Berchmans (Arjun), a brilliant but unruly student, is thrown out of his seminary for committing the sin of the flesh after being caught red-handed by fellow student Sam Fernando (Arvind Swami). Blaming the good-hearted Sam for his ouster, Berchamns vows revenge, and challenges to prove that evil does reign supreme in this world.
: Kadal is very much an old-fashioned tale of good versus evil, a conflict between a man of faith and his nemesis. What gives the film its distinct flavour is its setting — a Christian village in southern Tamil Nadu. It is a new milieu for Mani Ratnam, but the ace director, supported by his cinematographer Rajiv Menon and art director Shashidhar Adapa, transports you effortlessly to a fishing hamlet. Jeyamohan's dialogues only add to the nativity.
But, disappointingly, it is only so far that Ratnam succeeds. Kadal, as far as its narrative goes, is often uninspiring with one-dimensional characters and ineffective scenes. Thematically the plot is a bit closer to Paul Thomas Anderson's masterful There Will Be Blood, which was also about the clash between two characters representing two ways of life, but even the prelude showcasing the rift between Berchmans and Sam — which sets the entire story in motion — lacks punch. Agreed, Ratnam's characters are in striking black and white as opposed to Anderson's who were distinctly grey, but still there is hardly any tension in these scenes to foreshadow what is to come.
And, surprisingly, Ratnam chooses to stick to the least interesting of these two characters — the saintly Sam, and thus, sacrifices quite a bit of narrative juice. We meet Sam few years down the line, now as a priest, trying to get an indifferent fishing community interested in religion. It is in this village that he comes across Thomas, the orphaned son of a dead prostitute, unwanted by the villagers. He takes it upon himself to mentor the young boy, who soon turns into an unruly lad (Gautham Karthik).
A quirk of fate brings him in contact with his old adversary and an unwitting Sam is trapped in Berchmans's evil designs. Worse, Thomas becomes a pawn in his opponent's plans. But, even as he is sucked into a world of crime, Thomas has a ray of hope in the form of Beatrice (Thulasi), a brilliant nurse affected by a childhood trauma. Interestingly, it will be Beatrice who will also be the ultimate test of the extent of Berchmans's malevolence.
Given that most of buzz around Kadal has centred on the two young actors debuting in the film, it is somewhat anti-climatic that Kadal isn't really their story. Still, it is their romantic track that leads to the denouement but Ratnam gives this a perfunctory treatment that it lacks even the slightest bit of fizz. And, it is all the more shocking because this is a filmmaker who has captured young romance like no other on screen. Gautham at least looks the part but the thickset Thulasi is hardly able to capture the child-woman nature of her character. It is left to Arjun and Arvind Swami to makeup for the shortfalls of the younger actors and the two try their best but with characters too broadly etched, they are forced to play archetypes rather than flesh-and-blood personalities. Ratnam usually creates memorable supporting characters, but here he disappoints us. What we get are the characters of Ponvannan and Lakshmi Manchu, which are left underdeveloped despite the promise of potential.
The other unexpected letdown lies in the way the songs are placed and picturised. While the visuals seem to be a retread of what we have seen in his earlier films (Adiye... holds the echoes ofRaasaathi... and Nenjinile... while Moongil Thottam... feels like a hastily done mash-up of Pachai Nirame... and Kadhal Sadugudu...), Ratnam treats the songs as unavoidable speed bumps in the narrative. And, A R Rahman's background score is overpowering, often drowning out the dialogues, which are already a bit difficult to follow due to the dialect.
Given that it is only recently that we saw a poignant film (Neerparavai) set against the same backdrop, Kadal's flaws are even more glaring. It is a failure for Mani Ratnam the storyteller, saved only to a certain extent by his visual flair.