Psychosinematics: Is There More to ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’s’ Megalomaniac Hero?
Psychosinematics is a series where we attempt to break down characters using psychoanalytic theories. In this in depth exploration we endeavour to understand what makes a character tick. Imagine being a fly on the wall of your favourite character’s therapy session! We are by no means subject matter experts but Stacy wanted to put her Psychology degree to good use.
*This article contains SPOILERS for ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’.
Like many others, I believe director Mani Ratnam is the master of storytelling in Tamil cinema. He has a formula for creating characters that not only work for the structure of his films, but are also extremely memorable. Characters that he created in the 80s are still celebrated today, more than 30 years after their conception, for the impact they have on society and the messages they convey.
Kaatru Veliyidai’s lead characters Varun Chakrapani (Karthi) or VC as he’s better known throughout the film, and Leela Abraham (Aditi Rao Hydari) might be Ratnam’s most controversial creations yet, with his scarily accurate portrayal of a dysfunctional relationship. While VC and Leela may not be likeable, they are certainly memorable, albeit not in the best way.
After the release of the film, film critics and analysts alike criticised Ratnam for showcasing toxic masculinity in its most brutally honest form, with some accusing him of romanticising abuse and manipulation.
I hated VC with a passion when I first watched Kaatru Veliyidai because he is the embodiment of all the qualities I loathe – arrogance, chauvinism and condescension. As I re-watched the film, it became apparent to me that I hated VC because of how raw his flaws are. VC is the boy who pulls your ponytail, the teenager who laughs at you with his friends, and the man who spews toxicity at you – all while convincing you that they love you. How could I fault Ratnam for writing and directing reality?
Now armed with better knowledge and research, I watched Kaatru Veliyidai again and have come to the very expert conclusion that VC does in fact have a psychological condition known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or sometimes called megalomania. NPD consists of signs such as an inflated sense of self, lack of empathy for others, dysfunctional relationships and a deep need for attention and admiration, amongst others – all signs that VC exhibits at various parts of the film, if you watch closely enough.
Trait #1: The Delusion of Grandiosity
Kaatru Veliyidai is set in the Kargil War in 1999, with VC being one of the finest fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force. I’ve wondered several times if VC’s profession is the cause of his elevated sense of self that contributed to his NPD, or if it was always there but just brought out by his profession. In one of the introductory scenes, VC is seen driving a jeep dangerously through winding mountainous roads, spurred by excited squeals from his flavour-of-the-day woman. This scene very aptly sets up VC for the rest of the film with death-defying arrogance.
The person who faces the brunt of VC’s NPD is Leela, the supposed love of his life. Having an elevated sense of self is having an unrealistic perception of grandeur and living in a distorted vacuumed thinking about one’s self and worth. This is the primary trait of NPD and can be glaringly seen in the way VC treats Leela.
In the scene where VC condemns Leela in front of all his military colleagues, he berrates her for having an opinion about the ongoing war because she is a woman and goes back to dominating the conversation, pointing towards a false sense of superiority. As NPD is seen in significantly more men than women, chauvinism is an alarming quality that may be a telltale sign of NPD.
In all his glory, VC dons the Indian Air Force uniform for a majority of the film, paired with trendy RayBan aviators. A chunk of the cinematography is dedicated to capturing his greatness with shots of him smirking in a fighter plane or walking down the runways with planes in the background. Being a pilot – especially a fighter pilot – is an extremely respected profession and one that is seen as glamorous and honourable. Through the screenplay and cinematography for those scenes, Ratnam shows us exactly how VC sees himself.
Trait #2: Lack of Empathy
Another sign of NPD is a severe lack of empathy where narcissists exploit others mercilessly and view others as objects that serve a purpose in their lives. For VC, Leela is that object. One of the most memorable dialogues of the movie is when Leela says with great grief that VC either treats her like a Queen or steps on her repeatedly. This confrontation happens after VC forgets to turn up to register for a marriage licence, despite convincing Leela to meet him there.
In another show of a blatant lack of empathy, VC shows up at Leela’s house after the death of her grandfather. The whole family is in mourning but he makes a scene and insists that Leela leaves her parents to follow him away – the ultimate tone-deaf demand. This is the scene that made me start to believe that VC might have a condition. Death jolts most people into reprioritising and binding together but it did the opposite for VC.
Empathy is part of the sixth sense that is unique to humans that those with NPD are unable to exhibit. They cannot look past their inflated self importance to empathise with anyone but themselves. As Leela’s friend Nidhi aptly puts it in the film, VC loves VC and nobody else.
Trait #3: Deep Need for Excessive Attention
At the surface, this might not seem like a big deal. Most people love being noticed and it is not the worst thing in the world. After all, we are human and we thrive on praise and admiration to enable us to build enough confidence to put our best foot forward. However, in VC’s case, his need for excessive attention and admiration is done at the expense of others. He puts others down to raise himself up – a sign of narcissism.
Let’s go back to the scene of VC condemning Leela for having opinions about the war. In that same scene, VC drags all his colleagues into the fight he has with Leela. He screams “Right guys?!” when he puts forth his point and gets a chime of yeses in response.
This act of making a spectacle out of Leela and putting on a show of superiority in front of his colleagues is VC’s excessive need for attention. He goes on to twist her arm “playfully” and ends up “accidentally” pushing her down in front of everyone. Leela storms off in humiliation.
VC shows up at her house and pacifies her with an extremely moving song – which he sings standing on top of his jeep with outstretched arms for the world to see (insert roll eyes emoji). Leela melts and allows herself to be taken with him again – I say taken because he literally carries her. Naturally, one would assume that he realised his mistake after going through the theatrics of asking for forgiveness, right? Wrong. This time, VC brings Leela back to his camp under the pouring rain and boastfully shouts to his colleagues that she returned. “I told you guys that Leela will come back, if I called her. She’s my girl! You guys owe me a single malt (whiskey),” making a mockery of Leela, yet again, by reducing her to a wager.
VC goes above and beyond to win Leela’s love initially, from taking her on a joyride on his plane to sending her a tape of him breaking into song and dance for her. However, it is that same attention-seeking attitude that becomes excessive and negative after he gets the girl. He uses Leela as a pedestal to step on to feel taller than his peers.
Leela eventually leaves VC right before he departs for the Kargil War, where he is captured and taken as a prisoner of war by Pakistan. After spending several years apart, VC tracks Leela down and she takes him back, no questions asked. While the intention is to show that being captive has changed VC, it was never proven to the audience. What we are left with is the distaste that Leela just accepts him back into her (and their daughter’s) life, without any hesitation, which fueled the criticism against Ratnam.
We don’t get to see much of VC’s backstory, except in that one hospital scene with his family and Leela. VC’s father yells at his mother to shut up in front of everyone. Seeing this, VC raises his voice at his father and stops him but screams at Leela in that exact same way, 20 seconds later. Ratnam makes the audience work hard to understand VC and his struggles by offering nothing more than a snippet into what it may have been like for him growing up.
The trouble with that is, not everyone would want to put in that effort, with most writing VC off from the first sign of narcissism – a problem that is very prevalent in real life. As a society, we are quick to develop a hatred for someone without properly analysing their behaviour first. We are more inclined to quickly believing the bad in someone than to put in some effort to understand where it comes from.
While I agree that VC is not likeable at the least, Ratnam penned down a character that is entirely real and believable, which I greatly appreciate. Someone with NPD would behave exactly as VC does, unapologetically.
The success of Kaatru Veliyidai comes from allowing VC and Leela to make their mistakes. As the characters are greatly relatable, it allows the audience to take solace in having made their own mistakes too. Leela is for anyone who has ever put up with anything less than they deserve. While she did find the strength to leave at some point, there are many amidst us that have not gathered that courage yet. VC is a strong reminder to be mindful of how we treat others. Sometimes the greatest lesson is when a mirror is held up to our faces, in the form of cinema.
VC and Leela’s toxic relationship may be familiar to many. While not every one of those relationships may be a product of NPD, it is important to seek help and allow for early intervention for the best chance at rehabilitation. Mental health awareness is crucial to arm lay people with basic access to psychological information so that we can help the VCs and save the Leelas of society.
Kaatru Veliyidai is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
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