Mani Ratnam at 40!

(This article was written for the news portal The News Minute and was carried on the 20th Jan 2023 and can be read here.)

Tamil cinema, for as long as it has existed, has been ruled by its stars. From MGR-Sivaji and Kamal-Rajini to Ajith-Vijay now, stars in pairs have consistently held sway over the Tamil audience and the industry’s market dynamics. But even amid this, once in a while, you see the ascent of a director who makes a mark with his indelible style of filmmaking. In the years of 1960s and 70s, it was CV Sridhar who emerged as the first director whose films were sought after by filmgoers — especially the women. K Balachander would be the next, making his presence felt in the 70s and 80s, followed by Bharathiraja in the 80s and 90s. All of them brought a distinctive and signature flair of filmmaking to Tamil cinema. Then came Mani Ratnam.

If direction originally meant putting together dialogue-heavy melodramatic performances and incorporating song and dance routines into a well-written screenplay, Mani Ratnam changed all that. Cinema is a visual craft, and it required this filmmaker to reaffirm this once and for all. Not only did Mani Ratnam have an ineffaceable style of his own, but he even went on to establish cinema as a director’s medium — where elements like writing, music, performances, cinematography, editing, and so on come together as per the director’s vision.

The Mani Ratnam era, which started way back in January 1983 and is today 40 years old, is still going strong. The history of Tamil cinema can never be written without Mani Ratnam featured as one of its main protagonists. In fact, when most filmmakers in Tamil either came from a theatre background or after assisting other directors, Mani Ratnam — barring his family’s association with film distribution — eased into the scene without such baggage.

A director of a film, in my opinion, is akin to a conductor of an orchestra. A conductor doesn’t play any instrument by herself, but her main role is to bring the written musical score to life. Similarly, a filmmaker’s role is to bring a written script to life on the screen by tapping into the talent of their actors and technical crew. A good director taps into the talent of the team, while a great director stretches its potential to newer heights.

Mani Ratnam’s oeuvre will tell us that he is among those ‘great’ directors. Whether it is PC Sreeram, Santosh Sivan, Rajiv Menon, or now Ravi Varman, their stints as cinematographers in Mani Ratnam films remain high up on the list of their best work. The same is the case with the music of Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman, or with Kamal Haasan and Abhishek Bachchan in terms of acting performances.

One could argue that Mani Ratnam always works with the best in the business, and therefore it is a no-brainer that the output turns out to be excellent. But here’s where the requisites of a good orchestra conductor come into play. Legendary composer Pierre Boulez had this to say of the Berlin Philharmonic: “That’s an orchestra of rampant individuals, who want to feel fully realised. But if the person up on the podium isn’t giving them a collective focus, then they are rudderless and bereft.” Mani Ratnam has been right up on the podium, giving a collective focus to the talented crew members, the result of which we have been seeing in his filmography.

In his very first film Pallavi Anu Pallavi, Mani Ratnam was lucky to work with some of the best in the business. Balu Mahendra as the cinematographer, Ilaiyaraaja as the composer, Lenin as the editor, and Thotta Tharani as the art director is a dream team to have for any debutant filmmaker, that too in his 20s. It is often said that “luck favours the brave”. But in Mani Ratnam’s case, one can conclude that luck also favours the talented, the prepared, the focused, and the instinctive. And these are the attributes that shaped his craft.

If the film Nayagan (1987) is what brought Mani Ratnam to the fore and made him the “Mani Sir” we know him as today, signs of his strengths were visible in his earlier films as well. Even his very first film, Pallavi Anu Pallavi, had dealt with a young man’s sensitive relationship with a lady who is married and separated from her husband, while already being committed to another woman. In the subsequent years in his career, portraying complex relationships sensitively would become Mani Ratnam’s calling card. Incidentally, no other filmmaker has told the story of a relationship between a mother and a little girl with intellectual disability, with as much finesse as Mani Ratnam did in Anjali (1990). Similarly, few filmmakers have portrayed the dynamics between an adopted child and her parents with the sensitivity of a Kannathil Muthamittal (2002), a film I would regard as Mani Ratnam’s best.

Even in Pagal Nilavu (1985), which was just his third film, his command over storytelling was evident in the way the screenplay would seamlessly shift between the stories of four different sets of characters (Murali/Revathi, Sathyaraj, Radhika/Sarath Babu, Goundamani/Isari Velan), while bringing some of them together in between. He would develop this technique later through films such as Iruvar (1997), Aayidha Ezhuthu (2004), and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018).

In Mouna Ragam (1986), which is Mani Ratnam’s fifth film, there is a scene in which the mother tells her daughter to go to the bedroom for the ‘first night’ after marriage. To this, the daughter asks her mother if she would have told her to spend the night with an unknown man two days ago, before the wedding. We knew then that a master storyteller was here.

Mani Ratnam developed a new syntax for filmmaking, where along with powerful storytelling, the depiction of each frame counted. The staging of scenes, framing of visuals, and song choreographies are all by design and never by chance.

When we saw how a young Velu Nayakkar (Kamal Haasan) in Nayagan dealt with the request of a young girl in a brothel to let her study for the next day’s exam, we understood what it meant to ‘stage’ a scene in cinema. In the same film, when we saw the top angle shot of Velu Nayakkar relaxing with his wife and two kids on a bed, and had a premonition of what was coming next, we realised the impact of ‘framing’. When we saw how the song ‘Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu…’ was shot in Thalapathi (1991), we understood what song choreography is and how it can be more than just a filler in a film. Mani Ratnam, the craftsman, had arrived.

The women characters in Mani Ratnam’s films deserve a special mention. Even in terms of their thinking, most of them were ahead of their times. Whether it is Divya in Mouna Raagam, Anjali in Agni Natchathiram (1988), Shakthi in Alaipayuthey (2000), or much later Tara in O Kadhal Kanmani (2015), Mani Ratnam’s women are consistent in the way they assert their agency.

It is not that Mani Ratnam doesn’t have any detractors. Some say that the lighting in his films is too dark, the dialogues are framed in a staccato style, and his settings too urban-centric. These criticisms could be partially true, but are also a bit uncharitable in my opinion. In fact, the idea that his frames are dark-lit got stuck after he and Sreeram used some experimental lighting techniques in Agni Natchathiram. His other films don’t use this technique. Besides, at a time when heavy dialogues defined Tamil cinema, the casual conversational style of characters in Mani Ratnam’s films had actually come as a whiff of fresh air. And yes, his movies have been predominantly set in cities, but it is not that people outside of cities and big towns don’t understand or like his cinema.

If there is one major critique of his films, it is that he doesn’t push the envelope in terms of addressing political conflicts head-on, and is content with telling the story of a relationship while keeping the conflict in the backdrop. Many of his films are set against real political issues such as the Kashmir conflict in Roja (1992), the North East issue in Dil Se (1998), communal strife in Bombay (1995), the Sri Lankan Tamil armed struggle in Kannathil Muthamittal, and so on. In all these films, you can notice that Mani Ratnam uses the conflict only to set the context for the film and shies away from dealing with it. I reckon that this could be a strategy to play safe when crores of rupees are involved in the making of a film, and therefore, he would rather play safe than invite the wrath of a section of the audience.

At some point after the success of Roja, which was well-received even outside Tamil Nadu, Mani Ratnam wanted to make films for the national audience. In that sense, he had already become a ‘pan-Indian’ filmmaker back then. This move, however, didn’t work well for him when films like Dil SeYuva (2004), and Raavan (2010) didn’t fare that well at the box office. One felt that Mani Ratnam conceived those films in Tamil but made them for a Hindi audience, the result being that they worked neither here nor there. But it appears that he soon realised his misstep, and post-Raavan, he was back to making films mainly for the Tamil audience.

The misses in Mani Ratnam’s career have been few and far between. Even in the films that didn’t do well, there could have been issues with the content but his command over the craft was unmissable. His later films such as Kadal (2013) or Kaatru Veliyidai (2017) are examples. With his last outing Ponniyin Selvan – 1 hitting the bull’s eye in terms of critical acclaim as well as box office response, he is firmly back in business as a filmmaker who is still on top of his game. It is therefore that his coming together with Kamal Haasan years after Nayagan, for a film after PS-2, seems to be such an appetising proposition for Tamil cinema.

Cinema is the art of balancing the 3 C’s – content, craft, and commerce. I don’t know of many directors in Indian cinema who have managed this balancing quite well. Mani Ratnam has not only mastered this, but has done it for forty years now with a fourth C — consistency.

Carnatic Music’s “Ageing” Conundrum!

The ‘Season’ has almost drawn to a close in Chennai. Of course, the ‘Season’ here implies the Carnatic music season, also called the December music season or the Margazhi festival. When the Season comes to an end in Chennai, offshoots of the same prop up in other cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, etc… In fact, as I write this, Margazhi Mahotsavam – a mini-Carnatic event is going on in Mumbai, where I live presently.

The last time I attended the Season in Chennai was in 2019. The 2020 Season got marred by Covid.  The Season made a comeback in 2021 and one could almost enjoy the season “online” except for the canteen. So, this year’s festival (2022) is a return to the Season we all know in its full pomp and glory – Full-fledged Kutcheries in sabhas and auditoriums where we can see the artists in flesh, listen to the music in real and of course savour the delicacies in the canteens in person.

I don’t know how the Season went off in Chennai this year. From whatever little I gathered from the media, it seems that the response from the rasikas was quite overwhelming and the Season has been a roaring success.  Yet, I feel that Carnatic music is in the throes of an “Ageing” conundrum which is what I want to talk about in this post.

Are today’s youth attending Carnatic music concerts? I don’t have a conclusive view on this yet but, my question arises from the signals I get while attending concerts. In Mumbai, in the last few years whenever I have attended Carnatic concerts, the audience comprises freshly minted senior citizens mainly, some super senior citizens, a relatively smaller bunch of those in their 50’s, and then kids in their teens who are probably still learning Carnatic music (before the 10th/12th bugs hit them). One can hardly find people on the right side of youth (the 20s/30s) or the wrong side of youth (the 40s).  Even if they are, they will be few and far in between. But you can find these groups in cinema halls, in live music shows and stand-up comedy gigs.

Now, I am not sure if the scene is any different in other cities. When I used to attend the Season in Chennai, the situation was quite similar. Having said that, it is not my case that Carnatic music has no appeal among today’s youth and hence it has no future. In fact, it is the contrary mainly for two reasons.

One, in the last two decades, there has been a huge influx of exciting talent in Carnatic music which is a very encouraging sign. This has completely demolished the arguments of the 80s that Carnatic music faced an existential crisis. Today, Sanjay Subrahmanyan who is only in his mid-50s is looked upon like a veteran a la Dhoni in CSK. That Sanjay keeps evolving himself to be in tune with the rasikas of today and tomorrow with his engagement style is another matter. The Sabha schedule is packed with concerts by those who are in their prime youth. So, it is not that the youth are not taking to Carnatic music.

Two, as I mentioned before, the younger generation of today is taking up learning Carnatic music in a more enthusiastic way than it was in my generation. So, it is not “uncool” anymore to learn Carnatic music. Particularly the NRIs have been trailblazers in this regard with a lot of fresh talent in Carnatic music coming up from among the NRI youth.

It’s clear, therefore, that while Carnatic music is not an anathema for the youth, I find them reluctant to spend time attending typical Carnatic concerts. Therefore, the questions are – what are the reasons for this phenomenon and what can be done to correct the situation?

One of the main reasons I have heard is that Carnatic as a style is too slow and so not so cool to follow. And it is also difficult to appreciate the nuances of the music unless one has some basic knowledge. I agree that there is a need to de-mystify Carnatic music among the masses. Here I find attempts of some of the mainstream Carnatic musicians like Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Sikkil Gurucharan, and Vijay Siva to constantly explain the influences of Carnatic music on film songs in a simple, lucid manner through their YouTube channel, very laudable. This creates interest even among those who don’t know Carnatic music. The availability of social media platforms has also helped them to reach their content widely. Another person who has been putting conscious efforts to de-mystify Carnatic music is Subhasree Thanikachalam. She and her team have been doing these themed concerts where they present a typical Carnatic Kutcheri format but with popular film songs with simple explanations.

Then there is the “Agam Model”Agam is a rock band that came into the scene ten years ago and soon earned the epithet of “Carnatic Progressive Rock”. Today, I find that this band is extremely popular among the youth. In their concerts, Carnatic is nicely blended with metal to give a very high energy and frenzied experience which the youth of today seem to lap up. On stage Agam’s lead singer, Harish Sivaramakrishnan is like the pied piper of yore making the audience sing along to his tunes which are even Carnatic based. I was surprised to see youngsters finishing the lines of popular kritis like Ranga Pura Vihara ( A Muthuswamy Dikshitar Kriti immortalised in our souls by M.S.Subbulakshmi) and Manavyalakinchara (A Tyagaraja Kriti in the mellifluous raga – Nalina Kanti) (Check out the clip here) which are of course the band’s most sought-after numbers. Their rendition of these kritis has garnered huge hits on YouTube as well. I am told that Agam has a cult following among senior citizens as well. So, is creating a Carnatic-based genre where Carnatic vocal is fused with Western music riffs on guitar and western percussion an answer to the conundrum?

I am certain that there is no one answer.  With the advent of technology and with Senior citizens increasingly relishing watching concerts online from the comfort of their homes, soon Carnatic music may be facing the same “Theatres VS OTT” conundrum as the film industry. It is therefore high time that the practitioners of the Carnatic genre gave some thought and find ways and means to get the youth to the Kutcheri halls and solve this “ageing” problem.  In Tamil, one is called a Karnatakam type, if he is old-fashioned. Carnatic music should not slip into that definition if it is not already.

Cartoon courtesy – Keshav from The HIndu

India in 2023: Heads or Tails?

2022 just got over and as I sit to pen this blog on the 1st day of 2023, I am trying to recall the mood that was prevailing at the same time last year.  For all practical purposes, the stand-out sentiment at the beginning of 2022 was that of “Relief and Hope”.  Covid was just receding. Right through the last quarter of 2021, lockdowns were relaxed in the country, festivals were celebrated with gusto and normalcy was returning by and large. Almost the entire country was covered by the vaccination program by December.  There was relief and hope that things in the new year could only get better.

At that time, nobody thought that a war would actually break out and pour water on the collective hopes of the entire world. Russia invaded Ukraine and as we speak, the war is still on.  What was expected as a swift and big recovery of the global economy post-Covid didn’t happen. In today’s situation, a war between two nations doesn’t affect only those two nations. It pilfers to other nations as well, with a result we had the after-effects of the war being felt by nations across the globe.  Inflation has hit never seen high and with the US exporting inflation, the dollar has strengthened against most of the currencies worldwide.  The result was there to be seen in the last three months.  Economic growth has substantially slowed down and the expected post-Covid Uptick has evaporated into thin air. In summary, what was touted to be a year of recovery and swift growth, ended up being one of the worst years for the world. “Permacrisis” – meaning an extended period of instability and insecurity is the term being conferred upon the year 2022. Who would have expected this back then in January 2022?

I am now trying to recall what the mood was at the beginning of the year 2021. Coming at the back of a full year ravaged by Covid and lockdowns, it was expected that with the rollout of vaccination, the ebbing of the virus and countries attaining herd immunity we will soon see the back of the Corona Virus and get back to an Off line living from a completely Online living. However, that was not to be. We soon started facing the virus in its different variants, the effect of which was more lethal. 2021 also continued to be a year of woes except for some improvement in the last quarter of the year. Again, what started as a year where the dark clouds were seen to be disappearing ended up being an extremely challenging year for the world.

With these beginning-of-the-year scenarios of 2021 and 2022 in perspective, I am trying to look around what’s the mood like as we start 2023. The Economist in its 2023 outlook article says that a recession in 2023 is inevitable with the world reeling from shocks in geopolitics, energy and economy. There seems to be no end to the Russia – Ukraine war at this point in time. While other countries have seemingly shrugged off Covid, China is going through one of its biggest Covid waves now. This has once again put global supply chains in a dizzy which is expected to have a telling impact on Manufacturing worldwide. Now, will this wave from China trigger a similar wave in other countries that have all opened up, is the big elephant in the 2023 room! The lingering war and the lingering Covid with their aftereffects are what are keeping global leaders and policymakers anxious and awake as we ring in 2023.

GDP growth projections for most countries, in particular, the developed ones are muted for this year. Among all this bad news, there are bright spots on the horizon. India is expected to be one such. Even in 2022, though we didn’t do as projected at the beginning of the year thanks to the war-induced uncertainties, India came off much better than most other countries. As per World Bank, the Indian economy has shown higher resilience to global shocks of late. Therefore, for India, as per experts, the outlook for 2023 is a mixed bag. It is expected to grow faster than most countries of significance, yet slower than what is expected of it if there are no external headwinds.

2023, therefore, is being ushered in with cautious pessimism, unlike the previous few years. If the previous years proved the pundits wrong about their positive outlooks, can we have the pundits wrong again in 2023? Can the headwinds as we see now, become tailwinds when we close the year?  If the reality tends to be different than what the pundits have forecasted at the beginning of the year, there are reasons for us to be hopeful as far as 2023 is concerned.

For India though, we seem to be in an interesting place. If the trend of pundits getting wrong continues i.e., the global economy gets over its problems and does well, we in India too stand to gain. If the pundits actually get it right, India is expected to be a lone bright star anyway.

We seem to be in a “Heads we win, Tails we win” situation.  On that positive note, here’s wishing all my readers a new year filled with happiness and peace.

Postscript: If you are looking at forecast for investing in the stock market, here’s one from Mark Twain.

“October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February.”

Pic courtesy: avepoint.com

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