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Mani Ratnam’s Kadal (The Sea) is all about faith—about keeping it and rediscovering it. In his latest movie, Ratnam is talking about Christian belief, about a restless young man who is torn between God and Satan, who turns his back on his maker and makes a pact with his destroyer, but who is converted after being visited by an angel. There’s a lot of scope here for giggle-inducing stuff, apart from weariness at the repeated use of Christian motifs. The villain constantly refers to himself as Satan, in case you didn’t get it the first time. The young man assists in a delivery and gazes upon his blood-stained hands in wonderment. They are the wounds of Jesus, he says. We know, we know.

Yet there is another faith-based exercise in progress here. Ratnam fans who were disheartened by his recent missteps, notably the bilingual Raavanan/Raavan, can take heart from Kadal. The film-maker’s ability to lift ordinary stories with extraordinary film-making panache returns in satisfying measure.

He hasn’t abandoned his classical, three-act structure, but he has responded to shifting audiences tastes in favour of more realistic and grittier cinema. The predictable story is layered with strong performances. The leisurely pace allows most of the characters to develop. The realistic production design (by Shashi Adappa) and lovely cinematography (by Rajiv Menon) situate the story in an authentic milieu—the fishing village sequences are especially evocative. Ratnam is so busy tackling his moral drama that he gives short shrift to A.R. Rahman’s songs, especially his chart-topper Nenjukulle, which awkwardly gets laid over a conversation. But he does remember to slip in a reference to his back catalogue in the haunting song Moongil Thottam, which was shot in the Andamans, and references a similar romp down a beach by lead actor Gautham Karthik’s father, 1980s’ matinee idol Karthik, in Ratnam’s Agni Natchathiram.

Kadal is about three men, two of whom meet at a seminary and cross swords over their interpretations of good and evil. Both are charismatic men on either side of the moral divide: Arvind Swamy’s Samuel helps a fishing village regain its faith in Jesus Christ through selfless service, while Arjun’s Bergman leads his own flock towards crime, all along plotting to destroy Samuel’s piety. Caught in Bergman’s cross hairs is Gautham Karthik’s Thomas, an orphan who channels his anger at being abandoned as a child by falling thrice—at the feet of Father Samuel and later Bergman, and finally in love with the guileless Beatrice (Thulasi Nair).

Ratnam sums up the story’s approach to weighty ethical issues with the economy and simplicity that have been his trademark since his early films. Thomas confesses his sins to Beatrice, who simply says, “Don’t do it again."

Their romance never sparkles, but it’s not meant to. Beatrice, who is almost always dressed in white, is the angel leading Thomas to the light. Nair tries her best, but the character needs a more experienced actor to come alive. Fellow debutant Gautham Karthik is far more effective, moving confidently from jauntiness to introspection, from anger to love, from darkness to light. He is ably backed by the experienced Swamy and Arjun, who face off with relish.

Kadal is not a perfect storm, but it’s far from a sinking proposition. It floats comfortably midstream, coasting along on the strength of attractive actors and visuals.

Kadal released in theatres on Friday

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