April 12, 2003
From Madras to Jaffna:
Thoughts on Mani Ratnam's A Peck on the Cheek (Kannathil Mutthamittal)
I've never seen the serious issues of exile from political conflict and the refugee's experience of loss explored with such humor and enthusiasm. Beneath Mani Ratnam's very entertaining commercial film is a series of interrelated moral arguments. Perhaps most importantly, loss experienced by a single displaced person is everybody's loss, including that of the refugee's hosts. Also, a civil conflict in a neighboring country is the problem of the neighbor not just the nation 'at home.' And finally, while the experience of dislocation may be produced by arbitrary forces of public history, sometimes exile is a kind of personal choice, which occurs within families because of ideological necessity.
Ratnam's film is brimming with excitement for its subject. The film approaches virtually ever scene as an opportunity to rhapsodize, to fill the screen with symbols of familial love -- made more poignant by our awareness that the family is adoptive rather than 'natural.' The film does cross into sentimentality and melodrama at points; people who instantly cringe/snicker at the faintest hit of the over-wrought display of emotions may want to stay at home. Speaking as a person with some (not huge) stomach for sentimentalism, my overall experience here was captivation, both with the beauty of the film and the central drama at the center of it. Ratnam's film is about a young girl named Amudha who has been adopted by an Indian family in Madras. Her mother was a refugee from the Tamil-controlled regions of northern Sri Lanka (Tamil Eelam), who abandoned her and returned without explanation to war-torn Sri Lanka. Amudha's parents decide to tell her she's adopted on her ninth birthday, and she instantly feels compelled to meet her 'real' mother. Ratnam's film refuses to simplify or sweeten Amudha's response to the revelation; Amudha's desire to know her origins is beautifully played by the child actress (her name, I believe, is Simran). As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear that what Ratnam is after is an allegory of the sense of loss and displacement experienced by all refugees and exiles; the family drama is perhaps only a way of packaging one of the most difficult philosophical questions of our era.
The family-drama takes some interesting turns, especially when Amudha and her parents find themselves caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil guerilla fighters while trying to make contact with Amudha's biological mother (played by Nandita Das). This segment of the film raises questions about the obligations of parents to their children (biological or adopted), specifically in the context of military conflict. This is especially interesting in the LTTE, where Tamil women have been participating in combat actions for many years (some of the details of this history can be found in Neloufer de Mel's book Women and the Nation's Narrative). Without giving anything away, I can say that the film respond to the mother/violence question seriously, allowing the possibility that sometimes mothers have obligations that come before their children. Ratnam in some ways reverses the perspective taken in Santosh Sivan's film The Terrorist. Here, the focus is perhaps less on the obligation of parents (specifically, mothers) and more on the question -- or obligation -- of children to understand their parents' choices and priorities.
I am still processing the radical song sequences in this film, which are musically intense and "picturized" (as Indian film reviewers say) with considerable care. Some of the sequences here build on Ratnam's groundbreaking work in Dil Se, where he provocatively combined images of war with aural lyricism. That is here as well, beginning in the opening credits (where the sound of an explosion punctures the opening verses of a sweet ballad), but generally in a more restrained way. There is less interest here in aestheticizing or fetishizing technologized violence (bombs going off to music), and more of an awareness of the arbitrary destructive power of modern warfare. There is also one decidedly upbeat song which has nothing to do with violence or terror. "Sundari" is a kind of impish children's manifesto, edited hyperactively, with constant jump-cuts and whole sequences in sped-up time. Children may find the pace entertaining, but adult film buffs will be impressed with the technical complexity of it.
A word should be said about the A.R. Rahman factor. Mani Ratnam may be the most accomplished commercial Indian director of his generation, but he pales in some ways against his favored musical director, who has become a much bigger name. Working sometimes with Ratnam and sometimes on his own, A.R. Rahman has completely transformed Indian popular music with a long string of distinctive pop hits, including "Chaiya Chaiya," "Taal," and "Rang De," to name just three. The sound of Rahman's songs from Dil Se… and Taal have been widely copied; the Rahman sound is quickly becoming the Indian industry standard. If nothing else, Rahman is to be appreciated for obliterating the annoying overuse of reverb effects in Hindi film-song vocals (that piercing sound that destroys Lata Mangeshkar's voice in so many old Hindi songs), as well as modernizing orchestration -- dance beats and electric guitars instead of violins. While Rahman has put together a stunning list of pop hits in Hindi as well as Tamil, his musical signature has also helped to create a neo-classical movement that stresses traditional folk melodies and rhythms from different parts of India, which were absent throughout the golden years of Hindi film music. Rahman's music in Peck on the Cheek is always satisfying and frequently brilliant -- especially the use of Portuguese-inflected music that appropriately begins to surface once the family (parents and adopted child) enter Sri Lanka. The caucasian component of the mixed-audience at the Ritz East in Philadelphia gasped in surprise at the musical hybridity in the sequence where Amudha and her family make their way from Colombo to Jaffna by car. I was gasping, more quietly perhaps, to be seeing images of Jaffna at all in a mainstream (if Tamil) Indian film.
Interview with Mani Ratnam on Peck on the Cheek: