(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 Se, Yuva (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.