A PECK ON THE CHEEK (Kannathil Muthamittal)

(director/writer: Mani Ratnam; cinematographer: Ravi K. Chandran; editor: A. Sreekar Prasad; music: A.R. Rahman; cast: Madhavan (Thiruchelvan), Simran (Indra), P.S. Keerthana (Amudha), Nandita Das (Shyama), J.D. Chakravarthi (Dhileepan), Prakash Raj (Dr. Herold Vikramsinghe), Master Suraj (Vinayan), Master Kethan (Akhilan); Runtime: 136; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: G. Srinivasan/Mani Ratnam; Film Movement; 2002-India-in Tamil & Sinhala with English subtitles)

“Looks too commercially slick in its presentation to really touch one’s heart.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Mani Ratnam (“Bombay”/”Iruvar”/””Anjali”) helms this serious family drama that seems compromised by its heavy-handed pulling on the viewer’s heart strings to tell us through a child’s eyes about adoption and a country suffering from civil war. It’s the kind of social conscience film that wows an aesthete audience and wins festival awards, but looks too commercially slick in its presentation to really touch one’s heart.

Thiru (Madhavan) is a popular and idealistic writer who writes a heart-warming story entitled “The Umbrella” about a mother, Shyama (Nandita Das), giving birth in a Red Cross refugee camp in Rameswaram, in Sri Lanka, and abandoning the child after just touching the baby with her finger and returning to her strife-torn Tamil village in Sri Lanka (later we learn she returned to her militant husband Dhileepan (J.D. Chakravarthi), who was running away from the army when she fled to the refugee camp). Separatists have waged a guerrilla war against the central government, and mom thinks it’s no place to raise a child. The author is so taken with the child, that he seeks to adopt her. When told by the orphanage he must be married, he proposes to newscaster Indra (Simran). The couple adopt the baby girl and name her Amudha (P.S. Keerthana). The couple have two sons, Vinayan and Akhilan, and favor the girl with special love. The boisterous, playful and spirited girl seems to be enjoying an ideal childhood growing up in such comfortable surroundings with such loving parents. The couple decides to tell Amudha on her ninth birthday that she’s an adopted child. Dad, though oozing with sensitivity and love, tells the child “you are not our daughter.” This causes great grief for the child (like what did you expect!), who adamantly expresses that she wants to see her biological mother and when not listened to goes into a temper tantrum. The couple agree to leave their comfortable home in Chennai and search for mom in her native village of Mankulam in Sri Lanka (the film was shot in southern India). Once arriving there by airplane they witness the island country’s beauty amidst the horrors of war, as suicide bombers attack in the street, guerrillas snatch Thiru and his helpful guide Vikra (Prakash Raj), and the family gets caught in the crossfire of a fierce gun-battle between the guerrillas and the army in a park. It leads to the obstinate child, still not that concerned of the danger she put her adoptive parents in, meeting her rebel real mother, in a long drawn-out weepie reunion that has mom tell the child she’s better off being raised by such kindhearted folks than living with her as a guerrilla fighter.

I just got the feeling that the terrorism depicted was not fully explored and the relationship of the child to her adoptive parents seemed more implausible than real. Just too many scenes seemed dragged out and artificial to convince me this wasn’t more of a soap opera tale than a supposedly unnerving one about current conditions in Sri Lanka. Though it explores universal themes such as displacement and family unity, it never wholly embraces them with a sense of reality.

The film’s title is derived from a line by the Tamil poet Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharathiyar.

REVIEWED ON 7/5/2007 GRADE: C+  https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”