CRAFT ON CELLULOID Magazine

Up close and personal with Mani Ratnam

Indian director Mani Ratnam arrives for the world premiere of the Bollywood film 'Raavan' at the BFI in London, June 16, 2010. REUTERS/Paul Hackett (BRITAIN - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY)   | Photo Credit: PAUL HACKETT

With his grey hair, rimmed eye-glasses and gentle smile, Mani Ratnam is an unlikely global rock star. Yet, rock star he was when the prestigious Museum of the Moving Image in New York screened the film series, “Politics as Spectacle: The Films of Mani Ratnam” — Roja, Bombay and Dil Se, three films from his stormy, much loved oeuvre. The screenings took place from July 29 to August 2, and the reception with Ratnam was on the last day.

Christina Marouda, Director of Development at the museum, and founder of the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, said, “We are marking the first year of our community engagement initiative and wanted to highlight the work of a legendary Indian film director and obviously the first name which came to mind was Mani Ratnam.”

The festivities started with a reception at the Indian Consulate, followed by screenings at the museum and insightful discussions with film scholar Richard Peña, Director Emeritus, New York Film Festival, and Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University. Each night of the screenings, over 300 diehard fans turned up, many having driven there from different states, and largely Tamil-speaking. Ratnam was mobbed by fans, many of whom were probably not even born when he began his career. There’s also a large following of American fans who are discovering Tamil and Hindi films through subtitles.

Ratnam, accompanied by wife Suhasini, was serenaded by vibrant young musicians including the all-female Navatman vocalists who performed a lively tribute of songs from his movies, and the Arun Ramamurthy Trio. Feasting on kathi rolls and samosas, fortified by champagne and sparkling wine, the fans were elated to be in the same space as the much revered film-maker. Some wanted selfies, others wanted autographs, and others still wanted to just see him. One American fan had also brought in her doctoral thesis on Partition to seek his blessings.

Much later after the screenings, at a ‘Q and A’ with the audience, one young man got up to decipher his name — “‘Mani’ means gem and ‘Ratnam’ means gem of gems. ‘Mani’ also means noisy.” Ratnam laughed, “Well, that means a noisy gem of gems!”

Indeed, all his films have always generated talk — strong emotions, angst, discussion — and change too. His three films are love stories but churning with a volcanic mix of hate, despair, alienation, all colliding with the higher sentiments of love, patriotism and humanity. His strength is that these are never didactic messages but truths riding on the wings of music, poetry and visual beauty.

What one loves about the protagonists in Ratnam’s films is that they really are characters — imperfect human beings. For instance, the villagers in Roja are real people — old and toothless, young and vibrant, acidic and salty. When they start dancing together in a very organic way, it is natural, sensual in a real life sense; Bollywood beauty and perfection have no reflection. This is guttural, real in a way that an item number can never be.

When I met Ratnam for a one-on-one interview, it seemed a bit awe-aspiring that these cinematic forces of nature were all the work of this quiet, unassuming man who is quick to smile and acknowledge everyone, quick to pass you a bottle of water in the summer heat even before he takes one.

So where did it all begin?

He grew up in a conventional, middle-class family where many things were not allowed, such as watching a lot of cinema, even though his father was in film distribution. They were a family of 10 in Chennai, and Ratnam ruefully recalls: “Sometimes in a large family, you get taken to a movie and there just isn’t enough space or not enough tickets and you get left out. Those are the movies you remember because you never got to see them!”

After his MBA, Ratnam took a sabbatical from consultancy work and got into film production. The rest is history and his powerful films have not only been entertaining audiences but also making them think about issues through the heartfelt lives of a few characters and their interactions.



Indian cinema will continue to grow... Films will break barriers, and good films will travel all over India.





Roja, Bombay and Dil Se weren’t planned as political films,” says the director. “It was a phase India was going through and these things affected me and found their way into my work. It was anguish, it was a cry. One is not too sure whether to be happy or to be sad that these films are relevant even today — one wishes these troubles were a thing of the past.”

In Ratnam’s films, music is yet another character, powerful, insistent, almost obstructionist; the lyrics often saying the opposite of what’s happening on the screen, adding another layer, another set of emotions to the story. It is a part of the pulse, a part of the heartbeat of the film, dissolving seamlessly into the story. Ratnam had a long partnership with musician A.R. Rahman who has created the music for all the films since Roja. He says, “He’s a very director-friendly composer — it’s like having a fellow story teller with you. Both of us like to experiment. We work well because we still treat every film as our first film.”

Ratnam believes that language is not a barrier to creating or appreciating good cinema. He recalls that his first film, Pallavi Anu Pallavi, was in Kannada which is not his language. “I learned it on the job and made the film,” he says. “Language is not really so much of a barrier nor are details of a culture which you can learn as you go, but what you’re trying to say is the most important thing.”

He is impressed with the calibre of Hindi as well as regional films being made today and also the advent of young fearless directors who are making niche films which are often commercially successful. He says, “Indian cinema will continue to grow, I am very sure. Films will break barriers — and good films will travel all over India.”

Finally, asked by a young filmgoer in the audience on whether he felt a responsibility to create socially relevant films with a message, Ratnam responded, “I think cinema does not carry undue extra responsibility just because it is cinema. The way I look at it is that I’m not a schoolteacher. I’m not here to tell you this is right and that is wrong. I’m here to share my pain, my joy, my agony, my questions which I don’t have answers for.”

The audience gave Mani Ratnam a standing ovation for he indeed shared his pain and his joy with them. His films, with their fallible characters, their struggles and their triumphs, reflect our common humanity. They are the gifts that keep on giving, even three decades later.

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist, and blogs at Lassi with Lavina.


Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 1:33:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/up-close-and-personal-with-mani-ratnam/article7684784.ece

Next Story