You don’t have to search hard to find the various narrative arcs drawn from Nehruvian socialism to Rajiv Gandhi’s liberalisation in the films of Mani Ratnam, the liberal voice of mainstream cinema, writes K.Hariharan.

The ushering in of liberalisation in the Indian political economy under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi and the emergence of Mani Ratnam as a filmmaker in the mid-1980s are eerily simultaneous. However, trying to study the resultant impact of Rajiv Gandhi’s so-called liberal politics on the films of Mani Ratnam would be too simplistic and uni-dimensional. Besides, to assume that Rajiv Gandhi was ‘individually’ responsible for shaping Indian governance at that time is like thinking that a film director is entirely accountable for the film’s effect on the audience. Nevertheless this concurrence facilitates a study of the images and narratives that describe the political economy of a nation at a particular moment in history.

To better understand issues concerning Rajiv Gandhi and liberalisation, let us track back a bit. The Madras film industry, where Mani’s father and his Venus Studios were prominent players, developed at a faster pace from the talkie era in the 1930s compared to Bombay, and catered to an all-India market, producing films in all Indian languages. The Tamil cinema was only one part of the larger ‘national’ Madras film production system. So it is not surprising that Mani took on the mantle of looking ‘global’ at an appropriate moment in our history to set or ‘bend’ the aesthetic rules for a structure loosely called ‘Bollywood’. How did Mani see the transformation from the old to the new?

Back in the 1950s, when Prime Minister Nehru chose the socialist system, it was bound to resonate on our popular films in the form of family values, acknowledgment of industrial ethos and the appreciation of urban education. Within such a model we can clearly read a kind of Nehruvian influence when we see the castigation of the feudal class in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India; the privileging of educated people in Raj Kapoor’s Awara; the organised studio systems of SS Vasan; or the appreciation of modernist modes such as trains and urban demands in the Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray. These narratives indicate how these filmmakers saw the ideas and images of Nehruvian/Soviet modernity, believing in a secular, left-leaning pro-industrial society as worth celebrating.

Mani learnt to appreciate how the mainstream cinema of India, in response to the pressures of Hollywood movies, had evolved an indigenous masala mode, with songs, dances and messages through archetypes. This cinema facilitated arguments of class, caste and community in order to conduct a mythical discourse on the realities of a new nation. Expectedly, the intelligentsia condemned these fairytale films as melodramatic, tediously over-enacted and compromised by poor technical quality, and preferred the more sophisticated/realistic varieties ranging from Satyajit Ray to Bimal Roy. With the arrival of Indira Gandhi and an openly corrupt political economy, with her ‘license raj’ inspectors, the polarisation between art and commercial, good and bad cinema, was necessitated.

Reacting to this crisis, a new wave emerged across the country around the Emergency (1975) in the works of filmmakers from the first post-independent generation, who strongly condemned the dictatorial qualities of Indira Gandhi’s government. From Shyam Benegal to Bharatiraja, Jahnu Barua to Girish Kasaravalli, Ketan Mehta to Padmarajan, one could hear strong voices of protest challenging the tenets of Nehruvian ‘masala’ cinema. These voices should be contextualised in the background of two strong currents: (a) protests raging across the world against the Soviet system, also a strong ally of the Indian political economy, and (b) influential Hindutva right-wing forces emerging across the country, resulting in the emergency being imposed in 1975. After another turbulent nine years, Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, and her son Rajiv Gandhi was now obliged to pilot the nation as Prime Minister.

It is into such a setting that a young Mani Ratnam walks in with an instinct to combine the emotional strengths of the erstwhile melodramatic mainstream cinema and the formal eccentricities and rustic charms of the New Wave. Having entered the stage, the challenge was how to deal with the charged emotions of a nation’s melodrama without becoming melodramatic.

I strongly believe that successful filmmakers are those who sense the various undercurrents of the political economy they live in and transcreate them into contemporarily relevant texts. The attempt here is to see various narrative arcs drawn from the Nehruvian socialist cinema to the neo-capitalist liberalised private enterprise condition under Rajiv Gandhi in the films of Mani Ratnam. From the train that hurtles through the idyllic landscape in Ray’s Pather Panchali to the train on which Shah Rukh Khan dances in Dil Se; from Nargis celebrating harvest in the golden fields of Mother India to Madhu prancing through lush green rice fields in Roja; from the Gemini Studios of SS Vasan to being part of Sujatha Films, the first Indian public limited film company; from the vagabond Raj Kapoor in Awara to the street fighter Madhavan in Ayitha Ezhuthu, can we see some definitive movements? What could be some of the filmic high points when we imagine/image the period of liberalisation between 1984 and 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi and his finance minister V.P. Singh virtually steamrolled their policies of privatisation?

Firstly, liberalisation saw the rise of glamorous shopping arcades, symbols of ‘liberal free market’ economy. This resulted in a huge boost to the world of advertising, where the imaging of the product was often more engaging than the product itself. And Mani Ratnam echoed these trends by giving the ‘look’ of his films enormous importance. Working with highly skilled and independent-minded cinematographers such as Balu Mahendra, P.C. Sreeram, Santosh Sivan, Rajiv Menon and Ravi K Chandran, he ensured a kind of customised look in his films. Unsurprisingly, most of his cameramen are also reputed advertising filmmakers in their own right.

Their emphasis on the look of the film would appear distracting, often running the risk of disconnecting the story’s emotional chord. Images with strong back-lighting and usage of starry fog filters in films like Agni Natchatiram or Geetanjali attracted the audience’s attention as self-styled products by themselves. The roving camera movements in Iruvar made you aware of the extraordinary uses that cine jibs could be put into. The scene in Kannathil Muthamittal where the camera circles around Madhavan and his daughter as he reveals that she is not his biological daughter is truly memorable.

The self-awareness of the narration’s non-traditional imagery is indeed a benchmark which Mani Ratnam would set for a lot of young filmmakers. Mani’s films were virtually delivering the goods of a new capitalist India a solid 90 years after the Lumiere brothers. The images were certainly stylised but not in the same expressionist vein as one would notice in Guru Dutt or Sridhar. It was not the ‘mood’ lighting to express the emotional, but an imaging process that would draw attention to itself purely for its ‘wow’ factor. The image was self-conscious and to some extent like the new consumer of a liberalised market who went shopping without any real need for the displayed product.

Secondly, the political economy of liberalisation rejects ideas of national/ regional boundaries and attempts to locate the market on a so-called global platform. For a start, Mani decided to give all his films a certain kind of ‘urban’ look. In the process, he broke the ‘regional’ mould which was the hallmark of the earlier New Wave filmmakers and located his characters across the length and breadth of India. From Mouna Ragam (1986) onwards most of his films keep crossing the borders of Tamil Nadu and incorporate cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Mysore. The characters in his films, especially women, possess a kind of brazenness associated with the upper-class urban educated. Without any support from her standard group of comrades, his heroines make the first move and take tempestuous decisions while courting and ascertaining their identities. Such feelings were heightened in the way Mani’s films encouraged both Ilayaraja and AR Rahman to extend themselves beyond the regional boundaries to embrace jazz, rap, hip-hop, techno-funk and even the gentle strains of Sufiana, while also exploring the entire technical spectrum of digital sound.

I remember screening Thalapathi to the renowned film scholar Dudley Andrew who exclaimed, “This is so postmodern! It breaks all conventions to create so many stylistic disruptions.” This was indeed a layered statement. I asked him, “If the film was the postmodern version of mainstream characters from the Mahabharata, then where was the disruption?” Was it because Surya/Karna and his boss Devaraj/Duryodhana were portrayed as lone gangsters with no larger socio-economic references? Where was the anger of these self-gratifying mobsters in this film located?

On a parallel note, the real problem of globalising India was the rather dubious connection between powerful corporate enterprises and the right wing that emerged in the wake of liberalisation. In the need to gain popularity, there was a rise of communal forces and politicians openly espousing religious institutions and rituals. In short, to be religious was becoming cool. So the call for peaceful resolutions within the ‘secular nation’ in films like Roja, Bombay, Dil Se or Kannathil Muthamittal seem somehow antithetical to the ideas of globalisation and liberal economies, sounding more like public service announcements.

This brings us to the question, thirdly, whether late capitalism/ liberalisation as we encounter in India is primarily anti-working class. What happened to the films where the father would come home from the office or the factory vexed with working class problems? What happened to the mothers who struggled for existence, slogging away on their sewing machines? Shiv Sena’s annihilation of the left-wing unions of the Bombay textile workers, from the mid 1970s onwards — a move supported equally by the local industrialists — ridiculed all trade union movements across the nation. So when the policies for liberalisation were announced from mid-1980s onwards, the working-class concept was already weakening, both in our society and in our films. Films were often either about the lumpen class or the aspiring intelligentsia: the slumlord as Thalapathi or the dilemmas of a corporate head’s family in Anjali. Interestingly Mani’s second film Unaru (1984) in Malayalam dealt with a trade union leader and subsequently it was only in Guru (2006) that Mani dealt with a union leader as a minor protagonist. And within a blink the IT revolution evaded the union system by appointing every other employee as vice-president, if not a manager. This new world had liberated itself from the assembly line, moving its workers into AC cubicles on their computers 24/7 to serve clients across the globe.

Talking about Guru, a kind of biopic on the Ambanis who virtually steered Rajiv Gandhi’s liberalisation policies, Mani said, “Talking of abstinence, talking of doing something for your countrymen, this was the India I grew up in. Today it is: ‘If I do well, then everything else will start doing well.’ That transition in these 30 years (1960-90) is quite alarming. Some are still there while others bend rules with the thought that the end justifies the means. We are in that transition and I am trying to capture that.” Is there a subtext in Mani’s films which seems to lament the death of a Nehruvian dream where citizens placed nation/religion before self; where the working class determined the political economics of a nation?

“If I do well, then everything else will start doing well.” Were these the transitional people and society that Mani Ratnam was referring to? There is no doubt that the ultimate vision of any multinational free enterprise is to have such a consenting class of muted professionals consuming overpriced products unquestioningly. But could that be described as an all-right-wing/fundamentalist dream? Not really, especially when we are watching the fruits of liberalisation today bridging irrevocable and obscene links between super-capitalist U.S. and the super communists of China. The Right looks more right while the Left is left out. Despite growing religiosity across the globe, Mani’s films, along with the films of most of his contemporaries, refuse to bring religion as a panacea for modern problems even when he addresses religious/mythological texts such as the Mahabharata (Thalapathi) or the Ramayana (Raavan).

Quite a few critics have accused Mani Ratnam’s films as being superficial and even regressive in their world view. I see Mani Ratnam as someone who continues to struggle in order to give mainstream archetypes a human face, endowing them with individual characteristics. He is probably the only filmmaker who tries to create narrative depth through frail human characters, mostly as star-crossed lovers in the background of massive/realistic upheavals. After all, he too lives in a world where ‘Trade Union’ is a dirty term and union leaders in turn, have turned mafia dons. This was precisely the unwritten agenda of liberalisation and the film industry has itself witnessed ugly clashes between the so-called industry leaders and the film workers’ unions since 1984.

So while corporatised Bollywood went dizzy appeasing the newly-found NRI saviours of the shining liberalised India — through size-zero dancers imported from Eastern Europe in the extravagant sets/locations of Karan Johar and Abbas Mustan — Mani Ratnam was still questioning the virtuality of the liberalised Indian nation and the ambiguity of citizenship. Be it Kannathil Muthamittal, Guru or Yuva he continues to be the liberal voice in mainstream cinema, even after almost three decades. The immense popularity/notoriety of his 21-odd films, especially among the urban middle class, is evidence enough to study a society going through the predicament of either asserting their individuality/nationality or merging into the consumerist crowd.

The author is Director, LV Prasad Film and TV Academy.

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