Mani Ratnam’s Cheliya is out. It has all the stunning visuals and soothing music that we expect from a Mani Ratnam movie. It is quite complex and even cryptic at times. It is too early to attempt an analysis on the movie (because any Mani Ratnam movie stays with you and keeps growing on you), but here are a few thoughts about the movie:
Spoiler alert: Lots of spoilers ahead.
Love and war
The movie opens to visuals of war and destruction in Kargil war. A few minutes later, we hear a painful cry in a prison. This is followed by a poetic description, an accident and a treatment. This is pretty much the love story that unfolds. It’s a destructive love story that needs redemption, told in a poetic manner. The movie is based on the book “Four Miles to Freedom” and is inspired from a Subramanya Bharati poem.
Officer VC and Doctor Leela are presented as two charming individuals with opposite views. The movie showcases the polarities of their thoughts to extreme lengths which heightens the drama. (Most aptly, showcased in the above frame.) Through that, it tends to explain the basic nature of love. Opposites get attracted in love. But by the very nature of opposites, they are different and unequal. At times, the inequality keeps shifting sides, due to the flaws associated with the partners. In Mani Ratnam’s words, it is the flaws in a character which makes them more human. VC is a short tempered, male chauvinist while Leela is a strong headed yet patient individual. So, attractions and problems are a recurring part of their relationship. The relationship literally takes off in a private jet. It is quite difficult to root for either of them as none of their actions seem logical. That brings to the next point that the movie talks about, a reasoning that thrashes all the “Why do you love me?” and “How much do you love me?” questions that trigger the unhappiness in relationships, which is “Love is illogical”. Wouldn’t you call it Science if it was logical? In a simple yet crucial scene, which explains the illogical nature of love, we hear Dr. Nidhi telling Dr. Iliyas – “Naaku mee meeda kannu, meeku Leela meeda kannu, Leela ki VC meeda kannu.”, which is like a literal translation from Tamil but still conveys the meaning.
The movie keeps us craving for more details. If you are not aware, the makers have cut 7 minutes of the movie, just on the day before the release of the movie. So, there are a few scenes that are missing from the trailers. One of them is this where VC is angry, banging a mirror:
The other one is the bike ride, where VC screams the title of the movie:
Cheliya, is obviously named so because it is Varun’s Cheliya who helps him in his redemption. On the other hand, the Tamil title “Kaatru Veliyidai” means a breezy expanse. If you notice the wind in the film, it constantly keeps signifying crucial happenings in the relationship. After the first date, we see Leela shivering in a breeze while VC remains unaffected in a scene which is beautifully emoted through the eyes. That’s exactly how the relationship is for most of the time and VC warns that.
A little later, you see the wind in a violent form approaching at a faster speed. And that’s when reality hits the relationship.
The song Allai Allai is another example where the entire instrumental music has been substituted with the sound of a strong turbulent wind. Post the song, we see an approval from Leela in the most unexpected manner. And the wind continues to be a recurring metaphor till the climax.
Comprehending VC and Leela
With a dashing personality and flamboyant attitude, VC could easily be a dream boy. May be that’s why Leela has a fascination for him even before she sees him. As the character flaws of VC crop up, it gets difficult to feel for him. The only possible reason that is shown for his flaws is the dysfunctional family. Mani Ratnam shows the pointless nature of male chauvinism in a scene where VC ends up being a chauvinist while trying to oppose his father’s chauvinistic behaviour. However, the rest of VC is left for the viewer to guess. I feel that VC has lots of pain due to his upbringing in such a family which might have resulted in his issues. In one of the initial scenes, where VC is in lots of physical pain, it is only seen through an extreme close up of a fellow Indian prisoner. That could be the same case with his emotional pain which comes out in extreme forms. Be it anger, love or remorse he utters it repeatedly. (I’m sorry..sorry..sorry…to the power of infinity.) However, the love in him does bring a gradual change in his character and he keeps developing a bit of patience. The elaborate single shot scene which has VC talking to Leela’s parents, shows how long his patience lasts. Further, there is a backdrop of war when VC forgets about his promise to Leela because Operation Safed Sagar started a little later than the on ground Kargil war. (Remember Samba (Madhavan) was stuck in a war of survival and identity when Sashi (Meera Jasmine) was pregnant in Yuva?) We also see VC justifying self-centric nature through the dialog on Lord Krishna, Arjuna and war. After 7 years, he does change. (There is only a single sorry.) Having said all that, I must admit that in the theatre I watched, the audience were so frustrated with VC in the latter part of the movie, that they began screaming “Psycho” whenever he was on screen. As audience, we are still opening to such unlikeable characters. We do see and hear about self-centered people all around us but on-screen portrayals have been very few. So is the case with the relationship too. We do see relationships where something which is important to one partner is not that serious for the other. Cheliya portrays such problems in a detailed manner.
Leela, is a relatively lesser complex character. True to her name, she is the magic which treats VC. Her decisions are surprises.Leela’s family also remains less explored. Then, there is the grandfather Col. Mithran who appears to have no role with his limited dialogs (dubbed by Subhalekha Sudhakar). But, he appears to be a personification of Leela’s conscience. In the scene where she is singing a raaga, her conscience gets her back when she is disturbed by the fighter planes. In the song Allai Allai, she doesn’t heed to her conscience and goes with VC. And in the decision about marriage, she asks her grandfather (read conscience again) to leave, when she finds him in the mirror. So, the grandfather eases Leela for us.
Then, you have the screenplay which is intelligently written for the escape part. If you notice the parallel narration, there is an emotional correlation between what’s happening in the escape episode and the love story. The poems explain that further. As the police hurdles for VC get bigger in his escape, you see Leela’s problems in the relationship also getting bigger. That was Mani Ratnam’s emotional equation at its best.
If you adore Mani Ratnam, Cheliya has the rains, the romance, the poetic beauty, the questioning of marriage, the delicacy of relationships and the signature light moments (like arousing the emotions of Leela through the sound of a jet, screaming from a private jet and a raaga being interrupted by a fighter jet). If you like Mani Ratnam’s films, Cheliya has the romance of Samba and Sashi in Yuva, the nonlinear narrative style of Sakhi, the prisoner’s love story of Roja and the scenic beauty of Geethanjali. Mani Ratnam is one director who makes the most of the visual medium to convey his story rather than just the dialog. So, there is lots of aesthetics involved which build the visuals. Cheliya is a celebration of the visionary auteur’s cinema since it marks his landmark 25th film and his 25 years of association with AR Rahman.
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