Mani Ratnam tells Sangeetha Devi Dundoo that it feels as if he entered the industry just yesterday and that he’s still warming up
It isn’t every day that you get to watch Mani Ratnam standing casually near the stage, checking on his actors, singers and taking stock of preparations for the event. He is keen on a rehearsal with A.R. Rahman and the team prior to the live performance. The team was in Hyderabad to launch the audio of Kadali (dubbed version of his forthcoming Tamil film Kadal) and unveil the first theatrical promo. He promises to talk soon after the event and keeps his promise. Warming up to the conversation, he says, “You saw the promo. I don’t need to say anything more.” Seconds later, he laughs heartily, and settles down for a chat. Excerpts from the interview:
Kadal is set in a fishing village in South Tamil Nadu. What was the genesis of the film?
The background is a fishing village but the story is universal; it’s about good versus evil and narrates the story of an individual caught between sin and redemption.
Will Kadal mark your return to your roots, after pan-Indian films such as Guru and Raavan?
It’s not as dramatic as that. The Tamil version Raavanan was also rooted in native culture. It might have looked different since it was a bi-lingual. Bi-lingual films come with a certain inbuilt practical problem with respect to the setting of the story and the dialect. Doing a native film takes away those hindrances. I can see to it that all the details such as location and costumes are specific to a region.
Is it co-incidence you are launching Karthik’s son Gautham and Radha’s daughter Thulasi? Karthik and Radha made their debut in Alaigal Oyvathillai, which also had something to do with the sea.
I would never attempt a casting coup for the sake of it. I auditioned other youngsters before Gautham and Thulasi. Sometimes casting falls in place easily and sometimes it takes a while. Fifty per cent of my job is done when I get the right actors. There is no right way of doing this. Liking an actor’s performance is subjective. I might like something that another filmmaker might disapprove of. Lakshmi Manchu, Arjun and Arvind Swamy were all necessary for this film. Lakshmi has a short but important role. I was looking for someone earthy, a different face, and felt she would be apt.
You have shot the film in Thoothukudi, Rameshwaram, Dhanushkodi and Andaman islands. How did you research about these fishing communities?
You need to know the background and the dialect where the story is set. Research is not as easy as reading a book, because you have to translate it on screen. We spent time with fishermen and their families and noted down a lot of things, such as where they keep their boats and fishing nets. When we were shooting, I was constantly observing. If I saw a procession, I watched what they did and tried to incorporate those details. Of course, I cannot keep it 100 per cent real on screen because I’d end up making a documentary.
Most of your films are inspired by real-life incidents. When there are many ideas to work with, how do you proceed with one idea?
Some ideas have the ability to develop into a full-blown film. The idea of Roja was with me for seven years before I made it. When I see or hear of something, I write it down. At times, these ideas may look ridiculous. There are times I go back to these notes and feel there’s a story somewhere.
How do you manage to extract wonderful performances from your actors?
When I did my first film, I had a fair idea of what I liked and what I didn’t while watching an actor in front of the camera. After I finished the film, I thought I had exhausted everything I knew. As I moved from one story, setting and character to another, I discovered something new. A story is not over when it’s on paper or your laptop. A lot happens when you shoot. I want an actor to bring his or her own perception of a character and not imitate me.
You are known to be reclusive. So the book Conversations With Mani Ratnam came as a surprise. Did you see this as a way of reaching out to people eager to know about your work?
Not really. Now we are talking here; that interaction was no different. Cinema is what I do for a living, and I like to talk about it. If I didn’t have a flight to catch, we could have spoken more, agreed, disagreed or come to blows talking about cinema. I avoid too many interviews because it gets repetitive. If I were a reader, I’d get bored reading the same thing.
It’s been a long journey since your first film Pallavi Anupallavi (1983).
It feels as if I entered the industry yesterday. I am just warming up. There’s a long way to go.