Mani Ratnam interview: Doing pan-Indian films is not a trap, but a choice

The legendary filmmaker speaks about his upcoming ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2,’ the liberty he took with Kalki’s work, and why he doesn’t like using the term ‘woods’ to denote the multiple Indian film industries

Updated - April 26, 2023 06:26 pm IST

Published - April 26, 2023 02:42 pm IST

Mani Ratnam on the sets of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ 

Mani Ratnam on the sets of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

During the promotions of Ponniyin Selvan 1, Mani Ratnam recalled how his first tryst with Kalki’s novel was from a book borrowed from Gopalapuram’s Easwari Lending Library, which was a childhood favourite haunt of mine. Having grown up patronising the iconic Chennai shop, I begin my conversation with the veteran filmmaker mentioning this.

“I was around 15 years old when I was lent a book from there. The age around when I left school, I suppose,” says Mani Ratnam who, after being in the industry for 40 years, has now come up with his first film sequel with Ponniyin Selvan: 2.

Excerpts from an interview:

Films are mostly watched in theatres by youngsters, but for ‘PS: 1’ there were hordes of families. Do you think it’s possible to have a target audience for a film?

I don’t know if a film can be made targeting a specific type of audience. You go to a dark theatre, watch with the people around you, and all you get is the response. You’re a part of that experience. I don’t think I’ve done any film keeping a particular sector in mind. I feel like I’m making a film for myself as an audience member; I have just tried to capture how I see Ponniyin Selvan.

ALSO READ: ‘Ponniyin Selvan: 1’ movie review: Epic story gets Mani Ratnam’s royal treatment

In a recent press meet, you said Aditha Karikalan is the fulcrum of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ ...

The complete story happens because of Karikalan; his love for Nandini, how she was separated from him, and how she teams up with the Pandyas to take revenge. This is the story of Ponniyin Selvan. Overall, it’s the story of Karikalan and Nandini. Karikalan, in history, was killed. How it could have happened is how Kalki dramatises Ponniyin Selvan.

After the announcement and the release of ‘PS:1,’ there was a lot of fresh interest in Tamil culture/literature among today’s audiences. What do you think about this?

I think we just needed a trigger point to create that spark. Kalki’s novel has always created interest and this film will probably help the current generation reach back. But reaching back to our roots is inborn. It’s important to know where we’re from, what we have achieved, our heritage, literature and music.

Mani Ratnam on the sets of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ 

Mani Ratnam on the sets of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Given that Kalki’s novel is part-fact and part-fiction, did you have the space to take the story in a different direction or did you restrict yourself to only condensing the content into two films?

Those who have read the novels have often read them multiple times despite knowing how the story would unfold. Ponniyin Selvan is not just the plot but also the characters, their adventure and the twists they encounter. Wherever we wanted to make changes, we made them.

You have been vocal about being inspired by Maniam’s illustrations of the Chola dynasty for the film’s look. Given that you also worked with Elango Kumaravel who has staged ‘Ponniyin Selvan,’ were there any inputs from those fronts?

If we take the previous portrayals as a source, we would never get to the root. Temples, sculptures, motifs and paintings came in handy and the Chola period has been documented in detail by several historians. When Kalki wrote the novel, the works of KA Nilakanta Sastri (the well-known historian) were there. Over the years, extensive research has been done and that has given us more details based on which we have set the film. Even now, it can’t be called an exact representation, but we have stayed as realistic as possible.

Be it ‘Thalapathi’ (which was based on the friendship between Mahabharata’s Karna and Duryodhana), ‘Roja’ (Savitri and Satyavan), ‘Raavan’ (The Ramayana) or ‘Chekka Chivantha Vaanam’ (Aurangzeb’s battle for the throne), they all are modern interpretations of yesteryear stories. How different is it do an actual historical epic?

This is the first time I’m completely adapting a book and the first step is deletion. We had to figure out what has to be omitted and what has to be carried forward. We lose certain elements due to deletion and that has to be bridged in a different way. The feel, emotion and character definitions, at times, have to be established in a single scene. In the books, a lot of people talk in detail about the primary characters; for example, everyone calls Kundavai a strategic diplomat and the brain behind Raja Raja Chola’s rule. But when made into a film, this has to be picturised in a manner that makes us, the audience, believe that she’s capable of what they say.

What makes us happy is the fact that the new scenes we created for the film have become one with the original story. Such integrations are many in the film despite not deliberately changing the scenes for the sake of it. Unlike a novel that can be mounted on an extensive canvas, cinema is a compilation of sequences in a certain order narrated within a time frame. So it’s a necessity for the screenplay to make sure the diversions are contained within the story frame.

Unlike ‘PS:1,’ the sequel is expected to put us in the middle of the action from the get-go, and this sort of screenplay is rather new to you. What is the treatment for this?

We wrote it and shot it as a single film. In our country, our films, thanks to the concept of having an interval are already split into two parts. The film reaches a peak before starting another and a sequel is just an extension of that. Idhu oru periya, 6 maasa interval (laughs).

I think the story will dictate how the screenplay can be set and sometimes, going against the grain works. Sometimes thinking outside the box and coming up with something new adds a poetic quality to it. That’s why we also shot the film in one go; apart from not making financial sense to take a break in between, we aren’t working with a new story to worry about the results. The success of Kalki’s work and how it is a part of our everyday life gave us the confidence to finish it in one shot.

The music in ‘PS: 2’ sounds different from what we had in ‘PS:1.’ Musically, were the films treated as two separate entities?

No, we saw it as one seamless story. But as the film progresses, the mood changes and so does the music. It has to complement and supplement the mood and provide an underlying subtext. Similar to your previous question’s answer, the music also has to be treated in a certain manner. What we think is authentic is probably the version we would’ve heard from a 1940s film. But that was a product of the creator’s creativity and not authenticity.

So we were keen on all aspects that there be a contemporary style to it. Be it the way we shot, edited, composed the music, designed the costumes and more importantly, the language, we opted for a realistic and contemporary take. The film should make us feel like we’re in the 10th century, in the middle of a war in the Chola lands. The strategy wasn’t to have grand set pieces and extravagant sequences, but to become a part of it and travel alongside Vandiyadevan.

The last time we spoke with you, you said that you weren’t really a fan of the ‘pan-India’ tag though many directors have called you India’s first pan-Indian filmmaker. What according to you is a film that fits the tag?

We’ve been doing it since Chandralekha (1948), but those film were never called pan-Indian back then. We accepted our films to be this way long ago, while the rest of the north learnt to watch south Indian films, appreciate, encourage and develop them much later. It’s just a part of our growth and it’s healthy to see a film like Kantara, in a regional language, speaking about a regional culture, doing well across the country.

No one is compelling directors or actors to make one kind of film. If we start doing that, it’ll make us stale soon. Doing different cinema rejuvenates us. Doing pan-Indian films is not a trap... but a choice.

Mani Ratnam on the sets of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ 

Mani Ratnam on the sets of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Speaking of being different every time, you have always been unpredictable and have chosen different genres every time. But they almost always have a sense of Mani Ratnam-ness to them with some trademark sequences; how do you see this dichotomy?

I don’t look at it as dichotomy. Cinema is a language which has its own beauty and visual media is a tool to narrate a story. Literature can have a few lines of poetry in between, but it’s not repetition when done in other literary works too. They are used to add accent to a sequence. A mirror is an efficient story-telling tool; we can show introspection, and even question and surprise ourselves. A novel can say what’s running within a character’s mind, but in a film, we have to show it, and a mirror does that well. Similarly, something that has movement or speed — be it horses or a train — adds rhythm, speed and motivation, apart from also pushing the story forward. They are cinematic tools just like wind, rain and sunshine.

In a recent interaction, you were vocal about your dislike towards using the term ‘woods’ to denote our film industries...

Why should we call ourselves a certain ‘wood’? European cinema doesn’t call itself Englishwood or Germanwood (laughs). We shouldn’t imitate them, given how we make the most number of films. We have so many regional cinema industries that all can come under the umbrella called Indian cinema. It’s degrading to bring us down to an imitation.

ALSO READ: Singer KS Chithra interview: ‘Music helped me come out of troubled times’

As a fan of Akira Kurosawa, your films have had inspirations from his, like the war sequence in ‘Thalapathi’s ‘Sundari’ song. Now that you’ve made a film with actual war sequences, can we call the ‘PS’ films an ode to the auteur?

Yeah, I think my love for PS is because I’ve loved Kurosawa’s work. He’s a master who has shown that a period piece can be shot in a realistic manner and not in a sepia tone like a history film. Intentionally or not, I learnt from his films that a period film can be showcased as a story transpiring right in front of our eyes amidst dirt, dust and sweat. Not just in PS, but all my films have his influence.

From a children’s film to an epic historic film, you’ve done it all. Is there something you still want to try?

Of course (laughs)! If you want to do movies, there is so much that’s possible. So many good films are being made now. I think it’s a good time to make good films.

‘Pallavi Anu Pallavi’ came out in 1983, so this year also marks your 40th as a director in which you’re teaming up once again with Kamal Haasan. How do you see the evolution of Tamil cinema from then to now?

It doesn’t really feel like 40 years; it just feels like a couple of years. I know the answer is going to be clichéd, but it still feels like doing your first film every time.

As far as my next film with Kamal is concerned, PS:2 is releasing on April 28 and the work for the new film will commence on April 29. When I start the next film, I don’t know how I’ll do it. Adha eppadi ezhutha porom, eppadi eduka porom, oru idea um illa.

Actor Kamal Haasan and director Mani Ratnam

Actor Kamal Haasan and director Mani Ratnam | Photo Credit: VEDHAN M

So we’ll have to start everything from scratch; that’s the challenge and that’s what excites me. We are on the verge of entering a bigger evolution with technology changing and being able to shoot virtually. But beside all that, the goal is to say a story with an actor who pulls it off convincingly. The evolving technology are tools to which we can adapt and they don’t decide the sculpture. All we need are good stories, actors to put them across and people who want to listen to them. We have got that.

Ponniyin Selvan: 2 releases April 28 in theatres across India

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