Spotlight: Mani Ratnam

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In one of his interviews, when Mani Ratnam was asked which his favorite among all his movies was, he replied, “None, probably the next one”.

MANI RATNAM. One name, so much associated with it. I’m not sure where to begin. A thousand thoughts swarm my mind. The man needs no introduction but undoubtedly, his cinematic brilliance will be a subject of conversation for many years to come.

A director every artist dreams of working with. A man who without apprehension transformed South Indian cinema. The man who gave Indian cinema an element & an identity, which fairly astonishes global audiences. A man who ventured into the darkest subjects attempting plots which others feared implausible. The man is Mani Ratnam – reserved, gifted, audacious and a sheer genius.

The journey – Mani Ratnam is evidently one of the most eminent directors in India today and much respected as well. In his two decades of contribution to Indian Cinema, he has managed to establish outstanding credentials as a director and producer, as well as a writer. Yet it is overwhelming to think that there was a moment when all this would have not been possible.

The beginning – Cinema ran in his blood owing to producer Father Venus Gopalratnam and Brother G.Venkateswaran, film distributor turned producer. Yet, armed with a business degree from Mumbai, he began working as a management consultant. One random day, because of his passion for watching movies, he got interested in how movies are made and in all the processes involved in filmmaking. This curiosity led him to becoming a film director. That was all. No apprentice, no internship, no degree in filmmaking and no experience in the field. His enthusiasm for films persuaded cinematographer Balu Mahendra to consent him a chance to don the director’s hat.
Mani Ratnam’s directorial debut was in the year 1983, an Anil Kapoor starrer Kannada lingo, Pallavi Anu Pallavi, a film that explored the relationship between a young man and an older woman. The movie was not a commercial success, but was critically acclaimed and Mani earned his due credit.

Three years later, his 5th film Mouna Rangam, the story about a woman grieving the death of her lover but convinced for an arranged marriage, was released. This movie became a significant milestone in Tamil cinema and Mani Ratnam got his much-deserved breakthrough. The film went on to win the National Film Award for best film that year.

The subsequent year, 1987 marked the release of Nayagan, starring superstar Kamal Hassan. The film is considered the finest Indian film ever made. Included in Time Magazine’s ‘All-Time 100 Best Films’ list in 2005, Nayagan was India’s official entry to the Oscars in 1987. It also won Kamal Hassan the National award for Best Actor.

Thereafter, there was no turning back. What followed was a spate of Mani Ratnam films that triggered a cinematic gala in South India.

Mani Ratnam made his Bollywood debut with Roja, the first of his terrorism trilogy. Films Bombay and Dil Se followed subsequently. Post that he moved away from the subject and made films like Yuva and Guru, which reflected current issues of youth ambition, power, unions and politics.

Gripping dialogues, scintillating camera work, melody and extraordinarily scripted screenplay characterize a Mani Ratnam production. All his films boast of larger-than-life cinematography, clear-cut editing, impeccable aesthetics and groovy scores. He is famed for keeping emotions intact whilst concentrating on pressing issues. His style is heavily marketed by a gamut of practical, urban themes and is shown ‘as is’ thus leaving nothing for viewer’s imagination.

Over the decades, Mani’s films have set a benchmark for captivated storytelling and finesse. The USP of Mani Ratnam movies are that they are inspired from real-life events and famous epics. Themes are sincerely researched upon, about familial-marital hardships, class-religious conflicts, terrorism, war, or politics.
Nayagan: loosely based on Varadarajan Mudaliar, underworld Don in Mumbai
Iruvar: based on Tamil Nadu political & cinematic icons M.G. Ramachandran and Karunanidhi
Kannathil Muthamittal: based on the Sri Lankan Civil War
Aayutha Ezhuthu: a movie about student politics
Thalapathi: based on the Hindu-epic Mahabaratha,
Bombay: the ethnic war between Hindus and Muslims in Mumbai
Guru: loosely inspired by the life of millionaire businessman Dhirubhai Ambani
– His yet-to-be-released film Raavan – speculated to be inspired by another Hindu epic, Ramayana.

So who does he see himself as – an artist or an entertainer?

“A bit of both,” Mani Ratnam says. “It is important to me that I make films I am proud of. And who said good films can’t be entertaining.”

Apart from his direction, Mani has an enviable collaboration with the best technicians in the field. Ranging from the very talented music maestro AR Rahman to cinematographer Santosh Sivan to editor Sreekar Prasad, a dedicated team whose combined talent provide Mani with the wide canvas to pour out his visions. For a man who is obsessed and takes undivided interest in all areas of his films, be it technical or creative, Mani went on to say in an interview, “A director does not need to know every aspect of filmmaking. He should have the right people and be capable of asking the right questions.”

Another area that Mani seldom fails is extracting stellar performances from his actors. Be it Manisha Koirala in Bombay, actors Madhavan in Alaipayuthey and Abhishek Bachchan in Yuva and Guru, he is adept at bringing out trophy winning performance or giving a leash to the actors careers.

Although many movies are made on delicate subjects like terrorism and religion, the reason why Mani Ratnam’s films appeal to global audiences is the treatment of the plots. Most of his films focus on relationships and emotions with terrorism of religion as a background. Eg: Roja which was widely shot in terror-stricken Kashmir, but did not shift spotlight from the woes of a couple who was accidently caught in the midst of it.

Unfortunately with every success, comes the danger of being victimized. Post release of Ratnam’s Bombay, a movie on Hindu-Muslim inter-caste marriage, he received threats and bombs were hurled at his house, which necessitated him and his family to be flanked by bodyguards. He has received endless criticisms, but it never disillusions him. He does not like to justify what went wrong and will never stray away from his ideologies about making films that have character and element of human relationships.

At a retrospective of Mani Ratnam’s films, Toronto reviewer David Overbey very sagely noted – “Mani Ratnam makes movies; lets the cinema take care of itself.”

Recently Mani Ratnam was bestowed with the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award at the 67th Venice International Film Festival. In recent years, the award has gone to other major world filmmakers such as Takeshi Kitano, Abbas Kiarostami, Agnes Varda and Sylvester Stallone. This year, however, Swiss watch manufacturer Jaeger-LeCoultre celebrates its six years of partnership with the Venice International Film Festival by announcing Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award.

Speaking on why they chose Mani Ratnam for this honor, Marco Mueller, Venice Film Festival Director said, “Mani Ratnam used to initially make movies only in his native tongue, Tamil, but has now been one of a handful of filmmakers to successfully handle the transition to the All-India market. One of the great innovators in contemporary Indian cinema, he helped introduce the auteur concept to contemporary Bollywood. His movies display precision and poise, and have always been removed from the bombast and bluster of mass-produced regional cinema. The lavish musical numbers in his films, some of the best-tailored in Mumbai and Madras in recent years, have influenced the style of many others (as well as the design of commercials and music videos). Ratnam’s most celebrated films have become part of the cinematic imagination of the sub-continent.”

As his next film is up for release after a hiatus of almost 2 years, the Mani fever rises. The trailer is pretty predictable but the expectations are high because of the brand ‘Mani’ associated with it. While the ace of Indian cinema readies to flaunt his magnum opus to the audiences, he is mindful of the exhilaration surrounding his offering Raavan. With the much-awaited film geared up for release, audiences are looking forward to enjoying the Mani magic all over again.

Mani Ratnam has come along way from his first and he has done it quite on his own. Never worried about commercial success, he has mastered the art proficiently and is loved, admired and respected for his sincerity, passion and dedication for films.

Like a lot of filmmakers turned politicans, would he do the same if he gets tired of making films?

“No, I don’t tired of making films,” he coyly replies.

We hope you never get tired of making films sir. We really do.

– His actual name is Gopala Ratnam Subramaniam.
– Mani is married to actress Suhasini, niece of southern superstar Kamal Haasan, which makes Kamal, Mani’s father-in-law equivalent.
– He and Suhasini have one son, Nandan.
– Mani Ratnam is a vegetarian.
– Mani co-founded the independent production company Madras Talkies with his brother.
– Mani Ratnam is the only person who can meet AR Rahman without an appointment.
– A rainy scene and a scene related with railways are part of most of his films.
– Post the release of Bombay, Mani Ratnam received threats and bombs were hurled his house. He passed those days by with high security.
– All his films had music composed by Ilayaraja until Roja for which he used debutante AR Rahman, and has used his music in every film ever since.
– His film Thalapathi had 2 different climaxes. For the Tamil and Telugu versions, he shot superstar Mammootty’s death, since Rajnikanth is more popular with those audiences, and in the Malayalam version Rajnikanth dies, as Mammootty is more popular there!
– Abhishek Bachchan ate a box of Mysore Pak everyday after lunch and took a nap after that. Apparently, that was Mani Ratnam’s idea to beef him up for the old man look in Guru!
– In 2002, Mani Ratnam was awarded the Padma Shri (an award given by the Government of India to Indian citizens to recognize their distinguished contribution in various spheres of activity).
– In Indian language, both words ‘Mani’ and ‘Ratnam’ mean ‘Jewel’ and the director definitely lives up to his name.

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