An hour into Mani Ratnam's latest film, I realized I was enjoying myself quite a bit, even as the skeptic in me wanted to yell that there wasn't much to the film, in terms of either plot or theme: nothing much happens in the film, nor does it take us anywhere the director's earlier love stories -- principally Alai Payuthey and Mouna Raagam, released, respectively, fifteen and nearly thirty years ago -- haven't already taken us. There is, as expected, a sensational background score -- credited to, apart from AR Rahman, Qutub-e-Kripa, the students of the KM conservatory associated with Rahman -- and a winning performance by Nithya Menon in the female lead role, but no real meat or edge. If Ratnam's films are divided between those that aspire to "more" than popular cinema (Iruvar, Dil Se, Aayutha Ezhuthu/Yuva, Raavan/Raavanan) and those that aspire to make the popular film as classy as it can be (Thalapathi, Alai Payuthey, Thiruda Thiruda), O Kadhal Kanmani definitely falls in the latter category. But even in that category, it is a slight film, its love story and the protagonists at the heart of it no more than mere sketches, their tribulations the result of purely internal hesitations and reserve (neither believes in the idea of marriage with its permanent commitment and the cost it entails to one's autonomy; but since films could barely exist without forming couples, the viewer knows to pay no heed to Aditya's and Tara's words), and not evoked in the most compelling fashion. Some of this might be attributable to the actors -- Dulquer Salmaan, for instance, is charming as the male lead (a video-game developer recently arrived in Bombay), but compared to Alai Payuthey's Madhavan, he seems shallow -- but not all of it: Nithya Menon is a lot better than the earlier film's inert Shalini, but her character (a student of architecture, originally from Coimbatore) makes much less of an impact. O Kadhal Kanmani is, like more than one Ratnam film, not the most tightly written (and as is also true of more than one Ratnam film, its first half is better than its second). The film is a bit of a soufflé, light and fluffy but without much of an after-taste, at least one that isn't provided by the older couple played by Prakashraj and Leela Samson.
The film gets the soundtrack it needs -- it is, by now, hard to tell which of Ratnam and AR Rahman is the muse, and to whom -- and the very texture of O Kadhal Kanmani is suffused with Rahman's magic, by way of both songs and background score. The fanboy in me certainly missed the videos of earlier Ratnam films (Parandhu Sella Vaa is the only choreographed set piece here, cute but hardly one of the director's most memorable), but perhaps that is fitting, given that the director has arguably taken the Tamil and Hindi song-video to its limit. In exchange Ratnam scatters snippets of the songs throughout the film, making of them an aural Siamese twin to the film's theme of young love in Bombay (the moody and beautiful cityscapes on the CD jacket best make the point). It might be churlish -- although no less accurate for that -- to observe that the film is not the equal of Rahman's music, but that music undeniably works best in the context of this film (at least where tracks like Mental Manadil, Hey Sinamika, and Kaara Attakaara are concerned; the classically-inspired masterpiece Naane Varugiraen stands on its own, and perversely isn't done justice to in the film): more than one song had grown on me before I watched the film, but was rendered indelible after I'd done so, in a manner reminiscent of my encounter with Rang de Basanti.
And yet, by the end of O Kadhal Kanmani, I realized that I might have been missing the point of the film: Bombay, beautiful Bombay, in its real and cinematic avatars, appears to be the raison d'être of this film, and perhaps the most plausible kanmani on offer. Not for nothing does the film begin with Dulquer's Aditya Varadarajan disembarking at CST/Victoria Terminus, and catching sight of Nithya Menon's Tara, her image framed, de-stabilized, and finally obscured by passing trains in possibly the best train shots of even Ratnam's long career. Indeed, over the course of the film the couple seems to meet more often in BEST buses and local trains than seems plausible for the iPad and iPhone wielding yuppies these two seem to be, and the reason is surely that O Kadhal Kanmani is Ratnam's paean to a city that he loves, in the manner one loves a city one has discovered later in life, too late, that is, to take for granted. As with so many films from decades ago, the city's lodestars are (apart from CST) the Gateway of India, the Worli sea-face, and the public transport system, each of these sites charged with years of not just social but cinematic meaning that made the experience of watching them on-screen moving in a way quite independent of the unfolding love story. The romance, in short, serves as backdrop to Ratnam's representation of a city he clearly loves.
Stated differently, things happen in this movie -- a sudden rain shower, a frantic car ride through a crowded bazaar, bus-rides after dark and during the day, encounters in local trains -- because they are opportunities to represent the city, more accurately opportunities to represent aspects of the city depicted in the films of an earlier era. And there's no doubt his city is Bombay: Ratnam seems to bear no rancor over the change to Mumbai -- Aditya (a video-game developer whose city -- and next game -- is "Mumbai 2.0") corrects Leela Samson's Bhavani (diagnosed with Alzheimers) when she refers to "Bombay," with a glib (albeit not mean) "It's Mumbai, not Bombay" -- but Ratnam cannot resist an implicit reproach: "When did they do that?" Bhavani wonders, and it's not hard to pick up a note of bewildered regret that isn't just Bhavani's Alzheimers talking (the director is less convincing in "Mumbai 2.0" as well, and the film's anime sequences, while bold, seemed to belong in a different film). Ratnam has the film's leads stick to old Bombay when they're outdoors: with the exception of a scene or two on what appeared to me to be Juhu Beach, an underpass out of the Bandra-Kurla Complex, and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, the film does not venture into the "suburbs" except by implication (Aditya and Tara regularly meet and shop in the city's new malls, most of which are north of Bombay's old core).
But, as befits a director who has been preoccupied with domesticity for decades, O Kadhal Kanmani is just as lavish in depicting Bombay's interior spaces, principally the grand old apartment in Gamdevi that Ganapathy (Prakashraj) and Bhavani live in, suffused with the grace and love intrinsic to Ratnam's idealizations of married couples -- so much so that the elderly couple serves as the movie's scene stealers, making their younger twins (who board with them) seem callow or narcissistic. And if there has always been more than a little idealization of a certain kind of Tamil middle-class man and woman in Ratnam's work, represented here in the form of Ganapathy and Bhavani, it is important to remember that the director does not (unlike most contemporary Hindi filmmakers) merely represent the social privilege of a particular class (much less celebrate its consumption patterns) but asks more of "his" people: by way of culture and a commitment to liberalism, by his nudges to them to stand for something (it is unclear if Aditya will ever pass muster on this front, and Ratnam is naturally more interested in Tara). You see it in that Gamdevi flat with its high ceilings, old french windows and musical instruments -- I can't think of another film set in Bombay with a more lovely dwelling -- and there's more than just the apartment voyeurism of big city dwellers operating here: a life with grace is possible, Ratnam seems to be telling us, and while it needs love for sure, it also needs sensibility.