Random Thoughts on Conversations with Mani Ratnam

Back in my pre-teen days, I remember catching glimpses of Mouna Ragam, Agni Natchathiram, Roja, and Bombay on TV. This was a time when I didn’t place much importance on wordly things, let alone cinema, kind of like those kids in Anjali. Yet I could sense that there was something in these films, something that made me watch them again and again without making any sense of it all. Later when I entered the latter part of my teens, but still before I was the ardent filmbuff that I consider myself to be now, I saw a couple of movies that knocked the stuffing out of me. They were called Nayagan and Iruvar. The former, I saw at a time when I didn’t even properly understand the language of cinema. But something about it felt so… perfect, for lack of a better word. At the time, I remember thinking how little this feels like a film, and how much as if someone had placed the camera on the streets of Dharavi, Mumbai. It wasn’t until later I came to know that the entire Dharavi sequence was shot on a set erected in Madras by “Thotta” Tharani. I happened to see Iruvar a bit later in my life. I still couldn’t comprehend most of the visual cues/metaphors, but at least I knew enough to recognize why it was so bloody good. But such is cinema. When everything comes together flawlessly, as in the case of these two films, the illusion is maintained. You don’t have to understand anything about cinema to appreciate them.

The reason I bring this up to begin this post is that it touches on something I’ve written about a lot in recent times. That films should work as purely visual experiences first before the analysis for subtext can begin. There has been no other Indian filmmaker who has perfected this art of balancing mainstream expectations and artistic sensibilities better than Mani Ratnam. And although cinema itself is an art form, striking this balance between these two distinct outlooks, especially in Indian cinema, is even more so. There are probably contemporary auteurs who are more heralded than him in filmi circles, as I am sure there are mainstream filmmakers who make better “entertainers”. Unlike many of them, there are only a few people who’ve juggled both facets exquisitely, and Mani Ratnam is probably the only one who’s done it with so much success. That is why he is so heralded in modern Indian cinema. And if you want only one reason to read Conversations with Mani Ratnam, it is the sheer pleasure that can be derived from reading a filmmaker as accomplished as him deconstruct his own films.

Having said that, it would be a cruel disservice to not mention the author of this wonderful book, Baradwaj Rangan, who I’ve been a long-time reader of (dating back to the Easy Journal days). When I was probably less mature than I am now, I’ve often accused him of being too critical on certain films and taking the intellectual high-road when the explanation was much simpler. But as I’ve grown as a cinephile and as a person, I’ve realized that this has nothing to do with his approach to film-viewing or film criticism and everything to with my expectations that his reviews should match my opinions, which was obviously never going to be the case. But whether I’ve agreed or disagreed with him, whether I’ve cursed or celebrated his reviews, I’ve never been able to not read them. They’re wonderfully written, articulate pieces in a day and age where film criticism is dying, or rather dead, in India, replaced with fluff pieces with star ratings intended to draw viewers and boost site hits. (His steadfast refusal to attach star ratings to his reviews and come up with meaningless Top 10 lists is commendable.) And one of the other joys of reading Conversations with Mani Ratnam is that the interviewer is himself an ardent fan of the filmmaker. (In his own words, to quote a line from the book that captures his admiration for Ratnam, “I was a devotee standing on one leg on an anthill, and here was God before me bestowing the rarest of boons.”) And although Baradwaj Rangan is peerless in his knowledge of cinema, the above places him firmly on “our” side of the fence, someone who has grown up with this filmmaker and someone for whom this is as much an intensely personal experience as it is a professional one.

This marriage of one of my favorite filmmakers with one of my favorite critics was probably the singular reason I picked up this book, and one of the things that drew me to it was the conversational style. (Special mention to the publishers for making this book easily accessible via a dreadfully cheap Kindle Edition.) I was extremely interested in reading the dynamics of these conversations. (Written words can never convey the emotions attached to them. That is one of the reasons why the Internet has been screaming out for a sarcasm font.) In the initial phases, Rangan poses straightforward questions to which Mani provides straightforward answers. There’s a distinctly professional vibe attached to them. But as we proceed into the book, the conversations become much more relaxed, and Ratnam begins to share a lot more of his personal experiences. For instance, Ratnam’s explanation when asked why he chose to have the two little girls sing a song for their father in Guru is very touching, poignant even. And to cite another example, when discussing Aayidha Ezhuthu/Yuva, Mani answers a question which doesn’t seem straightforward at all, and Rangan says, “This is Mani Ratnam BA, BL. You have this amazing ability to argue your way out of every corner.” Mani responds, “Hah! Was I in a corner?” That elicited a smile out of me. Suddenly, it felt as if the conversations weren’t really professional anymore. And those aren’t the only two instances as well. The book is filled with such gems that even without there being the larger discussions about Ratnam’s corpus, I would’ve been delighted to read it. But the discussions on his films are the book’s major component, and in this regard, there are two extremely important filmmaking concepts I took away from it.

One of the topics that is often discussed concerns Ratnam’s usage of song sequences and, on a tangential note, the interval concept in Indian cinema. I’ve often classified Indian filmmakers into two kinds. The new age who renounce Indian traditions and give-in to the practices of the West by completely forgoing song sequences, and the older age who use songs primarily to provide bathroom breaks and to rake in the moolah through a separate album. Ratnam, on the other hand, considers songs an integral part of his narrative. He repeatedly mentions that songs, to him, represent mini-movies in themselves, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. He employs songs not because he needs to or has to but because he wants to. He sees them as devices that challenge him, that he has to give thought to in terms of their placement in his scripts. And this is the same logic he applies to the interval concept as well. He says that he has to build up narrative momentum and finish on a high with the interval before repeating the same process all over for the second half leading up to the climax. This sort of thought-process was enlightening. Here I was thinking that songs and intervals were thought of as hindrances to Indian cinema while Mani Ratnam considers themselves fundamental to his films at the script stage itself. It also reaffirmed my thinking that Ratnam is one of the last quintessential Indian filmmakers. Someone who makes Indian films for Indian audiences and renounces the practices of the West.

Ratnam’s insights into what he considers the role of a film director to be are also fascinating. In the Introduction, Rangan says that while discussing one film, Ratnam agreed that a better cast might’ve elevated the film. But he then asked this portion to be removed since it was his fault they hadn’t done well. It was his duty to extract the best from his actors. As audiences, we’re often prone to pin the blame on actors, sometimes deservedly so, but even a cursory glance at Ratnam’s films will underline the importance of the director. (Madhavan, Surya, Arvind Swamy, Abhishek Bachchan are all examples of actors who’ve reserved their best for Ratnam.) He applies the same rule to each of his collaborators. He says that his duty is simply to extract the best from them, be it a cinematographer, a choreographer, a lyricist, or a musician, seeing as he is the only person who truly understands the script and the kind of film he is taking. Even when working with a titan like Kamal Haasan, he maintains that it is his duty to extract the best from him. In a sense, and bear with me my diversion into the IT world, Ratnam had almost twisted the role of a filmmaker into one not too dissimilar to that of a project manager in IT firms.

But most of all, what I enjoyed about the book was how much it revealed about Mani Ratnam even when the discussions were always rooted in cinema. I was thrilled to know that he’s a sports-buff like myself. His constant usage of Tennis, sometimes Cricket as well, analogies was delightful, something which probably only sports-buffs can appreciate. His minor revelations about his wife’s inputs into his works were astonishing, at least to someone like me who’s never held Suhasini in high regard. And sometimes his insights into how he views the world were also captivating. When quizzed about the level of inquiry into the female psyche in Mouna Ragam, Ratnam explains, “We educate these girls, expose them to the world, and yet, we expect them to toe the line in this matter [meaning sex].” I enjoyed this in particular because I happened to share the same beliefs. (My admiration for Mani Ratnam as a person has increased tremendously after having read the book.) These little nuggets of information round out a book which is otherwise pretty comprehensive in its deconstruction of Ratnam’s films. Now can we please have Conversations with Kamal Haasan by Baradwaj Rangan.

Citations

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