A Mani Ratnam film usually evokes tremendous interest and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (CCV) is no exception. But with a highly predictable screenplay that lays out a few twists and turns and a supposedly surprise ending, it disappoints. The unidimensional characters are sketchily etched; there is a lack of dramatic confrontations or of carefully choreographed romance scenes that have always been Ratnam’s forte; and more importantly, the generic treatment of the underworld leaves one feeling that this was a film with much potential but unfortunately, none of it is up there on the screen.
Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is conceived as an imploding family drama set in the murky world of a well-established underworld don in Chennai. Periyavar, an ageing gangster (Prakash Raj in an underwhelming act as Senapathi) and his three sons Varadharajan (Aravind Swamy), Thiagarajan (Arun Vijay) and Ethirajan (STR) seem to pull in various directions at every turn and predictably, the three siblings get into a race for the vacant throne following the death of the patriarch. The fight is ugly and strewn with blood and bodies but sadly, it leaves us cold. This is all the more disappointing as on paper, there is enormous potential here with the story, the characters, the exploration of the moral dilemmas of fratricide and patricide and the notions of family, continuity and nepotism that could have played out in a far more layered and definitive way. But perhaps one expected too much. Neither a gritty gangster saga, nor a gripping suave family drama, CCV wavers between the two and loses its focus.
The film is filled with characters it is unable to do justice to. There is a hint that each of them has a backstory but these are left untold. Further, the meandering story refuses to let one invest into anyone for very long and largely keeps us distanced from the players thereby leaving one untouched even with the end they all meet. Of the three brothers, Aravind Swamy as the eldest uncrowned prince, Varadhan, struggles to get a grip on the character under his mentor’s baton fluctuating between underplaying and overplaying. Arun Vijay as the middle brother attempts to play it by swinging between the suave and the manic but again overdoes his crucial scenes even as he races to the top slot ably assisted by STR, the seemingly disinterested youngest brother. STR as Ethi comes off best among the male leads as he gives a comparatively consistent and nuanced performance of the neglected youngest son in a dysfunctional family.
The women in the film are hit the hardest as they fade away from their shallow roles into nothingness. But that is to be expected of Mani Ratnam, whose women either add eye candy or arm support to the men who rule. They accept their secondary roles in the family and in their men’s lives as they play out protective mothers who tell their children stories, play with them and feed them. Lakshmi (Jayasudha wasted in an insipid role), the wife of Senapathi, is curiously unengaged in the gory goings on until suddenly she tackles the role of moderator. What she accomplishes or what happens to her goes unsaid. The three wives of the brothers, Chithra, Renu, and Chhaya, played by Jyotika, Aishwarya Rajesh, and Dayana Erappa have no say in the ongoing feud. Jyotika, at least, is given some scenes as the take charge daughter-in-law and attempts to take a proactive role in her husband’s plans but ultimately becomes a victim of ‘fridging’ just like Chhaya, who is hardly there in the film. Aishwarya Rajesh, with the Sri Lankan dialect, initially interests but then is quickly disposed off in a Dubai jail. And as for Varadan’s mistress, Parvati, a journalist played by Aditi Rao Hydari, one has no clue why she ‘s even there. The sister, too, hardly registers except as a prop and there are children strewn around to complete the family picture.
Of the supporting cast, Chezhiyan (Siva Ananth), the maternal uncle, is a curious mixture of passive stillness and sudden explosive reactions and one thinks there might be something behind his nonchalance but before you can find out, he also is done away with. Thyagarajan as Chinnappa Das never gets a chance to be more than a pretend rival, while a gaggle of henchmen led by Mansur Ali Khan exist somewhere to do the dirty work for the feuding brothers, alternating their loyalties as the power shifts pull them all around.
Finally, there is Rasool, the slightly paunchy and casual cop who is Varadan’s childhood mate and who is the go-to-person for all the brothers, even when on suspension from duty. Vijay Sethupathi plays it cool as always and he is the one character the audience is not likely to be disappointed by. He makes jokes at inopportune moments, puts the siblings in their places at every turn, makes light of the lurking dangers of playing both ends against each other and when he plays his final card, one is not surprised at all. His motivation, though explained by his storytelling as the climax unfolds, has no punch of a big revelation. As he takes us to the inexorable, expected gory end, one can only contemplate, ‘how predictable and how tame?.
On the technical side, cinematographer Santosh Sivan expertly captures the mood and textures while invoking the gritty crime world with a keen eye and we see some breathtaking work by him, especially in the climax scene. The editing by A Sreekar Prasad, as always, does justice to the narrative flow with an understanding born out of years of collaboration with the director. The production design, however, leaves a lot to be desired considering one barely sees or feels the film’s main location – the city of Chennai and around. The glass mansion, which the family resides in, also seems a silly and illogical choice considering this is a gangster family that would expect to be attacked. There is a clinical precision in the make-up and costumes but they add nothing to the characters. The dialogue are clipped and brief to the point of having one begging for more to be said just so that we can understand the characters, their motivations and their emotions. Musically, AR Rahman and Mani Ratnam have taken an interesting approach in that they have used the songs not as separate elements, but as integral parts of the background score. They are there more as a voice over rather than having typical composed pieces for the various characters. But even this doesn’t come off as successfully as one hoped for and even though lyricist Vairamuthu has poured his heart out in writing the songs, the songs are, sadly, not really utilized for their poignancy.
Today, Tamil cinema is well into a decade of film noir and gangster films are being explored by young directors through innovative treatments and fresh narrative vigour. Add to this a band of actors who are unafraid to push the envelope in getting out of old-fashioned stereotypes and work to get the nuances of their characters right. In this milieu, one cannot help but feel that Mani Ratnam fails to take advantage of the moment. Chekka Chivantha Vaanam refuses to get out of its own trap of clichés and feels more like a desperate attempt by the filmmaker to stave off the failure of his previous few outings.
Tamil, Action, Drama, Color