Gangster films are often male-centric. It’s understandable given how men are evolutionarily wired to be more aggressive. Female portrayal is an easy criticism to make of films in this genre whose women serve only as eye candy or sometimes, get entirely written out. Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, while having women who don’t, on the looks of it, seem to matter a great deal, is yet different. And this is what filmmakers like Mani Ratnam do so well. They pick up weakness and transform it into strength. The men in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam bay for blood; they lust for power. But there’s always the tragic reminder in the air that they wouldn’t, if only the women were allowed to play a more active part. All the three sons of Senapathi/Periyavar (Prakash Raj) — Varadaraj (Arvind Swami), Thyagaraj (Arun Vijay) and Ethiraj (STR) — are rather starved of the calming influence of wholesome individual attention from their mother. This is especially true of Ethiraj. Even an outsider like Rasool (Vijay Sethupathi) suffers from the same problem. The women are prisoners of the ways of men in Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. It’s literally the case with two: Renuka (Aishwarya Rajesh) and Senapathi’s wife (Jayasudha). Rasool expresses this as much in words, when he exclaims, “Pombalainga ennada pannaanga?”
The most notable woman in this story is Chitra, Varadaraj’s wife. Jyotika is splendid in the part of the sedate first lady in the Periyavar family. She knows the family too well to even rely on words for communication sometimes — like in the hospital scene where she catches all of Periyavar’s questions, as he gestures about. Watch Jyotika’s Chitra in the scene after the death of a important character. She collapses in grief and shock, but knows that in this household, she can’t afford a moment to tend to her feelings. She springs back up, looking for people to care for, and runs to Senapathi’s wife. Later in the film, there’s another scene when she’s bawling in agony, and it’s a situation when you’d forgive her for launching into a tirade of expletives. She is on a call with the aggressor, and channelises all her rage into words: “Nalla iruppiya thambi nee?” That’s the extent of her curse, the limit of her disrespect. So long as she exists, an invisible aura of protection exists not just around her husband, Varadaraj, but the entire family in a sense. The poor woman gives and gives some more, but hardly gets. It’s the price she has to pay for marrying a selfish man.
The men are all selfish, and in one scene, one of the brothers admits as much. They are toxic, and as is said of those who victimise, you could make the case for them being longterm victims in a sense. They take and take some more — often from each other. A memorable shot as Periyavar remains bed-ridden, establishes, in a sense, how emotionally connected each brother is to the family. Ethiraj is the farthest, and just as well. When told about an emergency situation at home, he’s the sort to respond, “Naan varanuma?” You can sense from his voice that he’d rather not. He’s perhaps the least obsessed with power of the three brothers. He’d be the perfect successor, the reluctant kind, were he not so emotionally stunted.
Director: Mani Ratnam
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Jyotika, Arvind Swami, STR, Arun Vijay, Prakash Raj
The other brothers are fascinating characters too. Varada’s never had much time for emotion. Even his reason for having an affair is to feel powerful. His concubine (Aditi Rao Hydari) affectionately calls him, Nawab, for this reason. Varada’s a man of impulse, a physical creature, and in a scene when he sits for dinner, you see this when he unthinkingly touches a hot vessel. Thyagu, meanwhile, has a calmer head, but is not any less ambitious. Watch him belong on Periyavar’s chair. We may as well call it a throne. It is a game of thrones, if you will. Does the military general — Stannis/Varadaraj — take control? Or perhaps it’s the calmer younger one, Renly/Thyagu, who’s underestimated. Perhaps there’s another power these men are oblivious to, a Khaleesi who wants to not just stop the wheel, but break it.
Game of Thrones aside, more locally, the story also got me thinking about a prominent leader who left behind no successor, and the aftermath that has seen much infighting in a struggle for power, among a self-presumed successor and a couple of others who have vied for control. Fascinatingly, this party too suffered an unexpected demise of its leader, who was referred to by a generic name of respect. When you fixate on such an example, it just seems to fit.
In a film that’s about an empty throne, it’s no coincidence that each of the brothers’ names ends with ‘Raj’. Their sister — a woman who plays almost no part in the violent games of men — has a baby, and what does Varada name him? Raja. This hunger for power comes at the cost of the selflessness that makes relationships work. You become less human in a sense and get desensitised to the damage you cause. As Rasool says to his elderly foster parents: “Naanga laam miruganga.” This ties in very well with that magnificently choreographed stunt sequence featuring Varada, a wounded animal who comes out unleashing all his brutish fury. The entire Periyavar family hangs on a fragile thread, and this likely explains why the house they live in is made of glass. You know what they say about people who live in glass houses.
It’s a gangster film and violence is par for the course. Mani Ratnam shows a taste for some affecting visuals, including a man beaten to within an inch of life and hung on a gate. There’s much gunfire, hand-to-hand combat… The violence in this film is the percussion to the music that is the power struggle — which, of course, is the film’s core. Right at the beginning, the narrator, Rasool, explains how a power shift occurs every once in a decade or two. In a film featuring guns, sickles and makeshift weapons like a table leg, its most potent weapon is its music. While people pump each other with bullets, Rahman’s music remains observant while being strangely detached. It’s a shrug of the narrator’s shoulder, at the unstoppable tragedy of it all.
Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a shining example of song integration into story. Pay attention to how variations of Sevandhu Pochu Nenju get used in this film in bits and pieces. Or even better, how about Mazhai Kuruvi, which transforms from love to lament? Watch the film, and now, pay attention to the lyrics to discover a short story within this film. What a wonderful idea to have a song that shifts from joy to sorrow, and yet remain connected. If you were the pessimistic kind, you could say the song’s a fitting depiction of almost life itself.
While on excellence, can we take a moment to recognise how immense Vijay Sethupathi is in this film? It’s a delight to see him convey so much with the slightest gestures, the briefest change in gaze. Watch him in scenes where he has to express sadness whilst looking satisfied. Through the film, he has to remain casual, while always conveying a hint of intensity. He’s goofing around, joking about, but you know you’d mess with him at your peril. It’s a straightforward character and yet, so conflicted, Vijay Sethupathi’s Rasool Ibrahim. He’s the life of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. It’s evident every time he enlivens scenes with humour, but never so much that it lets the intensity drop.
Mani Ratnam also treads the thin line of saying just so much with all the characters in this story. There’s always a hint of great detail in the background, a loaded history. Who’s Rasool, for instance? Why does he grow up with step parents? What about Periyavar himself? How did he come to be in control of such an empire? Whose blood does he have on his hands? What bloody transformatory period did he oversee?
Chekka Chivantha Vaanam develops chinks especially in the second half. A death happens unexpectedly once, and it’s shockingly effective. The second time it happens, it doesn’t feel as powerful. A bigger problem is an important character revealing a big twist about himself. It feels ungainly and forced. It’s a convenience that hardly belongs in a carefully constructed story like this. While on aspects that don’t belong, Thyagu’s manic bouts seem rather over the top. He’s supposed to be crafty and the one with a steady head, but every time he lets go — like when he stands inside a convertible and celebrates — it feels overdone. The scene that has him championing Dubai’s growth also seems more like a tourism pamphlet and less like a convincing argument.
After the film, I also walked out wanting to know more about Rasool. The end credits montage don’t give you enough. The big twist too, I saw coming from quite a distance, and that’s always a problem with these twist-y stories. I’d rather filmmakers went The Departed way and exposed cards right at the beginning. But these are minor personal grouses in an otherwise wholesome Mani Ratnam film experience. The film’s a lesson in how ‘commercial’ films can be made with their soul intact. It’s a lesson in music usage; a lesson in action choreography (that scene as a four-wheeler goes round and round is dynamite). Above all, it’s a film that has Mani Ratnam in form, and when that happens, there’s not a whole lot you want more.
This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.