Saturday, 9 February 2013


Hi Ajithan, 

     very detailed and nuanced - if not a highly cerebral (wink wink :-))- review of the film. as someone with very little knowledge about cinema and its visual grammar, i learnt a lot from your review. thanks.

from what i understand, the expressionist tradition in cinema wants to highlight/emphasize the inner subjective experience/turmoil of characters, and cares more about the visual projection of inner experience. And in order to do this, it often purposefully distorts the surface reality to underscore a particular point. Movies like Faust, Metropolis and Nosferatu comes immediately to mind - philosophical theme, existential, filled with harsh streaks of light & shadows, silhouettes, asymmetries etc. 

but an expressionist cinema needs a framework of distortion/exaggeration - say something like gothic (or even baroque or victorian). it cannot operate well within a 'minimalist' framework. kadal, as you rightly pointed out, is out and out expressionist cinema, but it is trying to operate within a minimalist vein. and honestly, i don't know how well this has worked out. maybe the formatic constraints of cinema (e.g length, limits in no. of scenes etc.) had forced Mani to adopt this and i'm not knowledgeable enough to comment on this. but as a viewer, i somehow had this feeling that in trying hard to be minimalist and NOT to be preachy or melodramatic, the intensity of the story did not come through fully well. while the movie did have some very intense scenes - most of which will be remembered for a long time (e.g. the initial burial, the tape recorder scene, crucification, Fr. Sam building a statue, redemption scene) - the intensity and turmoil inherent in the story/narrative did not come out well. again, this is a personal opinion from a cinema illiterate.

For instance, "witnessing of the birth" scene is a high point in the movie. But seconds after Thomas comes out of Davidan's hut and stands at the backdrop of the Prussian blue sky, there was a cut. The very next scene was orchestrated to be more levitious, where he gets teased by a friend ("thommai, unnai ethaavadhu kotti pidichirukha? thommai kotti, thommai kotti etc."). While one could draw cerebral analogies to koti/ghost & beatrice/angel, this scene did indeed tremendously bring down the emotional height and impact of the previous scene. My minimal knowledge of cinema makes me unable to comprehend why there should be a cut seconds after Thomas coming out of Davidan's hut, thereby breaking the scenes' unity and emotional flow? Is it because of the concern that people/critics will think of that scene as not minimalist, but instead, as melodramatic - had it continued on its emotional path? I don't know. 

Similarly, while the the "betrayal" that Fr. Sam feels and the crucification-like scene that follows is most wonderfully shot, the betrayal that Thomas feels after this scene felt very rushed. Even as the camera moves further and further away from him, I somehow couldn't feel his sense of immense desolation and abandonment - his Christ taken away from him -, but instead, only his anger and rage. And his seduction into sin too happened so quick that one couldn't feel any emotional connection to it. While I do agree that the "magudi magudi" background was very appropriate for Thomas's seduction into sin, I didn't feel that "shiver-up-the-spine" that one goes through when one witness a prodigal sons downfall. When Je narrated this story, I imagined this to be similar to Giridharan's (- from the "Kaadu" novel -) downfall. I instantly started to tremble thinking how immensely powerful this would be in visuals. But the visuals and the fast cuts were too quick for me to establish any emotional resonance. One could only imagine so much, and not beyond! 

To do justice to a story of this epic scale, i think a screen time of at least three hours or so is needed. Personally, I would have loved to see more of Fr. Sam's character fleshed out on screen - especially his obtainment of moral stature and respect within the village. 

And I had the same thought that the painting-like angelic embrace of Thomas by Beatrice should have been an apt end to the hospital scene - maybe even for the movie itself. And I didn't expect Fr. Sam literally sing "Anbin Vasalilae". That was little bit of a letdown. I visualized it as a choir sung outside - at the backdrop of the Church -, gradually transitioning to a celebratory procession around and towards the Sea. 

I still feel that the movie had some brilliant moments - The Sky. And Fr. Sam building that statue in mud and clay... A statue that just embrace. And Thomas entering into the frame. Into the embrace. And in the later scene, there is a juxtaposition of Thomas with the statue... As he gets momentarily lost and mesmerized by the unspoken kindness emanating from the Devakumaran's face, the recording starts to play "koodura payale, naara payalae, adichu mandaya odaichiruvenlae..". Wonderfully done and immensely moving. 

It is moments like these that one would expect from a Mani + Je combination. While such moments are certainly there in the movie, the intensity and the sea of turmoil that is inherent in the narrative did not come out all that well. 

(As a side note, the Herzog quote seems rather misplaced. What he meant was that 'a film should be looked straight on - based on the raw, visceral emotional connection it makes with the viewers - and thus, it is not an art of scholars, but that of illiterates'. So, trying to decipher the allegories and images embedded in a frame, and talking about how the characters are placed on the positive and negative end of the screen is as cerebral an exercise as someone who tries to deconstruct a film to unpack its political motifs. While I do resonate with the larger point you're trying to make, I'm also equally confused because one set of folks(and film makers) say that it is because of the inability of the (tamil) audience to understand a simple visual/image that everything needs to be made so explicit, while you and few others say that cinema is a way of communicating through images and is not a cerebral exercise!)

Dear Mr. Arvind karunakaran,

                I have never argued over a movie before, nor have I wanted to, as I think the artistic experience of cinema is as subjective as any other art form. It cannot be more clear than the  way we looked at this film, particularly the scene you have mentioned("witnessing the birth"). I remember talking  to my friend about it with great admiration. This particular scene best reveals movie's format, that is, expressionist characters and sequences embedded in realistic framework.


                If one observes expressionist film genre even the early ones like Murnau's classics one might find two kinds of movies, those which plays as expressionist melodrama throughout(Faust), other being composed of a realistic setting where expressionist characters and sequences are brought in(Nosferatu). The former has severe plot limitations as audience might find it emotionally distant and lacking identity. Apart from early audacious silent films this type is generally disowned, though it somehow survives in surrealist film genre which aren't hesitant to call attention to their making. The later kind played out to be perfect format for expressionist films and are made now and then. Their technique is to use a realistic setting as a background and smuggle expressionist images in the name of melodrama to startle the viewers by contrast.


      Take for instance a Scene in Nosferatu, after his first night in  Nosferatu's castle Harker wakes up in the morning to find everything normal, totally unlike the strange previous night. The only characters in the film that seem out of real are Nosferatu, Renfield and Dr.Van Helsing. This format works as while we invest ourselves in other characters or the same characters in realistic sequences, the expressionism can be used to shock us with its audacious images. Consider movie 'Night of the hunter', the old women who takes care of the kids seem perfectly normal,realistic. She is not melodramatic showing her affection to the children, she as menacing as any loving mother, until she stands up against the villain with a shot gun silhouetting across the screen. Kadal uses a the similar format. There is a huge difference between realism and minimalism. Minimalism is showing as less as possible to communicate the idea with least distraction. It isn't about shot length or film's subject but having complete artistic control over characterization, plot, objects on the frame(setting), acting, music (some of the directors use familiar music which has boiled down to fixed imagery) and so on to see to it that there is no distraction from the idea to be communicated. It can sometimes actually mean showing these narrowed down cinematic ideas for longer period of time.  The framework of Kadal is not minimalist but naturalist or realistic. Extended shot length could be a distraction from its realistic setup calling attention to its making, I think the images are given reasonable time to communicate. One might recall that the most affecting visuals of 'Nosferatu' are only few seconds long.  

Stanley Kubrick a well known minimalist

 For instance Minimalist way of dealing with "witnessing the birth" scene would be cutting straight to next scene. This does not happen as the scene goes on to add more, more about how Thomas's friend sees it, in the process bring down the film's trend back its realistic framework as Thomas starts to sing along with him. It is as if he's been to another place and have come back to real world and by providing this glimpse of realism we realize, Boy what a place he has been in! And this transition takes place with at most ease. Had it been continued with dialogues like 'I have witnessed birth of Jesus','I would never sin again' or any other dialogue for that matter or if the friend would have reacted with an exclamation the sequence would have turned melodramatic, which is the last thing thing any movie lover would want to have in this movie.

   Melodrama in Tamil cinema is, in my opinion, a cheap trick used by artistically untalented afraid to try out artistic tools cinema offers and opting to imitate safe familiar tools of drama.  Tamil cinema has almost always taken this safe path. Without visual imagination even a well acted melodrama has artistically no reason to exist as cinema even though I enjoy them , perhaps drama.

  My interpretations on the film in the article are most spontaneous, sometimes unconscious, associations that I had made as I was watching the film(I have watched it only once). My review is the process of trying to find the reason behind these images being so effective. As I was watching Fr. Sam getting beaten up, crucifixion was the first think that came to my mind as I was previously supplied with innumerous images of Christ archetype before. I didn't have to sit through shot by shot to breakdown their symbolism. For example take "witnessing the birth" there are two images that affected me greatly, having discussed one before(Thomas’ palms stained with ‘Holy Blood’ with bright sky as the background), I would try to explain my method reviewing the other one which has Thomas hold the baby with tears in his eyes, now knowing that this shot/image affected me greatly I try to probe the reason behind it. It might be the unconscious association I had made with familiar Christ archetype of Mary holding infant Jesus. Then I look at the reason behind my unconscious making such an association and I find similarity in position of the baby on the right hand side from our point of view, the holders direction of gaze.

          Of course, I review the movie cerebrally, that is the only way to do it, but I don't watch it that way. I don't expect every viewer to go beyond the first step, that is left for a reviewer. I watch movies patiently observant without preconceived notions to let affecting images seep through and that is exactly what I want viewers to do. //one set of folks(and film makers) say that it is because of the inability of the (tamil) audience to understand a simple visual/image that everything needs to be made so explicit// I would be the first person to offend such a statement and I would rephrase it as 'one set of folks(and film makers) say that it is because of the impatience of the (tamil) audience to let a simple visual/image to affect them that everything needs to be made so explicitly melodramatic' . Coming back to films format, I would have hated to have this sequence overdrawn into melodrama after these affecting visuals, with dialogues like Thomas saying 'I felt like Mary, holding infant Jesus' . What a let down it is, to hear unrealistic dialogue to communicate an idea when you have most powerful visual media in hands. I cannot comment on personal preferences as it is subjective, in the sense I cannot make one feel what what one didn't but I think this sequence as one of the most successful.

This is a movie told entirely from Thomas' point of view as he represents the village and it can be observed from the structure that the village too follows Thomas' stages, only less dramatically. It would be sidetracking to follow Fr. Sam as it  would want us to shift our point of view. I think Thomas' seduction to sin is right to be in montages rather than set of scenes as it quickly piles up the most thrilling moments, moments of boyhood fantasies, sunglasses, fancy outfits, adventures. I remember his expression when Bergmans donates money to the church saying that it is Satan's contribution. I could almost hear him say 'that was cool'. One is not supposed to emotionally feel his moral downfall but should be falling along with him. I had adrenaline rush when saw him jumping over the boats even though I am aware it is immoral.// his seduction into sin too happened so quick// That is exactly what the director wanted to communicate, it is not emotional but visceral. We are not enjoying 'his' fall but we are enjoying 'the' fall. This might be director's interpretation of the story and shouldn't be accused of being honest to his interpretation.

Scorsese's Goodfellas a movie with similar approach

  /And I had the same thought that the painting-like angelic embrace of Thomas by Beatrice should have been an apt end to the hospital scene - maybe even for the movie itself. And I didn't expect Fr. Sam literally sing "Anbin Vasalilae". That was little bit of a letdown. I visualized it as a choir sung outside - at the backdrop of the Church -, gradually transitioning to a celebratory procession around and towards the Sea.// My criticisms on the movie was entirely with reference to the movie itself. I felt that above scene is inadequate or distracting to communicate what I felt it intends to. I wouldn't criticize a movie in the middle of its creative process (with reference to the screenplay). Cinema is not an art of individual though it is a vision of one and I think it is an insult to a movie maker to criticize him for contradictions from our imagination. It is similar to getting access into a writer's imagination somehow and criticizing his work as being not as powerful. 

Assuming that one heard the same version of story author had told me. He had greatly understated the realistic background of the movie. While I was greatly impressed by the story I equally doubted if this would make a good movie. I went to the theater expecting commercial melodrama and was happily surprised at movie's format. The author had included realistic backdrop as a canvas for expressionist characters and sequences the similar technique he had for the movie ‘Nan Kadavul’, remember expressionist moments like long uninterrupted tracking shots on an underground setting. That movie faced similar criticisms that it lacks the depth of author’s novel, may be it does on the plot but not anywhere artistically. These are two different art forms and Writers and readers should stop looking at cinema as a less attention demanding performance of story/plot meant to reach a larger group of people. How would one measure effect of visual image or realistic performance on a viewer? Quoting from ‘Vishnupuram’ “an idea is born not from an argument but an image or symbol and it begins collapsing the moment we say it out” I would write an article comparing cinema and literature later so I am just holding my arguments at this moment.

Positive and negative halves and movements are logic our unconscious follows while associating and visualizing an images, it is least cerebral. One need not be aware of this logic to feel something wrong looking at the picture above.However this logic doesn't play part in deciding the subject's nature. It is vice versa that the awareness of the nature of the subject fills the position of them in an image using this logic when visualized. I was curious enough to test this with couple of people. I narrated an incident to few people (including a writer) making sure that they don't see me ( to avoid any cue by gesture) and they always had negative subject take the right to left movement in their imagination.   Even the directors need not know this logic to set a frame which would serve as an image, as they visualize the sequence filling the position and movement using this logic unconsciously. Hence knowledge on this logic can be used at imaginative and uncompromising directors (Manirathnam, Bala) to see if what we felt is what the director intended. I felt the climax neither about Sam nor Bergmans from a revenge angle but about Thomas. So I used this logic to track how director saw this movie. I wasn't sitting there in the theater thinking of positive and negative halves I was Herzog’s illiterate and the movie impressed me greatly. I would call a movie great if it unsettles me in any kind changing my attitude towards something. Kadal made me respect Christianity at a philosophical level and I think it is a great movie.

I wouldn't want continue arguing about this movie or any movies in future. Though I think I am man (boy) of superior taste when it comes to movies I have reserved my temptation writing movie reviews. I wrote this in such desperation after finding not a single review that the movie deserves. I wrote this with only one viewer in my mind, the director, that he shouldn't lose hope in his art or audience.

I have added a few words in red to suit the comment below better


  1. Hi Ajithan,

    First, I don't know why you prefer calling me in my full name, that too prefixing it with a "Mr."!! And second, it is interesting that you use the phrase "argue over a movie". I thought of our exchange as a conversation/dialogue, something that is not to be perceived as confrontational. I made my previous comment because I thought it was worth my time, as yours was probably the only review (or observations or analysis or whatever name you call it) that did justice to the movie. Apart from some private conversations with friends, I hardly talk about/make comments about movies either, as it is nowhere close to my domain of expertise. (And I make this comment too in the same vein - as a conversation with a friend).

    I also want to stress that the short discussion about the '-isms' is done here only in service of appreciating the movie better, and not as an end in itself. (Need to make all these disclaimers to prevent this comment being subverted and labeled!).

    Realism is not a framework or genre per se. It is at best an orienting device used to sensemake the nature and relationship of cinematic images to reality - a filmmaker's implicit position on the role his/her cinema plays in representing/organizing/intervening/(re)-creating the world. And the makers of middle-cinema in Tamil are almost always realist. So, it goes without saying that Kadal too adopts a similar form. While everyone would agree that there are differences between realism and minimalism, they are not antithetical either, and so, I wouldn't make a big deal out of their
    "ideal type" textbook definitions. As one could make a realist movie in an on-the-face, cinema veritesque manner, one could also make a realist movie in a minimalist manner. While Pontecorvo could be considered an example of the former, Ozu could be considered as an example of the latter. In tamil cinema, the early-Bala would be an example of the former, while Mani would be an example of the latter. In practice though you would often see a blending of this happening within a single movie, but the overarching style will still be perceptible.

    Similarly, minimalism - in its textbook definition - is about showing as less as possible with least distractions. But in practice, it is understood as showing "just enough and not more" - in the realm
    of "you tell only so much, and leave the rest to the viewer imagination". And the "least distraction" part is applied not so much to the on-screen visuals, but instead to the plot, characterization, orchestration of scenes etc. And it is in this latter view that I was referring to minimalism. In that sense, Kadal is minimalist. (Or "restrained", if that is a better word to use here).

    My larger comment is that the blend between an expressionist style told in a minimalist vein has not come out well. It is mostly those scenes that breaks out of the minimalist mold that had come out powerfully. Think of the initial burial scene or the tape recorder scene. The imagery of a leg hanging outside the ice-box/coffin, a lardy obese man whose entire fat-induced body trips and shakes as he tries hard to break the leg (we even hear the crack sound of the bone breaking) and place it within the coffin subverts the idea of sin and the sinner. It is moments like these where the movie ventures out of its subdued, minimal path that it becomes brilliant. Of course I do understand that an entire movie cannot be filled it such streak moments and that there should be a juxtaposition of subdued and intense imageries, but a lot of us including me felt an imbalance in the movie. Little bursts of intensity, followed by long sequences where the movie becomes very subdued and minimal. More than being subdued and minimal, it becomes restrained and reticent. Again, this is what I "felt" during the movie, and it is totally an un-cerebral/non-intellectual comment.

  2. Regarding the "witnessing of the birth" scene - well, all I said was that the scene should have continued on its own emotional path. It DOESN'T mean that there should have been a dialogue at the end. That is creating a straw man! All I intended to say was that some more time should have been given before the transition happened to the next scene. It could have been even be a simple shot of Thomas standing at the backdrop of the blue sky for few more seconds as it fades and transitions to the next scene of him looking at his hand in holy blood or something else - I don't know. I don't delude myself that I could teach Maniratnam on how to make this scene or that transition better. That would be stupid of me. All I'm saying is that it didn't work well for me. That's all. And the whole bantering/teasing thing ("thommai kotti") that comes after broke "my" dream too early - especially considering that the previous scene was a high-point in the movie. Again, the emphasis is on "my" dream. As a normal movie-goer, I could only say this and if I say anything else, I would be lying.

    (And to your point, I wonder why the movie should come back to the so-called "real world" this soon? Again, this goes back to my initial comment on the dissonance between expressionist style with the minimalist-realist vein). Simply put, few more seconds of silence - that's all I'm saying and it is as spontaneous and unconscious reaction to the movie, as yours is. Again, these are very subjective things and we could discuss it till cows come home. Or we could agree to disagree.

  3. Regarding Thomas's seduction into sin, I'm surprised that you equate it with simple boyhood fantasies. I felt that the story had a much more deeper philosophical subtext about the virtue and morality of the "crowd" and the prodigal son's life-shattering disappointment, when he realizes how weak and decrepit the goodness and morality of the crowd is - the ties that bound him till that point. And thus, he moves to the "other" side. He wants to be their master, not yet-another-player bound by the rules of their game that he realizes are fake and breaks down at the slightest of temptation. It is definitely not a visceral move taken at the spur of the moment [As a side note, i think there is a certain Chris Nolan/Dark knight influence here in a positive way. Both here and in the climax hanging scene]. Indeed, as he goes in the boat to meet Bergmans for the first time, his face is rather stoic and poised. And if I recollect right, the water is not shown to be turbulent either and the boat that takes him to Bergmans goes in a steady fashion. But quite a few people - some of whom are very sensitive readers and movie-goers - did think that him joining Bergmans is out of rage and anger and to prove a point back to the village. If it is just that, then he would have very well moved to the other side right after he was not allowed to get baptized. So, the betrayal and desolation that he feels after Fr. Sam gets taken away is rather very spiritual in nature. And as I mentioned before, this desolation didn't come through well for me(except in that brief moment where he cusses and tries to break the photoframe of Jesus).

    And also, emotional resonance/connection doesn't mean one should feel "sympathy" for the character. That was not what I meant. Again, creating a straw man!!. Rather, one should feel a sense of anxiety (for the lack of a better word) as we witness Thomas's downfall, and in the process, fall with him (to put this tamil, there should be this sense of "aiyoo" as one witness the downfall, and not "aiyoo paavam"). On the contrary, if one feels only adrenaline rush, it means that one is "enjoying his fall", not falling with him. Again, this is very subjective. I feel that even Thomas would have perennially felt that sense of anxiety and tremor as he goes about doing his sins - like someone is watching him (akin to the "two birds in a tree" in upanishads or "blink of the star" metaphor/imagery in christianity), and if the visuals didn't communicate that, then there would be indeed be some dissonance and dis-identification. Or at least, I felt it that way.

  4. Regarding the cerebral vs. images/unconscious association thing, I did say that I get and empathize with the larger point you're trying to make. In fact, I personally feel that movies should be watched as a set of visuals and the associations that it could create - some of which made by the cognitive unconscious (which is then reflected upon post-hoc), but many others, by the cognitive conscious from the very outset (or cerebral if you put it at that). As someone who does not know much about movies, but a little bit about "cognition", I thought of pointing this one out - a particular type of fallacy - and that was the reason I made my previous comment. For instance, consider the visual you talked about where Thomas probes Beatrice's past as the boat moves back or the positions of Thomas and Sam and Bergmans (during the climax) in the positive and negative end of the frame. These usually doesn't get registered and made meaning/association out of by the unconscious. It is a conscious, cerebral exercise that happens as the scene unfolds on screen and could be done only by those with a-priori knowledge about cinema's visual grammar. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is good. But by saying that these imageries are recorded in the unconscious and then gets retrospectively reflected upon is oftentimes found to be a fallacy. This fallacy has a name - experts fallacy or something like that - where experts mistake their acquired and internalized tacit knowledge with their intuition and unconscious (and sometimes even with inherent skill, capability etc.). The implication of this is this phenomenon is that it scares the heck out of novices/learners who interact with and want to learn from the experts. And so, they quit - as they feel they don't "have it in them" .. the necessary intuition or the unconscious associative capacity that the experts/mentors have. Am not trying to be nit-picky, but just wanted to point out, as I've observed this rather simple phenomenon had created quite a lot of violence in many spheres of life.

    It is also important to note that a good section of people in cinema are against viewing it merely as a set of visuals and the associations. They consider it more of an amalgamation of
    different art forms (literature, painting, music etc), where visuals are but one important aspect in the larger scheme of things. For them, the plot, the subtext, the characterization all takes equal precedence. In fact, they are quite scornful about a "formalist" making and viewing of a movie, like how some of us are against a "cerebral" or "intellectual" making and viewing of a movie. These are probably historical positions that evolved over a period of time and our discussions are happening around it - something that couldn't be resolved in a single day!

    Finally, I should also state that I commented on your review/observations because I felt that it was worthy and deserved my comment. The points I made were from the heart and told with equal
    love to the creators. Whether and how much it made sense is altogether another issue, but what is important is whether the comments are told truthfully without any pretensions or a higher-than-thou attitude. Any artist would be happy to see his art evoke discussions as opposed to silence or sycophancy.

    Overall, a good discussion. thanks. I will end it with this, as I have a snow storm to take care off.


  5. nice review, sorry to ask, is your dad Mr. Jeyamohan

  6. was going through the points made by arvind and the counter of aji..and again detailed follow up.
    i am very happy that atleast such deep discussion is happening for the movie when the nuances are not discussed else where. this was a good read. thank you both. aji sahred his observations and arvind initiated a nice conversation.

  7. Dear Sir

    I watched Kadal only few days back. The reports of my friends were totally negative.So i went to see it without any expectation and the film was a big surprise for me. For the first time i saw a movie full of philosophical connotations depicted completely through visual images. I can understand the frustration of my friends, they are simple film viewers who expect only a free flow of story line and melodramatic moments. But a film is not story, it a flow of visual images. Emotions ideas and even drama should be communicated through visual images in it. A serious film viewer must have a minimum practice to observe images and travel in to the meaning of it and our general audience doesn't have it. It was mani rantam's fault to project this movie as a popular entertainer and he is paying for it

    I am really surprised to see this powerful, nuanced and effectively written review on this wonderful movie. Thank you for the article. I am proud to see that our Tamil youth has this much sharp sensibility and knowledge on art of film - hope you are aTamilian


  8. Dear sir

    just read this review and discussions. I saw Kadal fifteen days back and highly impressed. To me it is a classic in its kind. An epic completely narrated on minute visuals. Unfortunately our people has no training to enjoy these kind of movies. I was very much depressed with the reviews. Then one of my friends gave me this link. You analyzed the move with in perfect language with great observation skill. Really great article. In fact i came to know a lot of new things through this discussion. I have never read a detailed and artistic discussion on any Tamil movie like this before. Kudos friend

    Saravanan Kailasam

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