Ace cinematographer Rajiv Menon gave us lovely visuals in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay – with KK he delivered a classic commercial hit that featured several stars like Ajit, Mammootty, Tabu and Aishwarya Rai.
Lovely songs, great cinematography, restrained emotions instead of seeping melodrama, strong characters and an ‘all’s well that ends well’ ending seems to have been the perfect formula for this film. It remains one of my favourite movies and its classiness reminds me of yet another classic – Mouna Raagam.
The story does not have much going for it in itself – indeed in many places I have heard about it being an Indian version of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’. I believe it was even published in the form of a novel as well. The focus of the story is on the contrasting lives of two sisters with temperaments that are as different as chalk and cheese.
While Tabu is very sober and earthy, Aishwarya is all about poetry and romance. Tabu is extremely shy and does not believe in the concept of love. Aishwarya in contrast is just waiting for her Prince Charming to come and take her away to a land of happiness. Inevitably neither of the two views is the wholesome reality – so in a neat trick both the sisters adjust themselves to commit to that perfect combination of modern times – a ‘love-cum-arranged-marriage’.
To add enough drama to the story we have the overall theme of proud daughters being turned out onto streets along with their mother, elderly servant and a younger sister by selfish relatives. They move to Chennai where Tabu finds herself a job and salvages the situation. Aishwarya is still pining for Abbas – the dashing financier who appeared in her life mouthing Bharathiyar poetry and it was love at first sight. In contrast Mammootty plays the role of a middle-aged war veteran who falls in love with Aishwarya as well and tries to help her and the family. Manivannan plays an effective foil to Mammootty and comes up with some crisp one liners as usual.
Characterization is key and the nuances are done so very well. So we have the impetuous Aishwarya pick of a fight with Abbas for quoting poetry incorrectly, Ajit’s tantrums get onto our nerves as a placid Tabu looks on, Mammootty plays the silent lover to the T, while Raghuvaran comes across as a savvy and understanding boss. Finally all misunderstandings are overcome and we get a dream ending.
A R Rahman’s songs are lovely and most of them are set to classical Carnatic ragas. My favourite is ‘Kannamoochi yennada …’. Aishwarya gets to display her dancing skills to her advantage and this song sums her character’s view of love rather well.
While all the stars have performed creditably, my personal pick is Mammootty for being able to portray the subtle shades of his character. Only he has been able to render a performance that makes us believe that it is perfectly fine for a young girl to fall in love eventually with a middle-aged man who has lost a leg in the war and has become a bit of drunkard till he redeems himself. He shows great mastery in the exchanges he has with Aishwarya and it all culminates in a classic scene where the two finally acknowledge and accept their love. In this act Aishwarya seems to do justice to Bharathiyar’s epithet, ‘Pudumai Penn’ (Modern Woman).