At the launch of Baradwaj Rangan’s book 'Conversations with Mani Ratnam', the noted filmmaker spoke about the influences that sparked and shaped his movies

“If you want to make your next film, this one has to make money. So you can’t ask for anything under the sun and hope to get it. Nobody tells you, ‘you want a train? I’ll get one for you’,” said Mani Ratnam, noted film-maker, at the launch of Baradwaj Rangan’s book Conversations with Mani Ratnam at The Hilton. Ably moderated by K. Hariharan, director, L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy, the evening saw Ratnam discussing films along with author Baradwaj Rangan, a National award winning film-critic, and currently Deputy Editor at The Hindu.

Hailed by Hariharan as “Modern Indian cinema’s icon”, Ratnam who commenced with a witty “I thought I was done answering questions,” went on to speak at length about the influences that sparked and shaped his twenty movies. “Everything you like in your life finds a way into your films. Every good film is a very strong influence,” he said, adding that he primarily worked towards telling a story, and getting a performance; the visuals were but a natural extension.

Marked by candour, humour and sharp insights into the art of filmmaking, the conversations were preceded by Ratnam unwrapping a copy of Rangan’s book. “We have a thousand movies being produced every year in India; yet the volume of books on Indian cinema is pitifully low,” said Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin Books India, introducing the book and author, after which Hariharan asked the director if he saw himself as an advocate of change. Ratnam, however, said that he didn’t. “I’m a storyteller; I don’t believe that every film had to tell a message, although it depends on the subject. Take Bombay; the film is a cry of agony, the background score is a cry; the thought came from the fact that Bombay, the most cosmopolitan city could erupt into this.”

Calling the book a “must for all the people interested in characterisation”, Hariharan asked Rangan how he managed to interview the reticent filmmaker, balancing his roles as an avid fan and a dispassionate critic. Rangan confessed that initially, “my asking was stiff and formal. But once it was established that I was not trying to tear him down, it was easier. We were like neighbouring nations coming to the LoC and having a conversation”.

Nuances of filmmaking

Asked how he then sifted through what surely must’ve been hours of interviews with Ratnam, Rangan said the process wasn’t very different from what Ratnam would do, which is “keep whatever is closest to the screenplay”. Since the book was about mainstream cinema, he chose to concentrate on how Ratnam employs actors/cinematographers/editors; but most importantly, he focussed on making it an interesting book, while preserving continuity of conversation.

A management graduate, Ratnam admitted that he’d never been to film school, and had picked up the nuances of filmmaking himself. Asked if he had considered working exclusively with one actor, Ratnam conceded that for that to work, it calls for two people with very high standards. “It worked with KB sir and Nagesh, and KB sir with Kamal. Otherwise it gets very stale.” And attending the launch, veteran filmmaker K. Balachander, spoke about melodrama, earlier discussed by Hariharan and Ratnam. “Melodrama is not an obnoxious word, it is not a derogatory word, it entertains, enlightens. Yesteryear films were steeped in melodrama; and they caught the eyes of the viewer,” he reasoned.

Touching upon the troubles with the Censor Board, and piracy issues, Ratnam went on to debate on the impact of digital technology on filmmaking, lately shortening the run of films to three days. “Earlier, people left the movie hall and went to the bus stop and discussed the movie. But now, they are making social contact as they’re watching the movie; they watch for five minutes, and say ‘this is crap’,” he pointed.

Taking incisive questions from the packed audience at Hilton’s ballroom, Ratnam reiterated that he typically chose to work with brilliant technicians, tapping into the nation’s pool of world-class editors, art directors, cameramen and music directors. On handling subjects removed from his own demographic, Ratnam said that it wasn’t very different from the best male directors, who made films based on women. Telling a director to stick to what he knows is like asking the Indian cricket team to play only in India. “You put in the same effort no matter which language you make the film in; sometimes it falls into place, sometimes it doesn’t,” he admitted candidly.

The event, jointly hosted by Penguin Books and Hilton Chennai also celebrated the 25th anniversary of Penguin Books India, with the cutting of a cake. Roger Brantsma, general manager, Hilton Chennai proposed the vote of thanks.

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