The launch of Conversations With Mani Ratnam saw discussions about the man, his films and about art in general

Originally, Conversations With Mani Ratnam was supposed to be a book of essays. Baradwaj Rangan, the book's author, thought he should inform Mani Ratnam about the book, and so went to meet him.

“He didn’t seem very thrilled,” recalled the film writer, at a launch recently at Atta Galatta. Ratnam instead suggested they “just talk”, and thus the format of the book, as a series of conversations. “So much of this has been about being in the right place and the right time,” said Rangan.

Rangan, who is a deputy editor and film critic at The Hindu, started out studying at BITS Pilani. He then worked in advertising and even in the computer industry before, in 2002, deciding to give the “writing thing a shot”. Writer and teacher Arul Mani, who was in conversation with Rangan at the event, observed that this was similar to the way Mani Ratnam himself had done various other things – studying commerce, obtaining an MBA, working as a management consultant – before entering into filmmaking.

Stating the obvious

What was it like, being in conversation with Mani Ratnam? Rangan said that at first, the toughest part was getting Mani Ratnam to elaborate on his opinions. He would simply say simple, obvious things, like “Yes, Kamal is a great actor.” “It was an evasive dance – he was holding back as much as he was revealing,” said Rangan.

The conversations began in September 2010, soon after Raavan had released (and been roundly criticised). “The invisible part of the book is the people management skills – he was obviously sensitive about Raavan, so we didn't talk about that at first,” said Rangan.

But, as Arul Mani observed, “the reticence gives way to volubility”; indeed, Ratnam became more comfortable talking about films from Iruvar onwards. This was perhaps due to some need to perhaps leave behind some kind of memoir did start to surface, and the responses became more detailed.

Given that the relationship between the subject and the interviewer can often be fraught, what was Mani Ratnam’s attitude to the book? “He definitely wanted some things out – there was a tension, in some sense,” said Rangan.

History as backdrop

One of the many themes that came up in the conversation was Mani Ratnam’s politics and use of real-life issues – such as in Dil Se or Bombay. Arul Mani noted that Iruvar was, essentially, a Madras Brahmin looking at the Dravidian movement, but that Ratnam didn’t engage with the larger idea, of an emerging linguistic nationalism. “I think history is never more than a backdrop,” said Rangan.

“In Dil Se the girl is not primarily a terrorist from the north-east; she is a girl who disrupts the guy’s life, and happens to be a terrorist,” he said, explaining that the characters and their individual stories, rather than the politics, took centrestage.

Another discussion point was the nature of reviewing itself. Noting that Rangan’s blog often received comments criticising his “intellectualised” style of writing, Arul Mani wondered about this fear of “mindfulness”.

Rangan responded that he didn’t invent the deeply personal, deeply engaged way of writing that has become his trademark. “I think people are expecting to be told what to feel... this comes from a discomfort with the idea that any art is equally about the art itself and the audience.”

The review, then, reflects this conversation, he suggested, rejecting the idea that any piece of art – a book, a film, a piece of music – has a certain fixed meaning that it is our job to sleuth about and discover.