Produced by Gemini Film Circuit and Madras Talkies, written by Jeyamohan and Mani Ratnam, directed by Mani Ratnam and starring Arjun, Arvind Swamy, Gautham Karthik, Thulasi Nair,Lakshmi Manchu and Ponvannan, Kadal is a story about sin and redemption, about faith and humanity and revolves around the life of Christian Fishermen, set against the backdrop of a sea side town near Tuticorin. Though the basic plot is about good and evil, Mani Ratnam clearly is not interested in narrating this in a simple manner. He tries to dig into many layers and sub texts, and though he partially succeeds in his endeavor, he is completely let down by the screenplay in the second half and the one dimensional characters.
Sam Fernandez (Arvind Swamy) and Bergmans (Arjun) are part of a Christian Seminary, undergoing training for priesthood. Sam is sincere and dedicated while Bergman believes in having a bit of fun. An incident that occurs in the early part of the film makes Sam and Bergmans to choose different paths of life. Meanwhile, in a sea side town, a young boy Thomas (Gautham Karthik) loses his mother and grows up as an orphan in a harsh, uncaring and violent environment. Sam comes to this town as the priest and takes special interest in this boy. Years later, Thomas and Bergmans’ daughter Bea (Beatrice played by Thulasi Nair) meet and destiny entangles all the four that changes their lives forever. The opening sequences are extremely promising and very engaging. They set the tone of the film and clearly lay out what to expect from the film. The titles against the backdrop of black and white images with a grey background tell us something about the characters. The ocean which looks beautiful and peaceful from outside, yet could be dangerous in unleashing destruction and violence (hence the name Kadal), provides a fitting backdrop to the story. Mani tries to capture biblical themes as a part of his characters/screenplay and questions his audience. When a crime is committed, who should be held responsible? Should it be only the person who committed the illegal act and that person’s accomplices? If punishment is involved, should it be restricted to the perpetrator? Or is it appropriate to apply a principle of collective responsibility and punish a group of people who have some connection to the perpetrator?
And in the first half, all these work together beautifully. Spoilers Ahead in this paragraph. Be it the scene where Sam asks Thomas to record his voice and Thomas records the choice of swear words eventually breaking down asking for his mother, or the scene when Thomas after meeting Bea for the first time requests Sam to have him baptized (indicating that he is born again), or the scene when the wounded Arjun smokes a cigarette and his hand stroking Lakshmi Manchu’s head (which makes sense later), Jeyamohan and Mani create a riveting first half. The conceit in the interval point is predictable but yet engaging.
And then the slide begins. What a letdown. There are absolutely no peaks in the second half and the characters become caricatures. Even some relatively good scenes like Bea and Thomas helping in the delivery of a baby or the scene where Sam is working on the sculpture of Jesus (Mani hinting that becoming Jesus is a work in progress) does not have the necessary impact as one loses interest and stops caring for the characters. In the climax fight that takes place in a boat in the middle of a storm, I felt it would be better if the boat capsizes and all of them drown.
Arvind Swamy is adequate as Sam. Arjun is brilliant in the portions when he is subdued, but whenever he has to play it over the top, he hams it. But both these guys raise much above the one-dimensional roles that is written for them. New comer Gautham Karthik impresses but Thulasi is just about passable. Like any other Mani Ratnam film, the technical departments excel in their work. Photography by Rajiv Menon is absolutely top notch. In Conversations with Mani Ratnam, the director had mentioned that the cinematography in Bombay (by Rajiv Menon again) was perhaps the best amongst his films. But Menon’s work here, in my opinion is even better. Sreekar Prasad’s editing and Shashidhar Adappa’s art direction is fantastic. Music by A.R.Rahman is adequate. Jeyamohan’s dialogues are brilliant in some places but the local dialect makes it a bot difficult to follow. But I must say this helps in creating the accurate environment for the film.
Despite the failure of Raavan, Mani must be commended that he has chosen not to take the easy route. Kadal is unconventional and while the filmmaker’s intention to take the road less travelled is commendable, the product is not. Go with absolutely low expectations and the chances are you will still be disappointed.