A Man In Full: Decoding Director Mani Ratnam
A Man In Full: Decoding Director Mani Ratnam

Anita Nair goes to Chennai to meet Mani Ratnam, the man who crossed over from the South and gave Hindi cinema Roja, Bombay, and most recently Dil Se. Is he all that people say he is?

Anita Nair goes to Chennai to meet Mani Ratnam, the man who crossed over from the South and gave Hindi cinema Roja, Bombay, and most recently Dil Se. Is he all that people say he is?


Would Mani Ratnam do to Alai Payuthe, his new hit Tamil film, what Rajiv Menon did with Kandukondain Kandukondain—turn it into a bi-lingual hit by sub-titling it in English to reach a wider national audience? Knowing his shy and retiring nature, chances are that he may not. Regardless, Ratnam’s reputation as one of popular cinema’s all time great directors is safe and secure.




I don’t know Mani Ratnam—I wonder if anyone really knows him—and yet I admire him. I admire the way his screenplays probe deep into his own Tamilian roots and bring out into the surface a colourful timbre with inflections of wicked wit and ribaldry that is so much a part of being a Tamil. I admire how his male characters swagger through life and their roles and that he weaves his song sequences like music videos with synchronised rhythm and a large dollop of magic realism. I admire how he delves into Hindu mythology and creates contemporary renderings of it so that Roja is actually the story of Savitri and Satyavan retold and that the relationship of the brothers in Dhalapathi is in fact drawn from the story of Karna and Arjuna. And I admire how it is that in almost every film he has made, he wrestles with shades of grey.


But mostly I admire Mani Ratnam because for more than a decade and a half now, he has with sophistication and finesse neatly eroded the bulwark of what was largely considered to be contemporary Tamil cinema—soap operas extended into feature film lengths with asinine jokes, garish costumes and relying mostly on the impact of ham actors rather than the content of the film. And yet, in Theodore Bhaskaran’s Eye of the Serpent – An Introduction to Tamil Cinema [1996, EastWest Books], a book that is almost one of its kind and that went on to win the 1996 Swarna Kamal award, Mani Ratnam receives no more than a cursory mention.


I don’t just admire Mani Ratnam. I am angry for him. It is a Monday morning in mid-June when I fly into Chennai. The heat hits me like a wet blanket flung at me. The flight is dreadfully late but I do not dare ask my cab driver to hurry. I hate car rides and the only way I can put a lid on my fear is by talking.


The cabbie (whom I discover to be a Malayalee and hence all conversation is in Malayalam) wants to know what I’m doing for just a day in the city. Sans luggage. Sans a laptop. Sans even a presentation docket. I tell him I’m here to meet Mani Ratnam. I see him give me a once-over through the rear view mirror. “Are you in the film industry?” he asks me with a strange look.


I wonder if a dead uncle and a living aunt who each own cinema theatres in Kerala would qualify me as someone having something to do with the film industry.


I wonder if he will believe me if I say I’m going to be playing the heroine in Mani Ratnam’s new film.


I settle for the truth. “I’m here to interview him,” I explain.


“In that case, would you please tell him that I have watched each one of his movies and I liked Dhalapathi the best. Would you also ask him why is it that all his heroines shriek and the heroes mumble when they deliver their dialogues?”


Mani Ratnam is forty-five years old. A postgraduate from the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Business Management, his education has prepared him in no way for a career in film making. If there is a connection with films, it is a slender one. His father was a distributor; a man who lived with the business side of films rather than its creative or aesthetic aspects.


Like almost every person of his generation, Mani Ratnam grew up watching films. In his mid-teens, Mani Ratnam had a moment of realisation as he sat in a dark cinema theatre watching larger than life heroes and heroines cavorting, crying, laughing, leading larger than life lives… For the first time, he discovered that films were conceived and directed.


And that was all. No internship as assistant director. No searching for that elusive director who would transform his screenplay into a living breathing entity. One day, many years later from that first moment of realisation, Mani Ratnam stopped and stared… and changed the course of his life. From management consultant to movie maker.


For almost a year, Mani Ratnam and a few friends dreamed, debated and grappled with a screenplay another friend was working on. The film never got made. But Mani Ratnam had served his term as apprentice to the art of cinema.


Mani Ratnam’s first film was a Kannada one Pallavi Anu Pallavi. A film that explored a relationship between an older woman and a young man. But it was with Mouna Raagam a love story that managed to be both tender and exquisite without being maudlin or syrupy that Mani Ratnam made the cash registers ring. Then came Pagal Nilavu, a film that had to settle for quiet obscurity. But it was with Nayagan that Mani Ratnam found his voice.


Until then, it seemed that Mani Ratnam was fumbling for a style. At times, he was lucky to get away with his unformed style and at other times not so lucky. And then came Nayagan, a film that was so different from what any of the film-going audiences not just in Tamil Nadu but in the rest of the country as well were used to, that it was a huge smashing success. It established his reputation as a box office miracle worker. It won a spate of awards. And it was India’s official entry for the Oscar Awards. Mani Ratnam had become a brand.


In real life, Mani Ratnam has none of that gloss that is so much a part of his cinematic exercises. There is none of that glitz and glitter that cling to all creatures who populate the tinsel world. A silver dust that separates them from us. Mani Ratnam could be one of us. In a bottle green shirt, beige trousers and gold-rimmed spectacles. I take heart from that.


And the fact that despite keeping him waiting for almost half an hour, he is warm and affable. We climb the stairs to where his study is.


The building is large; pillars and a courtyard, corridors and sharp angles, columns of light and tucked away niches. Light and darkness. Mani Ratnam, I remind myself, has a penchant for chiaroscuro.


In real life, Mani Ratnam has none of that gloss that is so much a part of his cinematic exercises. There is none of that glitz and glitter that cling to all creatures who populate the tinsel world. A silver dust that separates them from us. Mani Ratnam could be one of us. In a bottle green shirt, beige trousers and gold-rimmed spectacles. I take heart from that.


The room is cool and only just adequately lit. The furniture is quiet and unassuming as the man. Wood and subdued pastels.


A man comes into Mani Ratnam’s study and begins to dust the shelves at the farther corner of the room. Mani Ratnam shoos him off and blocks all calls and intruders. I’m used to advertising clients who in the middle of a presentation will attend to innumerable calls, sign cheques and perhaps even discuss the styling of a coat with their tailor. More and more, it is difficult to come upon a person who respects the value of your time as much as he would like his time to be valued. Here is one such man, I think.


As preparation for this meeting, I have watched as many Mani Ratnam films as I could lay my hands upon and surfed the Net to discover what the world has to say about him. I chance upon a discussion room topic ‘Does Mani Ratnam deserve to be called a good director?’ that is debated for over a month. His admirers are loyal and vociferous but there are equally rabid critics who in their diatribe contradict each other. Their criticism ranges from:


–All his movies have been hyped excessively


–That his movies lack originality or a strong theme


–That he tries to impress with his controversial themes


–His story lines are predictable, the dialogues are irritating with all the characters speaking in monosyllables. Surely, different characters would be expected to speak differently from each other, right?


–As far as Mani goes, only the technical aspects of his films stand out (no help from him) Mani was plain lucky—the biggest contributors to his success was a combination of terrific camerawork plus amazing music scores—take that away from his movies and they will fall like nine pins


–Mani Ratnam is an above average commercial film director


That everyone doesn’t love him is loud and clear. If he were, that would make him banal and his movies commonplace, I offer apologetically. But Mani Ratnam takes no umbrage when I finish reading out excerpts from the transcript. He merely smiles.


Mani Ratnam dons several caps. He conceives the story. He writes his scripts. He directs his films. What do you see yourself as, I ask?


He leans back in his swivel chair and says thoughtfully, “There are no such clear cut lines. The film starts with an idea. And then the lines merge.”


But I am unwilling to let go. This is after all why I am here. To find out which part of him reigns. The writer. The filmmaker. Or the director.


I am curious how he manages to strike an equilibrium and that whether he is often called upon to make a compromise. For instance in the film Roja, the terrorist played by Pankaj Kapoor from a writer’s point of view is the real hero of the film. A man who is willing to admit he was wrong and changes. Instead, in the film, the focus shifts and Roja, the naïve young Tamilian girl fighting to get her husband released is glorified. There is nothing heroic about her except for the fact that she is persistent.


Mani Ratnam smiles again. “I disagree,” he says. “Roja is the hero of the film. That a girl who has never travelled beyond her village in a remote part of Tamil Nadu is stuck in a strange land where no one understands what she speaks, has no friends (at least ones that matter) and yet manages to secure the release of her husband is what makes her heroic. In the process she also understands what terrorism is all about and its impact on the lives of other people.


“As for the other aspect of compromise, there is no cinema without compromise. Except that I would prefer to call it as striking a balance. I’m trying to tell a story to an audience. And I do that as best as I can. There is no conflict of interest.”


In his most recent film Alai Payuthe, there is a scene where the hero’s parents come calling on the heroine’s parents. The hero is rich. The heroine is from a middle class family and lives in a government housing board flat. The hero’s father in an effort to break the ice says, “We weren’t sure if we had come to the right house. Each house looks just like the other.”


The heroine’s father feels a slight where there is none implied. He is rude, “We are all middle class people here. We can afford only this.”


It is insights such as these rather than Mani Ratnam’s most grandiose and talked about ones that make you admire him. Like most of his audience, I have adored and despised his scenes, maybe in equal measure. Delighting in the subtleties, puffing with disappointment when excess becomes excessive; clapping, booing and sighing when one of his sentences trickle down your spine with the alacrity of a dissolving ice cube. But a filmmaker does not survive to posterity by the strength of his screenplay alone.


My own reading is that Mani Ratnam’s body of work save for a few films like Iruvar will not survive the winnowing of time. That what has made him will also unmake him. Mani Ratnam’s films have a force field of their own. When you are in it, you feel one way. When you leave, nothing lingers. For what Mani Ratnam, a creature of the shining moment has done is to make a fine art out of commercial cinema.


“I have nothing against conventional cinema,” Mani Ratnam says. “‘What is it you want to do?’ comes up as a question in my mind. And I know that I want to make something that matters. Something that intrigues me, fascinates me and something I’m convinced about.”


Unlike their neighbours the Keralites, politics is not a way of life for the Tamilians. Few things prove it as well as Tamil films. There has been an occasional film that has dealt with an issue. A contemporary issue. But Tamil cinema seldom rises above the threshold of family drama. Mani Ratnam scores here again and again. Whether it is about life with a spastic child or terrorism or communal riots, Mani Ratnam approaches each one of these subjects with aplomb. But at some point, he undermines it himself by romanticising.  As in Roja. As in Bombay. As in Iruvar. But that is a decision Mani Ratnam has chosen to live with. As much as critical acclaim is important, commercial success is necessary too. At a retrospective of Mani Ratnam’s films, the Toronto reviewer David Overbey very sagely noted—Mani Ratnam makes movies; let the cinema take care of itself.


Mani Ratnam’s films have a force field of their own. When you are in it, you feel one way. When you leave, nothing lingers. For what Mani Ratnam, a creature of the shining moment, has done is to make a fine art out of commercial cinema.


So how does he see himself as? An artist or an entertainer?


“A bit of both,” Mani Ratnam says. “It is important to me that I make films I am proud of. And who said good films can’t be entertaining.?”


Nayagan is the tale of a gangster lord in the slums of Bombay. A man who is venerated and feared. A man caught between the twin poles of goodness and badness. Anjali is the story of a spastic child. Dhalapathi deals with colours of law and justice. Agninakshitram explored the effects of bigamy on children. Roja billed as a “patriotic love story”, is a politically controversial work that contrasts Kashmiri “extremists” with a Tamil nationalism inflated to an all-India patriotism. Bombay is a gripping indictment of racial hatred.  Poets and dreamers are at the centre of Iruvar where idealism is pitted against pragmatism and Aryan battles Dravidian.  Alai Payuthe is a contemporary love story that deals with lovers who are married despite opposition from their families and delves into their post-marital life and their tribulations.  


The themes are different; the characters each of a different timbre and yet in Mani Ratnam’s films, he reigns an imperious presence just as Salman Rushdie does in his novels. Never for a moment are you allowed to forget who is the mind behind every nuance, every inflection, every emotion. You are constantly reminded that it is neither the plot nor the character that is important but how Mani Ratnam perceives it to be. When I question him on this, his eyes widen in surprise. He has never thought of himself in that fashion.


“I never tell any one of my actors how to play a scene. All I do is try and evolve together a scene that is real, that is genuine. I am not a director who performs and shows. I discuss the role, the scene with my actors and let them bring life to it.”


After the making of Bombay, threats were made and bombs were hurled at Mani Ratnam’s house. He lives these days flanked by bodyguards. What does it feel to be hunted and haunted?


Mani Ratnam deflects the question with a joke, “They are so much a part of my life that they even advise on continuity.”


Cheech in the movie Bullets over Broadway, we laugh.


There is just one more question left. What next? Mani Ratnam shrugs. “Nothing. I have absolutely no projects in mind.”


The baldness of this statement does not sound quite right for a person who has been making almost a movie a year for the past many years. But in the context of what he has said about making a film only when he feels compelled to do so, it makes a certain kind of sense…


Mani Ratnam might not be ‘South Asia’s greatest living director’ as one of his admirers makes him out to be. But he is a brave one. A filmmaker who is walking the precarious tight rope between art and commerce. In the process, he sometimes slips. This way and that. Iruvar and Uyire (Dil Se in Hindi) are such examples. With the result that his last film Alai Payuthe is a safe one. A man who has fallen twice, this way and that, treads the straight and middle line. But that is absolutely no reason to dismiss him as a has-been. I would like to think that the best is yet to come and that one of these days he’ll make a film that without having to be classified as art will trigger all the emotions good art will and yet be riveting to watch and entertain the senses.


On my way back to the airport, the cabbie wants to know if I met any film stars at Mani Ratnam’s office.


“Suhasini,” I toss up a name that South Indian audiences know well.


“She is his wife. Any one else?”


I shake my head.


“So what kind of a man is he?” he asks.


“A very nice man,” I say. “Someone who is very easy to admire and…like.”


This article was first published in the October 2000 issue


Image courtesy: Bharat Ramamrutham

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