I watched Kannathil Muthamittal when a number of people recommended it to me after I worked in refugee camps in Sri Lanka. I think that my experiences there have really coloured my view of the film as I do focus more on Shyama’s story and less on the main characters. That said, I think the story is well told and the actors all do a good job – it’s just not the story I wanted to see. It’s a classic Mani Ratnam film with strong female characters, great cinematography and attention to detail, so it’s no surprise that the film won six National Awards.
The film opens with the wedding of Shyama (Nandita Das) and Dileepan (J. D. Chakravarthi) in their village located in northern Sri Lanka. Despite this happy start it’s not long before Shyama is pregnant and on a boat heading for a refugee camp in India while her husband is missing, presumably fighting for the LTTE. Once she gives birth in the refugee camp, Shyama leaves her daughter behind and heads back to Sri Lanka to try and find her husband.
From here the film skips forward in time to introduce G. Thiruchelvan or Thiru (Madhavan) and his family, as seen through the eyes of his adopted daughter Amudha. Convincingly played by P S Keerthana, she appears to be a typical precocious 9 year old; playing with her friends at school, teasing her two younger brothers and very definitely the princess in the family. The story of her adoption is told in flashback and shows the development of the romance between Thiru and Indra (Simran). I really like this part of the story as the two leads play their parts well and the intertwining of the adoption story and the romance is really sweet.
After she is told by her father on her ninth birthday that she is adopted, Amudha becomes moody and withdrawn and finally demands a chance to meet her real mother in Sri Lanka. For some inexplicable reason her parents accede to her demands and the family head off to the war-torn nation, although they did have the good sense to leave their other two sons behind.
The scenes in Sri Lanka make me cry every time I watch this film. I have seen the same mix of resignation and total despair on people’s faces that is shown here when a village is evacuated. I worked on the East Coast and regularly travelled between LTTE and government controlled areas. The incredibly young soldiers with their automatic weapons shown in the film is very much true to what I experienced and for me this total realism clashes with the more idealistic search for Shyama. Mani Ratnam wisely doesn’t attempt to explain any of the conflict, only showing its effects on Indra and Thiru as they realise why Shyama left her baby behind.
Amudha becomes bratty and rude as she deals with her feelings of alienation from her family and as a consequence I lose much of my sympathy for her. I also disagree with her parents’ decision to try and find her birth mother, no matter how essential it is to the plot. However both Simran and P S Keerthana convey their conflicting emotions and fluctuating relationship well and Indra’s inner conflict as she worries about her two sons left behind in India is effectively depicted. Although Amudha is irritating the young actor does hold her own against the more experienced cast and it may be more due to the over emotional story that I lose interest in her search. Madhavan’s character, although impressive in the beginning, seems to have little impact in the latter half of the film and Prakash Raj is wasted in his role as the doctor taking the family around Colombo. So while I enjoy the first half of the film, the second half tends to drag with the adoption story and the peripheral action is more engaging . Some of Amudha’s rebellion in this section could have been cut without losing the feeling of her isolation and separation from the rest of the family. The ending is also a little disappointing but Mani Ratnam shows restraint in not turning the final scenes into melodrama, which could easily have occurred given the subject matter.
What I do like about the film is that it looks beautiful and is well shot by cinematographer Ravi K Chanran. Lighting is used to good effect as the early scenes in the family home are filled with warmth in contrast to the rain and grey skies in the later part of the film. While the background score of the film by A. R. Rahman is both beautiful and haunting, some of the songs are a little intrusive. The story doesn’t really need dance numbers and they seem to interrupt rather than move the film forward.
This isn’t a film I particularly enjoy watching, probably more because of the memories it evokes, although I can see why it won awards and I do think it’s generally well acted. It’s just that I would have preferred to see more of Shyama’s story and less of the family drama. 3 stars from me, mainly for the first half.
Temple says: This is one of the first Tamil films I saw a few years ago, and I was prompted to pick it up because of the storyline and for Madhavan.
Thiru (Madhavan) fell in love with the idea of giving Amudha a home and family, and I always feel that if Indra hadn’t agreed, then someone else would have been procured to play wifey. His decisions all revolve around what he wants – the way he courts Indra, the adoption, telling Amudha and persisting when it was clear she wasn’t ready for this birthday surprise, and on it goes. The job of explaining and reassuring was left mostly to Indra, and she had to bear the emotional burden of seeing her little girl in torment as she herself struggled to cope. Simran is lovely as Indra, but her character is surprisingly weak considering the way she met Maddy, and her being a news anchor. I expected more backbone, but the women in Mani Ratnam films are often written like this – a strong outline and not a lot of finer detail to make them seem more real.
I was adopted and my mother told me every day, long before I even knew what words were, so it would never come as a shock to me and to make it clear that ‘adoption’ isn’t a dirty word. My perspective is coloured by that and while I can understand the bratty Amudha wanting to know her own story, I will never understand her adoptive parents taking her into a war zone no matter how much she sulked. Still, the treatment of her story in terms of her developing understanding, the legal adoption process, and the fallout once the truth emerged was handled in a much more credible manner than many other films with orphans scattered around the streets, under cabbage leaves, going free to a good home.
The prologue was excellent in setting the scene, but beyond that Shyama and Dileepa didn’t really fit. The context of the Sri Lankan conflict added another dimension, but also made the second half of the film too dramatic and improbable when they went looking for Shyama. So although a fascinating and moving topic, here it is just used as a background for the family weepfest.
The soundtrack works well in the film, but I find the songs bland. The picturisations are beautiful, most are very stylised, however I can only take so much fabric blowing around and children running on the beach. They suit the mood of the film, but having seen them before, I made a cup of tea during a couple of songs this time. I felt the same about the story device for the flashback – the handwriting and drawings became a distraction and took my focus off the action. Pretty visuals just aren’t enough to keep the film on track.
When Mani Ratnam wants to belt you over the head with a message about peace, unity, love and what makes a family, he can make Bono seem subtle. I give it 3 stars.