Years after Hindi filmgoers became a fan of his films such as Roja, Bombay and later Guru, Mani Ratnam remains a man of few words, preferring to let his craft do the talking. Sometime back he was in Goa, paying tribute to seasoned artists now in the autumn of their career.
About his work, he said, “What is there to say about Guru? People have already seen it and given their verdict. I have to move on. I am working on my next film.”
Pressed to say something about his new project, he smiled, and said, “Raavan. It will be released next summer. You will know it.”
Yes, he was right. We do know it! Courtesy the hype and hope that precede any Mani Ratnam film. The stars fade into nothingness, the story is not very important either. Everybody just talks of the film as ‘a Mani Ratnam film'! That the trilingual Raavan — Hindi, Tamil, Telugu — releases today across the country need not be reiterated: Mani has proved as good as his word! The modern-day take on the Ramayana has Vikram along with Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai, the Guru pair, playing the lead.
Prodded further to say something about the film, Mani said, “I work with actors who fit the bill. I have worked with Abhishek in Yuva, Guru and Raavan because he was the perfect choice.” Aishwarya? “You watch the film. You will know what I am talking about. I am not into crystal ball gazing,” he said.
A few months later at a video conference organised from Mumbai, he said from Chennai, “The entire story of Raavan revolves around Aishwarya. In the Ramayana, we are told Raavan had 10 heads. The story is based on that aspect. It is a difficult subject. Did such a man ever exist…was he just a myth or does he live even today…what is the line that divides good from evil…does our understanding change when we look from the opponent's perspective?”
Incidentally, Mani had initially asked Abhishek to act in the Tamil version too. Abhishek opted out, citing lack of familiarity with the language. The film was initially to be made in Hindi. “When Mani decided to make Raavan, it was meant to be only in Hindi. The idea of a Tamil version came later. He told me to swap roles from Beera in Hindi to Dev in Tamil. Even though I agreed initially, I realised I would not be able to do justice to the role since I am not comfortable with the language,” Abhishek said, to which Mani finally, albeit reluctantly, agreed. Once Abhishek declined, Prithviraj stepped into the Tamil version. He plays Dev's character in it and Vikram essays Raavan. Raavanan is scheduled to be released with 220 prints in Tamil Nadu and 125 abroad.
“I am more comfortable with Tamil than Hindi. While in the Tamil version, I held the reins, in Hindi, I trusted my writer and asked him if something sounded right,” Mani says. He is not concerned about the hype. “I am not worried about people's expectations. I just want to get the film right. Before the release of any film, I feel like a beginner.”
Well, this man who feels “like a beginner” again, has just hopped across to London for the international premiere of the film. Breaking the language barrier. Fielding uncomfortable questions… Mani Ratnam has done it all. Raavan is merely the latest stopover in a fine journey.