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Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 11/1/92 2:58 PM

Feature: Mani Ratnam, profiled

The friendly neighbourhood storyteller

A fat golden orb shoots up from behind some riverside reeds. The first piercing notes of a mellifluous flute rises, in tandem with the sun. Then, there follows a series of images…click, click, click, each one breathtaking in visual simplicity, a collage tracing the life and times of a village belle. 

And the audience is hooked, irretrievably hooked to the storyline, hooked onto the pleasure of drinking in the visuals unfolding on the big screen. The Master has landed his school of fish….

Mani Ratnam, maker of ten noteworthy films in as many years, has built up an awesome reputation as  story-teller par excellence. Coming up in the rear of the four Bs who held Tamil cinema in a firm grip, Ratnam has quietly, steadily overtaken them, film by film, and now, his lead is a clearly delineated one.

Balachander, Bhagyaraj, Bharatiraja, and Balu Mahendra were the directors who infused fresh blood into the lacklustre ghetto of Tamil cinema.

Balachander, the story-screenplay man, showed a competence in language rarely paralleled in Tamil cinema till then.

Bhagyaraj, the man for all innuendos, gave to the people themes totally plebeian in character, films peopled by Every Tamilman, earthy heroines and salty dialogues to be lustily cheered at.

Bharatiraja, the song-sequences man, revolutionised the picturisation of songs with his quick-repeat cuts, his visuals that were deliberate counterpoint to the lyrics.

Balu Mahendra, the ideas man, the closest forerunner to Mani Ratnam in style, made films that had an easily identifiable feel to them, off-beat themes backed by stunning cinematography.

And then came Mani Ratnam. The man took commercially appealing themes, injected them with doses of creative innovation and presented them to the public with considerable panache. A director involved in all aspects of film-making, the uniformity of quality in his films quickly became his cast iron selling point.

Like quite a few famous directors, Ratnam made a few forgettable films like Unnuru (Malayalam) Pagalnilavu, Ede koyil. Filmgoers who have seen these early works, which include Pallavi Anu Pallavi
(Kannada) his first film, will, however testify to the delicate vein of sensibility  that ran through them, and the potential that shone through. This was talent still in embryo.

But not for long. Ratnam established his style with a quiet film called Mouna Ragam and from then on, there was no looking back. Mouna Ragam was not really the archetypal commercial story, dealing as it did with a heroine already involved with another man, a hero restrained enough to be almost self-effacing, a film devoid of all the customary thrills and chills found in Tamil movies of the time.

On the plus side, Ratnam wrung intense performances from all his three lead actors, Revathi, Mohan and Karthik. PC Sriram did his bit with some evocative cinematography, subdued, beautifully back-lit at times. The total effect was that of a wholly natural if urbanised film.

And another combination came into being, the Mani Ratnam- ThotaTharani one. With such an accomplished artist providing meticulously crafted, inspired set details, Ratnam had hit on another
mother lode. Ilayaraja contributed some soulful tunes. Mouna Ragam clicked. And Mani Ratnam was on his way.

Ratnam’s next film, Nayagan, was landmark cinema. Garnering awards and accolades galore, Nayagan, allegedly based on the life and times of the notorious Varadarajan Mudaliar, owed something to the Robin Hood legend and much to Coppola’s The Godfather. Thota Tharani’s recreation of a Bombay slum was a feat worthy of a City of Joy. Kamalahasan gave a luminous performance as the don, capably supported by all of the cast.

Nayagan was out and out a potboiler with all the necessary ingredients: bone-crunching violence, suspense, a lusty cabaret number aboard a vessel at sea, et al. Yet, the film was technically brilliant and tightly edited by VT Vijayan and B Lenin. Even as it contained a flawed concept, romanticising the life of a criminal, Nayagan transcended its genre. Mani Ratnam was now a name to reckon with.

Where could he go from here? He went on to make Agni Natchatiram. Blessed with a crisp storyline, Agni Natchatiram’s song sequences were filmed in a truly spectacular style. The song Raja, rajathi raja, shot on a railway platform, looked to have come straight out of MTV. The climax of the film, with its series of strobe-lit scenes (some marvellous editing here) was indeed ‘different’; the audiences loved it. Gimmickry, yes, but it worked.

However, with this film, cinematographer PC Sriram crossed the Rubicon, from well-lit frames to excessive backlighting that more or less negated its intended impact. For an audience to strain hard
to see what was happening on screen, showed bad strategy on the part of the director.

Next was  a Telugu film called Gitanjali that was pure poetry in celluloid form. Another hit for Ratnam, who looked set to upset the law of averages. Gitanjali clicked, despite a wafer-thin plot, arguably the weakest in the Ratnam line-up so far.

The inimitable Ilayaraja’s stupendous score, extremely stylized, fluid camerawork with much use made of slow motion imagery (those unforgettable shots of the mist swirling like a live entity)… Mani Ratnam’s treatment of Gitanjali was nicely done, indeed.

By now, the team – PC, Ratnam, Tharani, Lenin, Vijayan, Ilayaraja- looked invincible, indispensable. In the case of PC, it seemed as if he was now a marketable commodity, solely on his own. Softly-lit faces, gleaming brass pots backlit to effect, the delicate play between light and shadow, tight close-ups… were these the typical touches of a Mani Ratnam or a PC Sriram?

If this had really become a Bergman- Nyquist dilemma, Ratnam solved it with his next film, Anjali. Anjali established beyond doubt that it is Ratnam’s superb sense of cinema that makes his films
what they are. Anjali’s touching storyline, that of the coming of a spastic child into a ‘normal’ family, was given that all-important shot-in-the-arm by what is almost an impossibility in commercial cinema — utterly enchanting, spontaneous performances by a pack of children. Not once did the kids spout philosophy or act stagey, not once did their actions jar. So, even if many felt Anjali merely skimmed the surface of the spastic problem, had an overly melodramatic end, featured a song sequence that was a straight lift from Spielberg’s ET, it became a movie that adults enjoyed as much as children.

The biggest flaw here was the camera work. Madhu Ambat, a truly gifted cinematographer in his own right, tailored his style to suit the Ratnam specification, resulting in three-fourths of the film being appallingly poorly lit. ThotaTharani, though, did a marvellous job with his celebrated sets and on the whole, Anjali had the feel of a Mani Ratnam piece.

Ratnam’s next film, Thalapathy, had massive pre-release publicity, not surprising, given the fact that megastar Rajnikant was starring in it. Shot on an unprecedented scale, it was taken for granted that the film was going to be a smash hit. Hit it was, but it did not really set the box-office alight.

Santosh Sivan took over the camera from Ambat, Suresh Urs took over at the editing table and Ilayaraja and Tharani carried on. Thalapathy, indubitably, was the stuff commercial masala thrillers were made of and Ratnam culled good performances from all of his high-powered cast: Rajnikant, Mammooty, Geeta, Shobhana, Amrish Puri, Bhanupriya. His coup, however, was reigning in Rajni’s tendency to ham.

Yet, in places, it seemed as if Mani Ratnam was running out of ideas. Thalapathy had scenes reminiscent of Nayagan, the film was loosely structured, editing was by no means taut, and at times, the audience did the hitherto unthinkable in a Mani Ratnam film… they fidgeted! Santosh Sivan was a real find, though. His adept use of the camera (the enhance- never-supercede theory), coupled with Thota Tharani’s imaginative use of colours,  saved the movie from sinking.

Mani Ratnam went on to Kashmir, next. Or at least, Kulu Manali, in an attempt to bring some idea of the Kashmir imbroglio into the consciousness  of people far removed from those snowy vales. As with Anjali, Roja was a ‘different’ theme, but kept to small-scale proportions and handled expertly. The film was shot beautifully, and once again, effective performances were sought and gained from actress Madhu and new face Arvind Swamy.

Roja’s theme was terrorism but cloaked in romance, and Ratnam showed that the most esoteric concept can be adapted and communicated well. The movie had an innovative score, with young AR Rahman making a promising debut as Music Director. The foot-tapping beat, the backdrop of waterfalls, a chorus of feisty paatis swivelling their ample hips, all went to make the song Rukmani, Rukmani a cinematic treat.

To paraphrase Arthur Penn’s words, Mani Ratnam is never in any doubt as to where to place his camera. He is also able to harness talent well, be it from cast or technical crew. But in the final analysis, the man’s greatest asset is that he tells a story absorbingly and convincingly. Indian commercial cinema depends primarily on its narrative strength, and Ratnam is one filmmaker who has recognised that precept and plumbed the depths of its implications and potential.

His films have that rare combination of emotional impact and technical virtuosity. They are films that are made for the masses but with finesse and style.

The scene is of a small temple by a railway track. A woman stands at prayer. To some distance behind her, stands a younger man. Suddenly, the shrill whistle of a passing train is heard. Stricken, the woman turns to stare at the train, remembering how she abandoned her baby in a goods wagon. Stricken, the man turns, remembering his bleak beginnings in a goods wagon. 

Their eyes meet, both turn away, embarrassed at letting a stranger see one’s emotional distress.

The people in the darkened movie theatre look from one to another, knowing what the two on screen do not know yet. The enchanted audience lets out a sigh…

It’s the same old story, told differently. The master storyteller has woven his magic, once again.

This article was written in 1992. Ten years and quite a few more movies later, Mani Ratnam received the Padma Shri. 


Agni Natchatiram’AnjaliBalachanderBalu MahendraBhagyarajBharatirajaearly films of Mani RatnamFeatureFeaturesGitanjaliMani RatnamMouna RagamNayaganPC SriramRojaTamil cinemaThalapathy

Sheila Kumar • November 1, 1992

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