Tamil novelist and co-scriptwriter Jeyamohan describes Mani Ratnam’s latest cinematic venture as a ‘grand spiritual saga’. That seems like a fitting way to sum up Kadal / The Sea. Whenever I want to speak or write about Ratnam my instinct is to position him as an arthouse auteur, which may seem appropriate for a cinephile based outside of India and especially Tamil. Of course, the truth is that Ratnam is a populist mainstream filmmaker and in the past has shown the capacity to transcend his indigenous Tamil roots by crossing over to make Hindi films. He is still one of Indian cinema’s leading filmmakers and although Kadal was met with a mixed response from critics on its release, it is one of the most technically accomplished films of the year with a grand narrative that is both elemental and metaphysically construed. The backdrop is a fishing community and the story weaves together an embittered conflict between two priests and a love story between two orphans. Thematically, the biblical context of Christianity as a source of redemption, is somewhat conventionally played out, climaxing in a cinematically charged case of pathetic fallacy. In terms of genre conventions, Ratnam clearly draws from gangster/crime films, which he has done so in past films such as Nayakan, and one clear recent and ongoing thematic preoccupation seems to be with the accumulation and dissolution of power.
Ratnam has over the years built up a team of regular collaborators and technically speaking his films are very accomplished, perhaps offering some of the finest lessons in camerawork, editing and lighting in Indian cinema. Both of Ratnam’s last two films, Guru and Raavan, were distributed internationally, mainly because of the star presence of Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan. However, Kadal is a different case altogether since it features two debutantes; Gautham Karthik and Thulasi Nair, in the lead roles. It was terrific to see the comeback of much missed actor Arvind Swamy (a natural screen presence) who starred in earlier Ratnam films including Roja and Bombay. In many ways, Ratnam’s retreat to more regional concerns is to be commended since an engagement with Tamil cinema has often led his most popular and best loved works. It is worth pointing out the notable contributions of cinematographer Rajiv Menon and music composer A. R. Rahman.