Being Leela Abraham

Image source: Google
Like every other Mani Ratnam fan, I was super-excited about Kaatru Veliyidai. The trailer took expectations up by notches. Finally, a movie, and a mainstream one at that, will be tackling domestic abuse without normalising/defending the abuser’s actions. So is that what the movie does? Well, yes and no.
You see Leela, a starry-eyed, hardcore romantic, level-headed doctor. And then you see VC, charming, witty, attractive. And as the movie progresses, egoistic, arrogant, and narcissistic. The movie is narrated through VC’s eyes. To his credit, Mani Ratnam makes VC stress that he wasn’t a “hero” after all. You find VC apologise to Leela (in his head, of course) for all that he’s put her through. Props to MR for making his male protagonist unlikable. And for making the moviegoers side with the female lead (and rightfully so), for once.
The story unfurls with the Indian Army in the background. Some of VC’s colleagues are as chauvinistic as they get: for instance, when VC recklessly takes another Army guy’s daughter on a date and he gets hospitalised due to an attempt at showing off his heroic skills, the daughter gets packed off to a different State. VC’s boss recounts to him proudly how he defended VC: “He asked me how you can control a fighter plane when you can’t control a car. I asked him how we can trust him with a troop when he can’t control his daughter”. VC sniggers appreciatively. That’s the circle he cultivates: pervasive toxic masculinity, feeding his ego forever. And then Leela Abraham happens. She’s fiercely independent, and won’t let him control her. For VC, control is an indication of his superiority. And Leela will have none of it.
Right from the word go, he resorts to asserting his power to win her over: the reckless first date sets the tone. Leela is too smitten to notice when he makes her run with him towards the plane, arms pushing her shoulders. As strange as the human mind works, she finds herself drawn to him. And then the abuse starts. It starts small, when he manhandles her to save her from an impending snowstorm. Ah well, you think, she was being incredibly unreasonable, he didn’t have a choice. And then they make up almost instantly. This is how the relationship goes: he draws her in, hurts her, she distances herself, he shows his passionate side, she is drawn in again. We see how VC publicly abuses her. We see how he serenades her into reconciling with him, only to find later that it was all about proving his friends’ speculations of her not coming back, wrong (Aditi does an amazing job of emoting her shock and disbelief here). We see her resigned, unemotional “I love you” to him, the day after he asks her why she hasn’t uttered the three words yet. That one scene captures the essence: Leela realises the relationship is about VC. They both love him. She realises she’s too attached, and resigns to the fact, and decides to tell him she loves him. There’re other scenes worth noting: some of VC’s colleagues are uncomfortable when he mistreats her. We even hear a “Not cool, Officer” after one such episode. And then you see Ilias, Leela’s admirer, fret to Nidhi about how Leela has to pull herself together and get out of this relationship.
These scenes are juxtaposed with contradictory ones: you see VC explaining away Leela’s addiction to this toxic relationship as “love”. Heck, even Leela’s friend, Nidhi, calls it “love”. This has been a point of contention for many people, but you have to keep in mind that Mani Ratnam never makes conclusions in his movies: he leaves it for the viewer to decide. He just states society’s norms and standards as is, his movies are mirrors. How many of us have asked our friend who is close to giving up on their partner, to try harder? That relationships are hard work? That love is pain? I’m sure we’re all guilty. This movie is a conversation starter around domestic abuse and toxic romantic relationships. It shows you how the guy you like can be your brother’s hero but to you, he’ll be an ultimate beast.
VC is charismatic, a charmer, everyone’s favourite – but none of this comes through. That’s where the movie fails. It fails to show how there’s no black and white, and unhealthy relationships are a grey area: VC could be your cousin, your brother, your best friend, your father. Your brother may literally worship him, create an image of perfection in your head. But you wouldn’t know this person, unless he lets you in. What you know about such people is what they want you to look at them as. This doesn’t come through. And there’re more Leelas in the world than there should be. And why won’t there be? We’re fed a steady stream of romanticized love, where the woman is all-forgiving, where the good girl brings about a positive change in her jerk of a boyfriend. I’m not kidding. Chennai has a statue for Kannagi. You even find VC saying, “Nee enna mathiduva!” (“You’ll change me!“) to her when she tries leaving him. And she takes him back. Again. And again. And again. You get exasperated with her. I found myself wondering how she hadn’t died of emotional exhaustion already. What is a low point is when they reunite at the end (Karthi is brilliant here, though). You see, personality disorders can’t be switched off. You can’t just become a better person. You can’t stop being narcissistic at will. It takes therapy. And lots of self-awareness and work. But unlike everyone else, I found it totally believable that Leela took him back, yet again. Of course she will.
Here’s why:
Women in India grow up having very low expectations of men. Most of them heave a sigh of relief when they find their partner doesn’t have a “weakness for women”. But is that all? We need to expect from our men sensitivity, thoughtfulness, respect, and empathy. We need to remind ourselves that being entitled, privileged, and chauvinistic is not “normal” or “natural” for men.
This movie should ideally have us talking about how we should raise women to have self-esteem and self-respect. How we should be teaching them that it’s okay to leave a relationship that is destroying them. How abuse does not mean just physical harm, but also emotional harm. That romantic love is good only when it’s between equals. That the woman is no lesser than the man. But we haven’t focused there yet. I find reviews that say the movie glorifies misogyny. I think it doesn’t. As I told you earlier, it mirrors the dark side of societal conditioning. It attempts to show us the ugly, chaotic, tangled backside of a beautifully woven tapestry. It’s a starting point, so I’ll not nitpick. Thank you Mani Ratnam, for showing us how our society is fucked up.

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