Mani Ratnam is one of the star directors of Tamil cinema and his 2002 film Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek) is a fine example of his work and a perfectly accessible introduction to anyone who wishes to explore the colourful worlds of Indian or Tamil cinema who thinks that Bollywood musicals might not be quite to their taste.
Shyama and Dileepan are newly-weds, but when the civil war fighting in Sri Lanka takes a turn for the worse, Shyama is forced to leave as a refugee without her husband, who is reported as having been shot by rebels. Shyama has just discovered she is pregnant and in the refugee camp she gives birth to a baby girl. Nine years later in India, Amudha is told the truth of her origins by her adoptive parents Indra and Thiru. The young girl of course wants to know her real mother and finds a way of returning to the still war-torn island of Sri Lanka.
The storyline is not in the least complex or even original and there are few surprises as the young Amudha – played with some degree of skill by the young actress P.S. Keerthana, as well as a little bit of sass that the character is obviously meant to possess – decides to take it upon herself to find her mother and eventually gets the support of her parents to take her there. Fortunately her adoptive father is a famous writer and her mother is a TV personality, both of whom are very understanding and resourceful parents. It’s all a little too smooth and non-confrontational, but there is quite a bit of charm in the way the film presents the backstory of how it was in the adopting Amudha that Indra and Thiru came together to marry.
When the story arrives back in Sri Lanka however, the story quite unexpectedly takes a surprising turn. The civil war still continues and the film shows the effects of the war on the people of Sri Lanka – suicide bombers, bombed-out villages, guerrilla fighters prowling the forests and some quite striking Black Hawk Down style battle sequences. It never gets bogged down in the political issues however, but rather addresses the issues in a broader sense – as simply war – and even then it rather naively portrays this as a universal malaise for which international arms dealers are more to blame than religion or politics. That’s not a criticism of the film however – the film make no pretence of being anything more than a voyage of discovery for a young girl and has no more to say about the specifics of a war situation than The Sound of Music had any anything to say about the Anchluss. It uses a real-world situation well, without getting distracted from the purpose of the film and maintains an effective sense of danger that I found quite surprising.
While expecting something more along the lines of a typical colourful and glamorous Bollywood musical, I found that Kannathil Muthamittal is actually a quite straightforward film, with only occasional musical interludes and most of the songs actually integrated into the film like a normal film soundtrack. Three of the songs however have their own sequences, but rather than being complexly choreographed dance routines they are actually filmed like glossy high production pop promo-videos and not integrated naturalistically into the film. While the cinematography is quite superb throughout the film, here the DoP pulls out all the stops with crane-shots, swooping cameras, helicopter fly-passes, and fast-paced editing techniques. I found this worked quite well and wouldn’t be as jarring to western cinemagoers and most Bollywood or even Hollywood musicals.
By and large the quality of the print on the DVD is good, but there are a number of unfortunate distractions in the transfer. Presented as a region-free NTSC DVD, the colours on the anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer are quite superb – vivid and clear with a fine level of detail well-balanced tones that are wonderfully delineated by the superb photography and lighting. There are a few marks on the print and one or two more serious signs of damage including long scratch lines. None of these marks are at all as intrusive as the constant flicker of macro-blocking and shimmering of compression artefacts that are present throughout the film. The print is also ‘watermarked’ with the distributor Ayngaran’s logo, which appears for about 30 seconds every five minutes. I am not certain whether this is just present on my review copy or whether it is an anti-pirating measure, but western viewers will not be used to such measures and I did find it distracting myself. The film looks good and the image is certainly more than acceptable for the most part, but in a film that looks this good there are just too many flaws in the DVD transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is quite stunning and dynamic, particularly in the musical arrangements which have a large degree of separate channel separation that is quite effective and superbly mixed. Elsewhere the film also packs quite a punch, particularly in the battle scenes, but occasionally here the use of surrounds appears a little forced and artificial-sounding.
Optional English subtitles are provided and are mostly fine. A few lines are left untranslated, but you never get the impression you are missing anything important. The song routines in the three major music pieces are not translated however and this is a more serious oversight.
Nothing really substantial in the extra features, but one useful feature is the ability to go directly to each of the seven songs in the film, playing them separately or as a continuous sequence. Trailers are provided for two other films that seem to have more traditional Bollywood-style musical arrangements.
Kannathil Muthamittal is my first experience of Tamil cinema and it defied all expectations, although perhaps it is a not typical example of Tamil filmmaking. It’s a charming film with high production values, elegantly photographed scenery and features strong performances from all the principal actors. As an introduction into another world of cinema it is perfectly accessible and highly recommended.
Kannathil Muthamittal can be purchased from Ayngaran International.