Depth of Field: Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and Vada Chennai

I remember walking out of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam with mixed feelings. It felt precise, like the work of a master, but not fulfilling. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what didn’t work for me, and to be honest, I am still unable to explain it.

A few days later, I watched Vada Chennai and found myself blown away. I even wrote about it back then. But I kept returning to CCV in my head, and trying to articulate to myself what I liked and what I didn’t. Then, a few days ago, something hit me.

The obvious first. Both films begin the narration in the middle of the story. In Vada Chennai, a murder has just been committed, and that deed will shape the lives of not just the perpetrators, but that of so many others. In CCV, it is an attempted murder.

But it is more than that. Both films drop us in the middle of the action in other ways. The characters in both movies carry a lot of baggage, and their actions in the present are informed by their past. But where Vada Chennai chooses to tell the story through a series of flashbacks, CCV is completely linear.

Whatever you need to know about the past is told to you through dialogue, and through how the characters interact with each other. You understand the characters and their relationship with each other through the performances and the dialogue, which is sometimes expository but very often just loaded enough to make you fill in the gaps in your head.

This is not to say that one approach trumps another. In Vada Chennai, the structure itself is designed to reshape our understanding of each character’s actions by peeling away the present and revealing the past. Also, it is not just the story of those people but also of the place. It needs to show us, not just tell us. CCV, on the other hand, tells a simpler story. The layers matter, but we don’t need to know everything.

The most obvious parallel, to me, is the first two Godfather films. The first film tells a loaded story in a linear fashion and uses dialogue to tell us what we need to know. The Godfather uses the long opening sequence around Connie’s wedding to introduce the characters and how they relate to each other, and then ratchets up the tension with an attempt on Vito Corleone’s life. CCV uses an attempt on Senapati’s life to introduce the characters and how they relate to each other, and then ratchets up the intrigue through a key conversation at his granddaughter’s naming ceremony.

The second Godfather film, on the other hand, tells two stories set in different timelines, in an attempt to show us how the past impacts the present in myriad ways. Michael and Vito Corleone. Anbu and Rajan.

Bhoomi.

Ooru.

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