At the outset, a big thanks to Baradwaj Rangan to get Mani Ratnam, undoubtedly one of India’s most significant filmmakers, to speak about his films and cinematic approaches to the wide variety of films that he has directed. To condense thirty years of his experience and 20 different films, not accounting for all the dubbing versions and remakes, is a tall order for anyone in just a conversation. Our common friend Sivaraman, head of the Prasad Film Labs would remark “Mani is a silent filmmaker who lets his visuals talk!” With each one of his films known for its seductive photography and memorable songs I once asked him about his musical talent and he said ‘I can’t sing even if it were to save my life!”
Early in the book he exclaims “I wish I had gone to a film school”. Like many filmmakers Mani reveals that it is his adventurous spirit with a deep belief in his intuitive feeling for what will work and communicate with his audiences that has worked throughout his career despite its ups and downs. Part fan, part critic Baradwaj bravely steers himself on this extensive journey avoiding all the bumps and potholes to provide us a well articulated trip. Mani’s first four films get clubbed together in about 30 pages and none of them did very well, says he. But there was no way that Mani was going to give up since every failure only cleared his vision and his path to make for more comprehensible solutions to tackle the world of mainstream ‘masala’ films.
I am sure Baradwaj would have had to make a tough choice between questioning him on ‘production’ issues versus ‘perception’ strategies. Safely he chooses the latter option and avoids questions of shooting ratios, budgets, sales figures or distribution deals. Baradwaj grills Mani mainly on aspects of characterisation and the balancing of ‘natural’ behaviour/reactions versus demands of the story and audience expectations. Be it Arvind Swamy throwing himself on a burning flag in ‘Roja’ or Revathy’s stand-off in ‘Mouna Ragam’, Mani explains how he always wanted to explore shades of ‘grey’ in seemingly archetypal characters.
Through the conversation Baradwaj reveals how Mani’s USP was not going to shoot with very precise character descriptions but allowing for that vital intensification which can result when you trust fellow technicians and actors on location to enter the dramatic zone in a very ‘personal’ manner. Praising Kamal Haasan for his immense contributions in ‘Nayakan’, Mani goes on to disclose the various ways in which Shahrukh Khan innovated in ‘Dil Se’ and how Rajnikanth absorbed the role of Surya in ‘Thalapathy’ with effortless ease. The fluidity of such a method is described eloquently as Baradwaj quizzes Mani in the variety of incidental differences noticed in bi-lingual films like ‘Yuva’/ ‘Ayitha Ezhuthu’ and ‘Raavan’/ ‘Raavanan’ where scenes have emerged based on the interpretations provided on the spot by the creative collaboration between the actor and director. The important thing for Mani was to get hold of the reality context in each moment. He says “If the film holds you, you don’t notice anything else. If it doesn’t, you start looking at the cuts; the angles and the rhythms with which the scene is constructed. When the film is magical you take in the film like any other viewer, but you also see a master at work.”
For me the best chapter is the one on ‘Iruvar’. Baradwaj takes us through the contrast between naturalistic drama and the stylised staging in a well orchestrated Q&A. This film, which had the most undreamed of congregation of actors from all over India to essay the drama of the most complex period in post-independence south Indian history, must have undoubtedly been a feasting ground for an actor’s director like Mani Ratnam. To exclaim “‘Iruvar’ is my best film!” despite it being a resounding box office failure explains the fortitude of a ‘never say die’ filmmaker. And as a fellow filmmaker I was touched learning about the inordinate struggles that he has had to face with our outdated film censor board (aka CBFC) in almost every film that he has made. “You can’t say there is only one way of doing things, the police way of ensuring law and order” exclaims Mani about his travails in ‘Bombay’. You realise then that if this is the fate of one of our most celebrated filmmakers, the situation of the rest must be indeed despicable.
Setting a target audience for such a book by a writer is equally difficult. A Tamil version would be most appropriate considering that Mani is most popular in Tamil Nadu. Aspiring directors would have loved to get more insights into Mani’s specifics on Mise-en-scene and pacing in every film. Prospective producers would want to know why some of his films were commercial failures despite the best of his intentions. His international fans would want to know more about how he places his narratives within a global context. As Mani says in his foreword about intellectualising what were once instinctive decisions “It becomes a bit of offence and a bit of defence, the intellectual dressing of babies- finding a probable or hopeful reason for the action/decision.” All said and done, Baradwaj’s conversations will definitely be a big boon for aspiring actors and screenwriters to get some amazing insights on how to make this very vital connection between the pen and the screen that can make or mar the film.
CONVERSATIONS WITH MANI RATNAM: Baradwaj Rangan;
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