"Cannes is not my goal"
His recent honest endeavour, "Kannathil Muthamittal", has not received the kind of response it deserves. But Mani Ratnam takes it in his stride, as he reveals in this unusual interview with GOWRI RAMNARAYAN, wherein he answers queries from celebrities in the film world.
Mani Ratnam ... he lends a Western sophistication to Indian themes.
MANI RATNAM has no film school training. But he is acclaimed for his individual style, social awareness and original treatment of themes from the explosive ("Bombay", "Dalapati") to the tender ("Alaipayudhey"). He brought Western sophistication and tempo to deal with essentially Indian themes. He is one of the few mainstream filmmakers who has centrestaged the child ("Anjali", "Kannathil Mutthamittal"). Critics fault him for commercialising serious issues in the popular mould, but cannot deny that he has brought national recognition to Tamil cinema.
The Hindu: What is your reaction to the charge that in your attempt to be visually savvy, you sacrifice the story and replace smooth narration with episodic structure?
To make a film visually interesting is not a sin! That's what everybody should be doing. I can't be blamed if others don't use the visual in the same way! The idea is not to make the visual dominant, but to craft a suitable visual form for your story. Look at how this makes a ``Nayakan'' different from an ``Agni Nakshatram''. A senior director once said that Bharatiraja's ``16 Vayadhinilae'' scored because it was made in colour. As if colour alone was responsible for the total impact! The charge you mention is just as ridiculous. I feel that in Tamil cinema there's a wrong kind of emphasis on the story. To me the story is merely a vehicle for the theme it underlines, along with many other elements, an excuse to make what you want to make. The less story you have the better. Some themes even demand a documentary style of piling incident upon incident. Pieces of life put together can become lyrical. In ``Udhiri Pookkal'' the scattered images made fantastic poetry...
Shyam Benegal: You were accomplished in cinematic grammar from the start. How did you get the Tamil audiences (habituated to theatricality, histrionics and rhetoric) to transcend conventional ways of looking at cinema?
The credit for weaning the audience away from theatricality goes to predecessors like Sridhar, K. Balachander, Bharatiraja and Mahendran. Balu Mahendra broke new ground with his sense of composition, movement, balance and aesthetics. To see ``Mullum Malarum'' (shot by him) was to realise how zooms can be caressing, how vital composition and lensing can be, how shooting 35mm with a slightly reduced form can give the film a wide screen impact. I remember one sequence in Balachander's ``Apoorva Ragangal''. The shadow of the woman upstairs drying her hair falls across the path of the rebellious young man sneaking out of the house. It is enough to stop him. This scene could have been dramatic, with lot of dialogue. Instead you get a silent visual. Such moments have gone unnoticed because they have been part of other things.
Also, parallel cinema's minute attention to authenticity and detailing in visual, sound, cinematography, art, costume, lighting, character, realistic performance have had a tremendous impact on mainstream cinema. When I first made a period film I knew there was a ``Bhumika'' before me, a benchmark.
K. Balachander: In present day mainstream productions music has taken away the credibility of cinema and the genuineness of the medium. Is music an inevitable evil in Indian cinema? Who is responsible for the extreme use and abuse of music?
In Indian cinema the music comes from the same oral tradition which inspires all our arts. It may seem forced to a Westerner but we have all grown up with it. I don't think we are using or misusing music more than we have done before. I decided that I'd not be ashamed of song sequences but use them to my advantage. I do them to entertain myself as much as the audience. You have to build these sequences into your screenplay, and at a point where it will give you the pause you want, lift a moment or emotion, provide a link or a leap. It's a licence to transcend dramatic logic, use abstraction. Don't you do that in literature? If using songs makes it easier for people to grasp what I'm doing I don't mind using that language. Think of it as a compromise or as a method of communicating.
Sreekar Prasad: When you first came on the scene what you produced was so new that it was really experimental cinema, which was also commercially successful. But now are you taking enough risks to be creative, or do you play it safe? What are your current goals I mean, what next Mr. Mani Ratnam?
(Laughs) At first all you want is to make a film. You have something to say. If it happens to be something new and different, fine. But going to Cannes is not my goal. Commercial success is not a bad word! If I'm dealing with a serious issue I must do it in a language that is understood by the people around me. What I'd like to do whether I'll achieve it or not I don't know is to communicate and still retain sensitivity. Fantastic films are being made in the world. You get inspired and say the limit is THERE! Take two steps in that direction and you are happy. But you want to do that taking the people along with you.
``Iruvar'' was really about idealism when you are young and fresh, you have nothing, and nothing to lose; you get corrupted as you become successful. At some point you switch off and ask, what happened to my idealism? You move on but you have to constantly look back to see where you want to go. Is this the kind of film I want to do? I'm trying to grow. To be very honest with you the film I shot last was as tough to shoot as the first. Then I was struggling to find a way to bring the qualities I appreciated in the films I had seen into my work. I still struggle, I still don't know how to do it, I grope, I try to do it better.
I don't know whether my fear of failure is greater now. I want to ensure we have a chance to make better films. You try something different. It fails. That stops not only you but others too from attempting something different. So what you do has to be positive, push film-making in that direction. If you're making a slightly sensitive film it should bring in more sensitive cinema into the field. I shouldn't close the doors to myself and to others!!
Vairamuthu: What is the role of the lyric in your film?
The lyric need not replicate the emotion or situation. I want it to be a lateral extension, a counterpoint to the visual and dialogue, or an abstract form of what the visual is saying, and vice versa.
Mammootty: In the present day climate of magnifying everything to reach the masses, do you feel you need not just technical excellence but technical terrorism? And can you make a film on violence without showing even a trace of violence?
(Laughing heartily) If you read a book and say the English is good, it doesn't say much about it. Technique is just one element in film-making, along with the screenplay, music, rhythm, symbolism and performance. If the film is interesting enough people forget the technique and watch it. The crucial thing is to create that magic. Avoiding violence is not my objective in making a film. Look at the newspaper or TV, you have violence everywhere, why shy away from it in cinema?
Buddhadeb Dasgupta: Indian cinema has given us great masters. Why did Tamil cinema have to wait so long to get a Mani Ratnam for national recognition? Also, isn't it time to do something more lasting, bring more sensitivity to your images?
National recognition has nothing to do with what we do here but with what people see. The fact that they were not open to seeing ``16 Vayadhinilae'' can't be held against the maker of the film.
It's just that ``Roja'' and ``Bombay'' dealt with issues closer to them ... got translated into Hindi. If I get anywhere near what Mahendran did in ``Udhiri Pookkal'' I'll be a happy man. Sensitive images...? I'm trying...all the time... Let me see if one day...
Adoor Gopalakrishnan: I expect a lot more from you. After all, you got the best performance from Mohanlal to date. What I miss in your films is the feel of something essentially Tamil. Why, when you start off with the real thing, do you get straitjacketed into the routine?
I'm trying to do something better while staying within mainstream cinema, between the two worlds. You ask me why I can't step out and do something different. Maybe I can. I don't know how well I can do it. Some day I'll try. (Reflectively) Coming to think of it I didn't know how well I could handle popular cinema when I started...(chuckling) I still don't know how well I'll do whatever I do next.
Bala: With ``Kannathil Mutthamittal'' for the first time you have made a sincere, honest film. How do you feel when it is rejected by the same masses, which applauded those films in which you had made compromises?
True, ``Kannathil Mutthamittal'' has the least amount of balancing. I thought its emotional track was enough for communication. That doesn't mean there's no honesty behind ``Bombay'' or ``Roja"! Nor do I think this is better cinema because there's less compromise here in your terms. I don't want to do something relevant to our times just to feel I have made good cinema. It's much more satisfying to share that emotion with the common man. If I have not done that very well this time or any other time then I should improve.
Sujata: How do you feel when some films are criticised just because you are Mani Ratnam, without acknowledging their true merits?
When I go to see Balachander's work I have expectations that I wont have with a newcomer. Audiences will have the same attitude when they I come to see my work now. I'm not saying that it is easy to take criticism. The ideal thing is to make your film and get away! But if the critic is knowledgeable and unprejudiced, then it's always an input. With emails and websites the number of critics has grown enormously. Everyone who sees the film can criticise it. You are a lot more accessible now, people can reach you and say you've made an excellent or a terrible film. You learn to cope with both.
Manisha Koirala: How do you work on your characters and their relationships? Where does the sensitivity come from?
You do it in stages, involving the writer, actor, director and editor. The idea of a story comes with a glimpse of the characters. There's more clarity when you write the dialogue. But a character takes shape only with a person performing at a certain space. Ilaiyaraja has the score perfectly conceived it merely needs execution. Rahman has a sketch, he guides performers through it, and gets something extra from them. He treats everyone as an artiste. Creativity can be anywhere in that spectrum. I'm somewhere in between! Sensitivity? If it's not in the seed it can't be in the tree. It's based on your value system, background, the people around you, what moves you in life, literature, cinema... You pick things out of anywhere, unconsciously, it takes a certain form in a particular characterisation.
Karan Johar: I loved ``Dil Se'' immensely but do you think that the language was a deterrent to its commercial success? Would you attempt mainstream Hindi cinema again?
The mistake was in the script, not in the language. It was as easy or as difficult to make that film as any other film. If you don't know the language you trust the actors a bit more... which is probably all for the better. I will definitely make another film in Hindi if I have something, which I think will work well in that language.
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