question: What makes people endure abusive relationships? Because if Varun is difficult to understand, then so is Leela. A successful doctor, who’s independent and confident, Leela is no pushover. She shoots Varun’s sexist views down. “So what’s the problem? Being a woman or a civilian?” she retorts at one point when Varun tells her to refrain from commenting on matters of national defence. She tells Varun that he considers her “his slave”, someone always at his beck and call. And yet, after every fight, every disagreement in which Varun insults and threatens her, she returns to him. Ratnam seems to be aware of this tension. A crucial scene in the film has Leela and Varun in a room, facing two sides of a closet door. Leela is on the side that has a mirror attached to it. They’ve had another ugly fight, and she can see her reflection in the mirror; the implication being she can finally see herself. You hope that she’ll finally stand up for herself and tell Varun off, but she doesn’t. In fact, she ends up saying, “I love you.” In another scene, both of them are in front of a mirror, and Varun asks her, “What do you see?” You hope this will finally be a moment of realisation, but it isn’t.

Ratnam works hard towards developing an emotional beat, but when you expect a satisfying payoff, he simply shrugs and walks off. You aren’t sure why. Is he indifferent? Or is he prodding us to recognise the complexity of relationships? There’s no way to tell. It’s all the more confusing, at times plain frustrating, because Ratnam goes out of his way to make Varun unlikeable (so much so that he borders on being a caricature in a few scenes), as if Ratnam is presenting him as a metaphor for disreputable Indian men. And even then, Varun faces little consequence for his actions. Maybe that in itself is a message, but, again, there’s no way to tell. Because, ultimately, Kaatru Veliyidai is a conventional romantic drama. Varun is still the film’s hero. And so when he says he’s had a change of heart, we are supposed to believe him – even though multiple scenes in the film indicate otherwise, that this guy understands neither relationships nor women. Which is perplexing, for you can see something Leela can’t, or perhaps doesn’t want to.

Most well made movies are morally ambiguous, and it makes sense, because real life isn’t about heroes or villains, rather ordinary people trying to make sense of their flaws. But you want Kaatru Veliyidai to be different; you want its director to take a stand, or, at least, give us something more to grasp. It also doesn’t help that this film is uneven – not just thematically, but also in the way it’s shot. Ratnam’s insistence on songs driving the narrative doesn’t quite work. In fact, some of them disrupt the film’s rhythm, dissipating the simmering tension, which could have been sustained, or heightened, by uncomfortable silence or stilted conversation. The acting, too, isn’t uniform. Hydari turns in a brilliant performance, one that has shades of hope, vulnerability and confusion, but Karthi fails to distill Varun’s anxiety and helplessness convincingly, often overacting in the process.

Kaatru Veliyidai is a strange beast. It raises your expectations, and then dashes them; it is triumphant in parts, disappointing in others. But beyond its merits (or, at times, the lack of them), this is a film worth engaging – even if you disagree with it. Because when the film gets it right, it makes you think and question the things that merit our attention. At one point, Leela’s friend, Illyaas (R.J. Balaji), who has a crush on her, wonders what she sees in Varun. He asks his friend Nidhi, “Why doesn’t she leave him? There are many smart guys out there.” To which she replies, “Like where?” It’s a small funny scene, but one that, like the film itself, hides a ubiquitous unpleasant reality.