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.

Ilayaraja 1000!!!

Boxing a tribute for a man who just completed a journey of 1000 films as a music composer in my usual limit of 1000 words is going to be tough. Even tougher is going to be the task of choosing from his expansive body of work for driving home a point. So it is with much trepidation, I sit to pen this tribute to the Maestro Ilayaraja, – as per me the best “all around” Indian composer of film music of our times on his 1000th film as a music director. The film Thaarai Thappattai (names of folk percussion instruments) and its maker Bala are indeed lucky to be a part of this milestone.

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For those in their 40’s and 50’s and who grew up in the south of Vindhyas and Tamil Nadu in particular, Ilayaraja (Raja from now on) would have been a fellow traveller in life with his music. Tamil Film music has 2 eras – one before Raja and the other after. For the very discerning and ever critical ears in South India inspite of Raja making waves early, I would say he was on “probation” probably till his 100th film – Moodu Pani.  That was a good 5 years since he made his debut in Annakili. Till then, there was a feeling that though he was good, he was repetitive and can’t see beyond Tharai Thappattai – folk style I mean. But ever since this landmark of 100 films I must say there was no looking back. And as we stepped into the 80’s Raja with his music was like “Narasimha Avatar” – Omnipresent. Thoonilum Irunthar, Thurumbilum Irunthar!!!

Honest Disclosure. I am an unapologetic admirer of Raja’s work. A lot has been said and written about his modest upbringing, his travails as a struggler in Madras,..,… and how he became what he is today. So not going to dwell on those. This piece is entirely going to be on my connection with Raja and his work.

For me the tipping point was Raja’s music in Bharathiraja’s Nizhalgal.  In a middle class household with just a radio to define the entertainment quotient, my first brush with Raja was the Sunday afternoon programme in Trichy AIR called Neengal Kettavai where the top 10 songs of that time were played. I remember many weeks when the entire 10 songs were of Raja’s. Then gradually technology presented many options to be in touch with Raja.  From his initial style of churning rustic tunes and melodies, gradually his repertoire extended to Western Classical melodies, tunes laced with Carnatic scales and other contemporary stuff.

I started this intended hagiography like piece on Raja by saying that he is the best “All around” music composer of our times. His music was melodious at times, haunting at times, chirpy at times, romantic at times, melancholic at times. I am now at a loss of better adjectives. Enough to say that his music went beyond just great songs. Many aspects of his work prove this beyond doubt.

  • Like there is no other composer who can “Value add” to a song situation better than Raja. There are examples galore:
    • In this song from the film Nayagan, the situation is of a duet between the hero and the heroine in happy times. Generally speaking any plain vanilla melodious tune would have done the job. But Raja comes with this peach of a melody – Nee Oru Kaadhal Sangeetham,..(listen here) which conveys the joyous mood between the lovers but with a subtle trepidation. The song moves you to no end and grows on you. Amazing stuff!
    • Another example is this song from Punnagai Mannan. The film opens with this situation I think. 2 Lovers try to spend “quality time” together in a forest kind setting before they call it “Quits” forever. The song is supposed to walk us through this rather traumatic situation. Raja lifts the song situation few notches above with this layered piece Enna satham inda neram,…(listen here)
    • Now look at the very many melodies he churned for plain vanilla duet situations which according to me are equally masterclass – Thendral vanthu ennai thodum,.. or for that matter Vaa Vaa Vaa Kanna Vaa for example.
  • Like Raja’s knack of weaving the story line in the songs. In a sense using the songs to convey a sense of foreboding.
    • If you listen to this song from Moondram PiraiKanne Kalaimane,…. A lullaby song which could have been just that. But Raja (combined with the words of another genius poet Kannadasan) weave a kind of pathos into the lullaby situation and prepare us for what would be coming.
  • Like using a song as a theme in the Background score. Raja is a trail blazer in this.
    • Best example being Then Paandi Seemaiyile,… in Nayagan
    • Another song is Poongaatru thirumbuma, from Mudhal Mariyaadhai.
      • As the film traverses from good times to sad times the mood of the theme song changes.
    • Like being spot on in the choice of singers to suit a particular actor/character/mood.
      • Though those days the choice was limited for singers unlike these days of “Super singers emerging from reality shows” – Raja was canny in his choice. So while he went mostly with SPB/Yesudas for Kamal, It was always SPB for Mohan. And as Rajinikanth transformed from being a villain to an anti – hero to a superstar – Raja also moved from Malaysia Vasudevan to SPB. And he sang himself for the rustic Ramarajan and the likes!
      • When the mood is of sensuousness his call was to Janaki for the female voice. In Idhayathai thirudathey while most of the songs are sung by Chitra the one song (Om Namaha,…) which is a very romantic sensuous number he went with Janaki. By the way this song is another testimony to Point 1 as above.
    • Like Raja being the best in business in India as far as Back ground score is concerned. Apart from his songs, his background score elevates the movie to a different level. I have seen this in many films. But the following examples sort of seal the point.
      • Film is Maniratnam’s Thalapathy. Rajinikanth, Mammooty, Nagesh, Kitty and Arvind Swamy are engaged in a heated argument in Arvind Swamy’s office. Watch this clip. And watch how Raja’s BGM at the end of the scene lifts the drama element of the scene. Best part is for most part of the scene there is no BGM but the timely intervention is what makes it brilliant. This is just pure brilliance.
      • In this very heart rending scene in Kamal’s Apoorva Sagotharargal – it is interesting to see how Raja value adds with his BGM.
      • The Background score in Bhagyaraj’s film – Vidiyum Varai Kaathiru is a case in point where the BGM keeps you on the edge of the seat.
      • Even in his latest outing Tharai Thappattai his BGM is haunting and at the same time outstanding. Watch this.
    • Like without making it obvious, using classical ragas in many of his songs with small tinkering in the scale.

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OK, No more – Mani!!!

My first reaction after watching Maniratnam’s latest outing OK Kanmani was “Man, Mani should now call it a day”!!! Okay_Kanmani_film_poster

After feeling disappointed the last few times over (Guru, Raavan, Kadal), it was with much trepidation that I ventured to watch what was Mani’s 21st film without even bothering to look at reviews. Ofcourse the teasers and trailers communicated loudly that Mani was in his familiar territory. Youth, Urban, Romance, Rebel,…,… Like somebody said there was virtually a sympathy wave this time around for Mani and more than himself, his fans wanted this movie to work. And there are enough reasons for this kind of sympathy and empathy.

After all, in Tamil cinema which is usually driven by the “Star Mania” (Puratchi thalaivar of yore to Thala of today not to forget the Nadigar Thilagam, Super Star, Ulaga Nayagan, Ilaya Thalapathy in between) – there has been little scope for a Director to make his mark and make people throng the theatres just for his direction. Maniratnam did that. Again and again for a long time. Up until recently. Not that he was the 1st to do so. From Bhim Singh to Sridhar to Balachandar to Bharathiraja and briefly Bhakiaraj all of them did exactly that. But what made Maniratnam stand apart from others was he removed “Drama” from Tamil films and that was a welcome change. Rooted in “casualism”, his movies shunned lengthy dialogues, over the top acting/overacting, emotional hathyachaars,… in short what I call as “Drama”. And brought in an overdose of cool quotient –female leads with a rebellious streak, Staccato dialogues, matter of fact acting and ofcourse with a lot of emphasis on the technique (Cinematography, Storytelling style, Background score, Music, Sound engineering, Song picturisation,…) And appealed to the Nextgen. Having said that, he was careful not to tread the path of an Adoor Gopalakrishnan (the ace Malayalam Film maker whose movies were rooted in realism – so rooted that they failed to break into the mainstream mould and remained favourites of film festival hoppers). Mani was smart to remain mainstream while pursuing an alternate film making path for himself.

It was about 3 decades ago when we were in our 2nd year Engineering that Mani’s 4th film (Mani was just another upstart director then and not the Mani Sir) Mauna Ragam silently got released. Those were days when we use to watch almost every film to hit the theatres for want of alternate source of entertainment. When we came out of the single screen theatre after watching Mauna Ragam, our usual group which usually get into slicing and dicing any movie on our return to the hostel for few hours, this time was silent. Silenced and stunned by an all new freshness hitherto unseen in Tamil movies. So much so we hit the theatre to watch the movie the second time soon. And then the analysis of the film followed for few days over. The lines Revathi (main female lead) speaks to her mom after marriage just before the 1st night were the kind unheard of in Tamil cinema before. Karthik’s characterisation in a cameo role made boys wonder why they are not like him. And I came across a MBA HR Manager (Mohan – the male lead) for the 1st time in a Tamil film 🙂 🙂

After Mouna Ragam, when Nayagan hit the screens, Maniratnam had arrived and there was no looking back since. I can devote an entire post on Nayagan which I will keep it for another pertinent occasion. For now I will just leave it with – “In Tamil cinema there was an era before Nayagan and one post that”!

In an interview when somebody asked him as to what was the secret behind his films’ connect with the audience – Mani said that all his films are about relationships which people relate to. And generally not from out of the world.  But when I look at his body of work, there are 2 types. One set of films just about relationships (Mauna Ragam, Agni Natchathiram, Idayathai Thirudathe, Anjali, Alai Payuthey and lately OK Kanmani) and the second set is about relationships but in a political/current affairs/worldly backdrop – Nayagan (Bombay Tamils), Roja (Kashmir issue), Bombay (Post Ayodhya riots), Dil Se (NE turmoil), Kannathil Muthamittal (Srilankan strife), Aayutha Ezhuthu  (Student politics), Raavan (Maoist problem),…  He has appealed to us and made a success of both the genres by and large. But what comes naturally to him I guess is when he talks to us in an Agni Natchithiram or an Alai Payuthey lingo.

Frankly when I saw Roja way back in 1992, I was a tad disappointed. First of all I couldn’t accept that Mani can do a film and make a good one at that without Ilayaraja and P.C.Sreeram. And then a Mani film with a serious issue like Kashmir strife as a template was something unimaginable and not expected. But gradually the film grew on you. (So did Rahman’s music). And when the dubbed version of Roja got a wide appreciation in Hindi, I guess Mani’s ambitions took wings. Then after he started writing Tamil films but for a national audience.  So a sense of indulgence started creeping in as it does for most creators who initially create work without any burden of expectations and then have to, to live upto their own reputation.

Even at that stage I thought he was still making brilliant films. I for one still couldn’t understand why a Dil Se flopped (perhaps for the contrived climax I later concluded). But with Alaipayuthey in 2000, he went back to his original style- a film about relationships without any forced backdrop. And just for the Tamil audience. And about Urban youth. And with P.C.Sriram. And just when we were relieved, Mani Sir went back to his second type with a series of films like Kannathil Muthamittal, Aayutha Ezhuthu, Guru and Raavan. I liked KM and AE but only in parts. I forced myself into liking Guru though not fully convinced. I gave Raavan and Kadal a miss after not so charitable reviews. But quite obviously they were disappointing and couldn’t help questioning Mani’s sync with the times.

And then OK Kanmani happened. The urban coolness is back. Staccato lines are back. The rebellious streak is back. And P.C.Sreeram is back. The relief in us is back. Mani is back 🙂 🙂 🙂

And that’s precisely why I feel that he should now call it a day. After all it’s better to sign off on a high and not after he is forced to, post a string of flops trying to explore relationships with Nepal earthquake some ISIS territory as backdrops 😦 😦

It’s not my contention that Mani should stop experimenting and keep making Agni Natchithiram/Alaipayuthey/OK Kanmani type films for ever. I am sure he has still within him for a few more movies and good ones in that. Just that anxiety as an admirer of Mani’s craft that his upcoming movies mustn’t fail and he mustn’t fall from that high pedestal he is positioned himself in.

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Postscript: No, as an afterthought, maybe he should do one more film. With Ilayaraja and Rahman to do the Music honours in a co-operative effort. That will be path breaking and be in sync with Mani’s credentials😜 😜