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Chekka Chivantha Vaanam Review: A Mani Ratnam Film That Is As Mainstream As It’s Restrained

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Director: Mani Ratnam

Cast: Aravind Swami, Vijay Sethupathi, STR, Arun Vijay, Jyothika, Prakash Raj

Composer: A R Rahman

In Mani Ratnam’s Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, the sunlight is reserved for Vijay Sethupathi’s Rasool Ibrahim. It falls on him, caresses him in seemingly throwaway scenes. Rasool grew up without his parents by his side and at one point, he mentions something to do with leaving on a train. Did Thalapathy‘s Surya teleport into the current period as Rasool? It’s mouth-watering conceit especially considering the star power of this actor. And after all, the creator and anchor here are the same – Mani Ratnam and Santosh Sivan. Rasool too, has a friend on the wrong side of the law while his own position is ambivalent at best; he is a police inspector with close ties to Senapathi’s (Prakash Raj) family. We get that something is rotten within the Senapathi family right at the outset – when an attempt on Senapathi’s life is made, the trigger happy eldest son Varadhan (Aravind Swami) cannot wait to get to the bottom of it, the middle son Thyagarajan (Arun Vijay) is in the Middle-East with a distant wife (Aishwarya Rajesh as Renu) and the third son Ethiraj (STR) on hearing the news, wonders if he is needed at home.

In the hospital, when Senapathi is out of danger, we get a shot of a half-full IV fluid container against the sprawling view of the city, left to be claimed by any of the players, as if suggesting that Senapathi’s survival could be half-full or half-empty scenario, depending on whom you ask. In one of his most straightforward films, Mani Ratnam almost rivals Kamal Haasan in his use of mirrors. There are two shots within the first five minutes. Two assassins are introduced in front of a mirror as they get a shave; it is not clear which one is the reflection. A mirror being carried is used soon after as they get into their costume. A heated family discussion and accusations of fratricide occur with the injured matriarch (Jayasudha) sitting in front of a mirror, watching over her squabbling offspring. Rasool is possibly the only character who is never in front of one.

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam throws details at us that we might be able to piece together only later. Like Rasool’s past. Or the uncle, Jayasudha’s brother, whose own family has had run-ins with Senapathi. But apart from these, we don’t get much in terms of backstory on why the brothers are both physically and emotionally distant. It is reflected in their partners too. Renu’s disgust for the family is established in a couple of close-ups, she draws herself into a cocoon when with them. Chaaya (Dayana Erappa) is a complete outsider. Jyothika’s Chitra is the daughter of the soil, she is the brothers’ uncle’s daughter and married to Varadhan. Chitra’s demeanor and actions reflect the fact that she has lived amidst these feuding violent men for a very long time.

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a return to the brawny masculine energy-overflowing genre for the director, the likes of Agni Natchathiram, Thalapathy or Ayutha Ezhuthu. It reinforces a genre that Tamil cinema of the 80s and 90s identifies with handsomely. In 2018, it is both safe and challenging – in different ways – for a director like Mani Ratnam. He has the star power in the likes of STR and Vijay Sethupathi – both shine – and a lot of the scenes ride on them and their lines. But at the same time, there is a challenge in spinning a new yarn out of this very familiar landscape.

After a long time, the women in this Mani Ratnam film are almost disposable even if the raw plot-line resembles that of King Lear but has more in common with Ratnam’s favourite director’s version – Kurosawa’s Ran – than the bard’s original. Ratnam punches in multiple homages to the film at different moments, both in terms of plot and shots. The third act of the film is a gratuitous blood-and-power lust where the emotional beats aren’t solid enough to let us decide on whom to root for. The brothers, in their warring, push each other into an emotional and violent cul-de-sac, similar to how Senapathi was caught physically in one in the opening portions of the film. It is all gripping with terrific control over the proceedings – we cannot take our eyes off – but there is the question of what they amount to.

The names of all three brothers are suffixed with ‘Raja’. Their sister gives birth to a male child and asks Varadhan to name him. Varadhan doesn’t bat an eyelid and in a telling shot, calls the baby Raja. The question of power is always on the brothers’ minds and the only person who seems unaffected by all of this is Rasool. We get sequences that establish how close he is to the family – Chitra drops in for a meal at his admittedly modest household, helps herself around the kitchen and even cleans up after. The mother dotes on him in Senapathi’s castle which is literally a glass house that is unable to withstand the combined force of the three sons and a fourth side bound by the endless ocean. Sethupathi gets the one-liners, Swami gets some hot-headed action and STR gets the stylized shots. Chekka Chivantha Vaanam features a mostly safe Mani Ratnam, still exhibiting ambition for mainstream Tamil cinema but after a few wounds, also holding back.

*****

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