In a Christian seminary, a devoted follower (Arvind Swamy) crosses paths with an exploitative member (Arjun), leading to a future confrontation.
Mani Ratnam’s reputation as one of the South Indian film industry’s most gifted visual craftsmen continues with Kadal, his first fully Tamil-language work since Kannathil Muthamittal (2002). Sweeping shots over coastal shorelines, vivid dance numbers, and well-employed dissolves make for a beautifully realised melodrama. Ratnam’s long-term professional collaboration with cinematographer Rajiv Menon, dating back to the 1995 hit Bombay, reaches a zenith with their latest collaboration.
Though lovingly cinematic in parts, it’s a dramatically shallow
The richness of his vision suggests that the 57-year-old Ratnam (Raavan, Yuva) was invigorated by the energies of his young cast and the thematic opportunities of Kadal’s classic good vs. evil premise. Where his latest work stumbles is in some paper-thin plotting that struggles to fully explore certain themes, instead settling for rote dramatisation of key moments and leaving a cast of well-crafted characters precious little to work with.
A quick prologue establishes the narrative’s conflict. At a remote seminary, we’re introduced to Sam Fernando (Arvind Swamy), a wealthy, refined young man who has turned his back on his upper-class upbringing to devote his life to the priesthood. His first contact is with the rambunctious Bergman (Arjun Sarja), a novice exploiting the Church in order to feed and clothe his poor family. When Sam catches Bergman in an illicit rendezvous with the help, Bergman’s ruse is revealed and he’s banished, vowing vengeance upon Sam.
As the credits unfold, we’re introduced to a tragic little boy called Thomas who’s forced onto the streets of his small fishing village when his prostitute mother dies in his arms. (These scenes are as troubling as they sound.) Growing into a teenager, he’s taken in by Sam, now the local priest, and raised to be a hardworking, respectful young man (charismatically played by newcomer, Gautam Karthick). But Bergman dramatically reappears, washed onto the rocky shores and cared back to health by Father Sam, only to enact his long-simmering plan for revenge. Soon, Thomas is under his wing, Father Sam is being stoned by angry fishermen and a local nun (the appealing Thulasi Nair) becomes a leverage-buying hostage; a genealogy issue also emerges amongst the histrionics, but never very convincingly.
The pre-intermission scenes – set in the stunning seaside township of Manapad and its surrounds in the Thoothukudi district – are Ratnam’s best. (The film faithfully employs local dialects.) Two song interludes enliven proceedings, especially an atypical bluesy number played over a vast sand dune landscape; the prolific AR Rahman contributes his typically rousing background beats.
Credit should be afforded Ratnam and co-writer Jayamohan for allowing some existential ambiguity to infuse their denouement but, given traditional Indian cinema rarely lets the bad guy triumph, the outcome of Kadal is unnecessarily protracted and never in doubt. Though lovingly cinematic in parts, it’s a dramatically shallow exploration of exploitable themes; a visual feast that will leave audiences intellectually under-nourished.