2005 boasted of some of the biggest Tamil movies being released - Rajnikanth's 'Chandramukhi', Kamal Hassan's 'Mumbai Express', Shankar's 'Anniyan' and the usual fare from Vijay. However, it was an innocuous little film named 'Kaathal', cast and technicians replete with newcomers, that went on to become the sleeper hit of the year (it released in late 2004 though, I believe).
'Kaathal' narrates the tale of a rich schoolgirl infatuated with a young mechanic. The same old 'formula' rehashed, one might be inclined to think. But the screenplay, characterization and performances were so effective that the storyline itself was forgotten; one was too involved with the characters by then. Some of the biggest plus-points of 'Kaathal' were:
# Newcomer Sandhya was amazingly natural (she was hailed as the 'Saritha of 2006' by veteran director K.Balachander) as the exuberant schoolgirl 'Aishu' , hopelessly infatuated with the motor mechanic. Her intuition tells her to run away from the marriage her family is forcing upon her, and she succeeds in convincing her beau to 'take her away'. The consequences of her impetuousness are devastating. Her outstanding performance was the highlight of this small little movie.
# The newbie director Balaji Shaktivel (ok, he's done one movie before - but didn't 'newbie director' sound better!) displayed a great grasp over the medium (for instance, he gave a feathery, fairy-tale touch to the first half of the movie that depicted the budding romance between the protagonists while the more sombre post-interval portions were shot in harsher lights and panning camera angles).
# Bharath proved there was more to him than the pliant dancing skills he'd displayed in his earlier movies. The nuances he added to the character were just perfect - whether it be the sloppy crab-like manner in which he rode his bike (as mechanics do), or the Madhurai lingo that he adopted, they were never overdone or exagerrated. His performance in the climax - reminiscent of the classic 'Moondram Pirai' (which in itself is a huge compliment) - was especially good.
# The kid at the workshop was - for want of a better word - outstanding. I have heard that Arun Kumar was indeed a boy working at a workshop - not sure whether it is true or not. His crabby demeanor and grouchy comments were quite amusing. Deft directorial touches also displayed the kid's loyalty to his ex-guru, making the character a memorable one.
# Sukumar, the Vadivelu-lookalike, put in a subdued, un-Vadivelu-like performance as the hero's friend. His palpable anguish at his friend's discomfort was portrayed with considerable restraint and subtlety (which is not exactly a quality one associated with Tamil comedians).
The rest of the cast was more than adequate. In these days where romantic movies are overpoweringly becoming stereotyped, 'Kaathal' dared to be different (the scenes about the registrar's office were refreshingly so). One for my DVD collection.