Kattu begins with a corny violent scene from a rustic 90s Tamil movie. A village in Tamilnadu with its bizarre racial and casteist rituals, rules and punishments. Lovers who marry from outside the community are ordered to be killed in public. Even as one such couple is being burnt alive, we get to hear the story of the village chief’s daughter who fell in love with an outsider and was forced into marrying her paralytic cousin, as punishment. From here the film shifts to the hilly terrain of Kerala and Kaattu starts its narrative, slowly untying the characters.
The film revolves around Nukukannu (Asif Ali), a shy simpleton who is rescued from his abusive toddy shop employer by Chellappan (Murali Gopy). He joins Chellappan’s gang that makes explosives for a living. Kaattu follows their unique bond that eventually leads them to Tamil Nadu. We aren’t really told that this film is set in the late 70s—it’s only when there are references made to Jayan movies and a few characters come along sporting thick bushy hairdos that we realise that maybe it’s not set in the present.
Nukukannu is a strange lad; with curly hair and a perpetual scowl, he does come across as something of a halfwit but soon we realise that under that shyness lies a sensitive but somewhat impulsive young man. The scenes that build his bond with Chellappan are endearing. When Chellappan demands a share of kumbalappams sent by Nuku’s mother, he half-heartedly brings an appam, sliced into two. But that night the older man steals the whole set and an angry Nukukannu sulks for a day. It’s only when Chellappan brings freshly made appams that they come to a truce. As easily as he sulks, Nuku also falls in love - with his pretty little Muslim neighbour, the one with a unibrow and a quick tongue.
Chellappan on the other hand is an alpha male; he views women as conquests and likes to make bets on his wooing abilities. He has an eagle for a pet. Even though at the core of the film is a love story between Chellappan and Muthulakshmi, instead of exploring this, we are mostly fed proof of the man’s womanising skills.
Women are just motifs of lust and debauchery in Kaattu—for men to either woo or cheat on. There is a widow, eyed by every male in the village, particularly when she washes her clothes near the village river (which seemed like a shout out to Rathinirvedham’s Jayabharathi). In the end she falls for Chellappan. Another is a girl whom Pauly (Chellappan's friend) visits at night; she callously ditches him for better prospects. And perhaps the most unoriginally written scene of betrayal in cinema would be how the sweet and innocent Muslim girl leaves Nuku to be part of the glamourous world of cinema.
The lone interesting woman is Muthulakshmi or as Chellappan describes—“She is the Queen, rest are all mere women” (drawing parallels to how Mangalassery Neelakandan described Bhanumathi as a woman and rest as lifeless bodies in Devasuram). But then Chellappan is a true lover, these other women are just outlets to get over his bitterness! Writer Ananthapadmanabhan (of August Club) seems to have borrowed some pages from the Ranjith school of machismo.In the end, Muthulakshmi is just a caricature—a mute observer who takes injustice lying down. A line is thrown in to emphasise that she was “different from the rest” but the character is never given enough screen space to underline that statement.
The sickening Tamilian typecasts are hard to forgive. The villain who growls all the time is painted in black with an ugly protruding fake eye. In fact, the Tamil village and is inhabitants seemed like a borrowed set from a Tamil movie.
Ananthapadmanabhan (who has written the screenplay) said in an interview that he has borrowed two character names from father Padmarajan’s films - Chellappan and Mooppan - and has woven a new tale around these characters. But despite the finesse of the frames, the story doesn’t hold any freshness in terms of narrative, intrigue or characterisation.
There is Mooppan, who is a leader, who handholds Nuku in his job of making explosives. But then again, it’s a character we have seen, and empathised with, in countless Bharathan films. He is a man cloaked in mystery who, on one fine day, decides to end his misery by throwing a beedi on the hut that stores bombs. Pauly is a traitor out of circumstances, though the character arc is nicely done, it doesn’t hold any surprises. Chellappan’s and Nuku’s unequal friendship is the most heartwarming part of the film and a lot can be attributed to the actors—Murali Gopy and Asif Ali.
Gopy, with his bald plate and unshaven face is really convincing as Chellappan, and there are instances when we are reminded of his legendary father Bharath Gopi. The way he sticks his tongue out, the wink and that moronic mirth. Yet, he does falter a bit during the romantic scenes with Muthulakshmi—the awkwardness is apparent. Asif Ali is an actor who keeps surprising you, pleasantly, with each film. Nuku isn’t an easy role to pull off, it has the danger of ending up as a mimicry. But Asif handles Nuku with flair—the gawkiness of discovering new love, the anger of being used and the remorse of having done a terrible wrong. So much so that at various points, he is impressively exasperating. Varalakshmi is a fantastic actress—and it’s difficult to take your eyes off her when she comes on screen. But here she is let down by a badly written role. Unni Rajan Dev as Pauly is interesting.
The frames are sumptuous—a few even seeming to be a tribute to the sea and the people living around it. The colouring, the song sequences and the lilting music and BGM all add up to the beauty of Kaattu. The business of making explosives is also intelligently linked to some of the events—how it serves as the foundation and culmination of relationships. But it’s just that Kattu is way behind times—in thought and action.
Déjà vu, in this case, turned out to be its undoing.
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