June 2nd is the birthday of 2 legends of Tamil/Indian Cinema; one of these great men is my inspiration and my hero… this is my tribute to the great magician, Mr. Mani Ratnam…
THE GEM OF THE SILVER SCREEN
Mani Ratnam destroyed my life!
No, really! I mean it!
And, no, I’m not joining the bandwagon of the new batch of ‘Mani Bashers’ who seem to have suddenly cropped up.
Mani Ratnam destroyed my life because I love him so much! Because he means so much to me! He destroyed my life by seeping into every conscious and subconscious moment of it!
The number of relationships of mine that died painful deaths due to the inability to reach the pure bliss that is a Mani Ratnam romance! How can I be in a relationship that doesn’t have a divine A.R. Rahman tune playing in the background whenever we meet? No relationship makes the cut if we don’t look at each other in ultra slow motion for the first time and fall head over heels for each other with just that glance. There has to be a heavenly glow (or at least some nifty backlighting) emanating from both parties for the romance to be legit (definitely none coming from me, for sure!)! What’s the use of a kiss if the world around us doesn’t start to spin round and round? And when I finally overcame all my unrealistic expectations and found my true love, I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t a wee bit disappointed that when I finally tied the knot there was no ‘Mangalyam/O Humdum Suniyo Re’ playing instead of the old pujari’s mantras!
I hate you Mani Ratnam!!!
THE ‘MANI ROMANCE’TM
How does one man know so much about love???
Over the course of his sparkling career spanning 35 years and 26 incredible, fascinating films (even the less than great ones are, at the least, fascinating misfires) he has shown so many different shades of love. Each and every one of them rings true to someone or the other out there. Be it the puppy love of the flashback sequence of ‘Mouna Raagam’ or the early butterflies in the stomach leading to familiarity and irritability of ‘Alaipayuthe’/’Sakhi’ or the obsessive, borderline deranged and ultimately doomed love of ‘Dil Se..’ to the emotionally abusive but inescapable love of ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’/’Cheliyaa’.
The love stories aren’t always breezy; but they are always real.
I initially wanted to be cheeky and name my article ‘Aaytha Ezhuthu’ (The title of his 2004 movie which was named after the letter in the Tamil Alphabet that comprised of 3 dots forming a triangle) to highlight how Mani Sir, as we diehards fondly call him, has given to viewers the quintessential, zeitgeist defining love stories for three whole generations with ‘Mouna Raagam’, ‘Alaipayuthey’ and ‘OK Kanmani’.
The innocent 80s college romance between Revathi and Karthik which they try, but fail to culminate in the logical conclusion of marriage; the more sexually charged, early 2000s romance between Madhavan and Shalini, where we were shown the intimacy and hardships post the bold step of marrying in secret; and more recently, Dulquer and Nithya’s story for millennials, which originates from a pure physical need and altogether shuns the institution of marriage (albeit embracing it in the end).
But then I thought to myself, what about the heart-wrenching love story in ‘Roja’? Or the barrier breaking love story in ‘Bombay’? Or even the brief but beautiful flashback romance between Madhavan and Simran in ‘Kannathil Muthamittal’/’Amrutha’? And then there are the 2 contrasting love stories of ‘Agni Natchathiram’/’Gharshana’ set to the some of the most romantic , foot tapping and sensual songs ever recorded (by none other than Ilaiyaraaja himself).
I realized it was a futile exercise to condense ‘Mani Romance’ into three movies. Yes, these were his 3 out and out love stories where the plot itself revolved around the romance. But the other films with varying themes including terrorism, adoption, terminal illness and even Tamil politics and film industry etc. still had some the best love stories ever put on screen!
Take ‘Yuva/Aaytha Ezhuthu’ itself. The movie revolved around three men from different strata of society and three contrasting mindsets and how their lives clash in the backdrop of Indian politics. A story teeming with technical and storytelling ideas still manages to give us a brilliant depiction of three different kinds of love stories – a microcosm of Mani Ratnam Romances.
THE MASTER OF HUMAN EMOTION
At the heart of it all Mani Ratnam makes movies about relationships and human emotions above everything else.
‘Bombay’ was about the communalism and Mumbai riots of 1993. It was about the agony of our very social fabric being torn apart by blind hatred. Within the backdrop of this story was a more personal adventure of two brothers getting separated from their parents and each other amidst the chaos. A tale of 2 fathers overcoming their staunch religious prejudices to reconcile with their children and grandchildren.
‘Kannathil Muthamittal’ and ‘Anjali’, one a story of an adopted girl travelling to war-torn Sri Lanka to find her birth mother and the other the story of a mentally stunted girl and her struggle to fit into a normal family and community, show us the torment of 2 doting mothers trying to win the love and appreciation of a daughter.
‘Iruvar’, a political, meta masterpiece, amidst all its technical bravado and storytelling genius is fundamentally a story of 2 close friends driven apart by ambition and power.
The pivotal moments of Mani Ratnam’s films are character and emotion driven rather than plot driven (more-so in his recent movies, where he seems to be getting even more abstract) and that’s what sets him apart! We have felt these same feelings some time in our own lives and reacted similarly and made the same decisions; that’s why we connect so deeply to his films.
His characters are always complex and so REAL! The good guys have shades of grey and the bad guys have shades of grey too. Nobody is pure black or white.
We always leave the theatre FEELING something; love, anger, pride, grief, inspiration… something.
He can as easily bring a smile to your lips as he can a lump in the throat! A ‘Thiruda Thiruda’ vs an ‘Anjali’ (and many a time within the same movie).
As is evident I adore Mani Ratnam. The man has given so many reasons to rejoice over the last quarter decade whenever his movies hit the screens. Each and every movie of his has some of his signature tropes that we fans love to look out for each time.
The old women and the kids who pepper the frames in the superbly orchestrated celebration sequences; unapologetically urban stories and characters (which his disciple Gautham Menon emulates so well too); young, mischievous heroes and spunky, independent heroines; themes of language as a barrier and a unifier (a signature of my other favourite director from across the sea, Mr. Spielberg); trains and buses galore (he says it’s a subconscious decision, probably mirroring the protagonists’ emotional journeys in his films); and romance in coffee shops (how the heck did he know how couples would meet up for coffee all the way back in 1983???).
EVERY FRAME A PAINTING
Though Mani Ratnam’s films are very famous for the dialogue (which I’ll allude to in a bit) he is as great a visual filmmaker as you can get! Film is, and should be, a purely visual medium, with dialogue complementing the visuals rather than taking centre stage. Most filmmakers make the cardinal mistake of putting two people in a frame and just keeping them talking.
Mani has conjured some of the most iconic and breath-taking frames in Indian films!
He showcases his protagonists’ inner turmoil and jubilations through his lens and uses colour palettes and lighting to accentuate the same beautifully!
He stages his scenes so meticulously, changing the characters position and focus to depict shifts of power between them.
He has become famous for his stunning silhouette shots and quirky camera work and his collaborations with P.C. Sreeram in particular have become stuff of legend.
His keen eye for cinematography is echoed in the quality of cameramen he has worked with – for his very first film ever – ‘Pallavi Anu Pallavi’ (all the way back in 1983) – he got renowned director Balu Mahendra to take over behind the camera.
He has gotten beautiful frames with master cameramen like P.C. Sreeram, Balu Mahendra, Santosh Sivan, Rajiv Menon, Ravi K. Chandran and Ravi Varman.
The genius of Mani Ratnam can be seen in his mastery over stunning, wide, panoramic shots and at the same time his close-up framing of the human face, a landscape on its own!
And this is our reverent attempt to emulate a Mani Ratnam silhouette shot…
SYMPHONIES FOR THE SOUL
Music… music in a Mani Ratnam film! Getting goosebumps just thinking about it.
Put on your headphones and shut your eyes… play ‘Dil Se’ (the title song) and just lose yourself… hear the scintillating bass guitar kickstart the song, with bare minimum percussion; experience the feeling as each layer of music gets added like a mellifluous trifle pudding and culminating in Rahman’s greatest weapon, his own voice. Now remember the visuals of the song. Shah Rukh and a luminous Manisha Koirala running hand in hand amidst the ruins of battle-torn Kashmir… then, cut to a close-up of his face framed behind an angry, red flame, not only highlighting the violence of war but his burning passion for her! It’s just sheer magic! And it encapsulates Mani Ratnam’s whole career!
The way he marries his images with music is legendary!
And the interesting part is he’s only ever required 2 men to deliver him the stunning music he needs. Maestros Ilaiyaraaja and A.R. Rahman.
His 2 trump cards.
In my life there’s no BC and AD for defining a place in time… it’s only MI and MR – the Mani-Ilaiyaraaja era and the Mani-Rahman era. Both mesmerising in their own way. Not just the songs but the background scores they have given to his movies too!
Their songs echo the pathos and yearning in the characters – the heart-wrenching wails of the female singers in ‘Priya Priya’ from ‘Geethanjali’, ‘Naa Cheli Rojave’ from ‘Roja’ and ‘Satrangi’ from ‘Dil Se..’ haunt you and chill to the bone! The first, an ode to their doomed love, the second, a hypnotic reminder to a husband of his far-away wife as he pines to see her again, the third a seductive prelude to a psychedelic journey through the 7 stages of lust, love and death!
My most repeated playlist in my iPod (to the chagrin of all around me) has always been my Mani Ratnam playlist with the songs and background scores of all his movies sorted in order of release and playing on shuffle mode.
And then there’s A.R.Rahman’s ‘Dil Se..’ – in my opinion the single greatest album of music ever created! But that’s a story for another day…
THE RHYTHM OF WORDS
“Are you a virgin?” these words uttered by the nubile Preity Zinta in her debut role in ‘Dil Se..’ to Shah Rukh will always be remembered as a pure Mani moment. Her fearlessness and unabashed demeanour sums up most of his heroines.
Mani is famous for the staccato dialogues spewed by his characters. Lots is said by his characters in very few words, even more when they are completely silent. Though I could never enjoy the genius of the legendary writer Sujatha in his Tamil films (due to my inability to understand Tamil), the basic emotion and thought usually does come through in the Telugu dubbed versions.
The rat-a-tat repartee, especially in the flirting scenes of his movies, does so in the rhythm of a tommy gun and are delightful to listen to.
Even the lyrics in his songs, usually by the revered Vairamuthu, are on a different level; unfortunately the effect of these is usually lost in translation into Telugu (although Sirivennela Seetharam Shastry gaaru has been doing a great job of it in his recent movies).
How do we talk about the man who’s so precious to the film industry that his name AND surname both mean ‘Precious Stone’ or ‘Gem’???
Let’s just run through his filmography –
- Pallavi Anu Pallavi (1983)
- Unaru (1984)
- Pagal Nilavu (1985)
- Idaya Kovil (1985)
- Mouna Raagam (1986)
- Nayakan/Nayakudu (1987)
- Agni Natchathiram/Gharshana (1988)
- Geethanjali (1989)
- Anjali (1990)
- Thalapathi/Dalapathi (1991)
- Roja (1992)
- Thiruda Thiruda/Donga Donga (1993)
- Bombay (1995)
- Iruvar/Iddaru (1997)
- Dil Se.. (1998)
- Alaipayuthey/Sakhi (2000)
- Kannathil Muthamittal/Amrutha (2002)
- Yuva (2004)
- Aaytha Ezhuthu/Yuva (2004)
- Guru (2007)
- Raavan (2010)
- Raavanan/Villain (2010)
- Kadal/Kadali (2013)
- OK Kanmani/OK Bangaaram (2015)
- Kaatru Veliyidai/Cheliyaa (2017)
- Chekka Chivantha Vaanam/Nawab (2018)
What a staggering body of work!
Many people may not be familiar with the 1st 4 movies in the list but from ‘Mouna Raagam’ onwards all the way up till ‘Guru’ each and every movie can be called a bonafide classic depending on who you ask.
At least 12 of these 16 masterpieces were hailed as instant classics and are still remembered as the defining films of their times. The other 4 may have had lukewarm receptions back then, but have grown into cult classics over the years.
‘Thalapathi’ can easily be ranked as Superstar Rajinikanth’s best ‘acting’ performance till date.
And as for his other Gangster masterpiece – ‘Nayakan’ – it redefined how films were made in Tamil Nadu and even how they were watched by audiences. Numerous film-makers including Gautham Menon were inspired by this film to make movies themselves. It’s a shame Mani and Kamal Haasan haven’t worked together again since, after creating such magic onscreen.
‘Nayakan’ was so monumental when it released that it was voted as one of the top 100 movies of all time (worldwide) by Time Magazine, amongst other accolades.
One of the greatest legacies of Mani Ratnam is the tremendous performances he coaxes out of his actors. With someone like a Kamal, Mamooty or Mohanlal, it’s a given, but even with debutantes like Arvind Swamy and Madhavan and average actors like Prabhu and Madhoo, he has gotten brilliant performances. The often (unfairly) derided Abhishek Bachchan has given 2 of his most riveting performances under Mani – the rough Lallan in ‘Yuva’ and his magnificent turn as Gurukanth Desai in the epic ‘Guru’.
There have been a few missteps like Lakshmi Manchu and Goutham Karthik in ‘Kadal’ and Abhishek himself in ‘Raavan’ (more glaring when you compare it to Vikram’s superior performance in ‘Raavanan’), but they are few and far between.
The best part of Mani Ratnam’s films is that in spite of their shining calibre they never shy away from being pure ‘entertainment’! He hates the notion of having ‘art’ films and ‘masala’ films as 2 separate entities. He had (at least till the last decade) somehow consistently found that alchemist’s secret to creating pure, quality, high-brow entertainment.
But, I guess all love stories have to come to an end.
Unfortunately, post ‘Guru’ his films have been hit and miss with the critics and the audience.
‘Raavanan’ onwards is a very difficult time to defend him as well.
Although I would agree that these films aren’t as immediately likeable as his previous output, even in his biggest failures I can see the absolute commitment and passion in every frame unlike the other south Indian maverick Mr. Ram Gopal Varma, who seems to be taking immense pleasure In watching his old fans (me included) shudder and squirm as each new movie of his takes him further and further away from his heyday.
But it this period of films where my opinion of Mani’s films varies greatly with the general consensus. The one person who seems to have almost the same feelings as me towards these post-‘Guru’ films is my favourite film critic and writer Bharadwaj Rangan. His love for Mani Ratnam is infectious, but the beauty is he doesn’t just sing paeans to the maverick director but analyses his movies and scenes and dialogues so beautifully and has a wonderful way with words. His 3 part interview with Mani Ratnam is fantastic and one of my favourite books on films and filmmaking is his book ‘Conversations with Mani Ratnam’. For fans of Mani Ratnam this is the Bible and the Holy Quran.
We both feel that ‘Raavan’ and ‘Kadal’, though deeply flawed, are definitely not the creative disasters they were made out to be!
We both feel that ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’ is a misunderstood masterpiece (me a little more enthusiastically) and I feel that, like ‘Dil Se..’, it will one day attain the status of a cult classic.
And the biggest paradox is that the one recent film that was appreciated by one and all (critics as well as at the box office ) – ‘Chekka Chivantha Vaanam’/’Nawab’ – was considered by both of us as quite a let-down, where cool cinematography, acting and music overpowered any kind of emotional resonance (his usual stock-in-trade). When you compare this film to his earlier gangster epics like ‘Thalapathi’ and ‘Nayakan’ it rings truly hollow. Even his pre-‘Mouna Raagam’ gangster flick ‘Pagal Nilavu’ has some pretty good emotional stakes between a don and his protégé, whereas CCV somehow couldn’t muster the same in spite of being a war amongst family.
But I’m not complaining, when the audience, who had recently turned their back on the master, seem to have embraced him again!
Rest-assured Mani Ratnam will be back!
MANI AND ME
What’s the best way to end a eulogy of a man whose films are so personal? To get personal!
My journey with Mani Ratnam; how important he has been in my life!
1988 – the first movie I ever watched in my life – at the age of just 6 months – ‘Gharshana’ (thanks to my parents for giving me this awesome distinction)
1992 – the earliest movie that I ‘REMEMBER’ watching in the theatre – ‘Roja’. This and ‘Jurassic Park’ the next year are so clearly etched in my mind even to this day. Not just the movies themselves but the theatre I watched them in and my exact feelings while watching them. I was only 4 years old but I still remember the awe and relief I felt when Arvind Swamy finally crosses over that bridge to reach Madhoo!
The Mid 90s –watching ‘Anjali’ on TV (obviously not knowing who directed it, or even who a director is) and being equally drawn to it and at the same time disturbed by it! The movie haunted me for years and made me very sad whenever I thought about it! Any movie that can do that to you has to be something special!
1998 – Watching ‘Dil Se..’ in the theatre in England and absolutely HATING it… but thinking of it almost every day afterwards. It disturbed me so much! It was only 18 years later, when I watched it again that I realised how awesome and intentionally discomforting this movie is!
2000 – Driving past a poster of ‘Sakhi’ and my Dad telling me that this was a ‘Mani Ratnam Movie’ and how his movies were always so good! Basically the first time I learnt of the brand of ‘Mani Ratnam’.
2004 – Watching ‘Yuva’ in the theatres 5 times in the
first 2 weeks itself and it becoming my favourite Hindi movie of all time! ‘Yuva’ (along with ‘The Matrix’) was also my first ever DVD and it has been watched on my home theatre system at least 20 times to date (no exaggeration)
2005 – Getting an acting break in a movie – ‘Amma Cheppindi’ – and having the opportunity of playing the role of the son of Suhasini gaaru – Mani Ratnam’s actress wife.
[watch – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amVRPqEDZJ0 ]
2007 – Watching ‘Guru’ in ‘Sensation Theatre’ and being electrified by it. Still hadn’t made the connection that I was watching something by someone who would become my all-time favourite!
2007 – Finally losing the last shreds of hope I had left in Ram Gopal Varma gaaru’s career (‘RGV ki Aag’ was the last straw) and anointing Mani Ratnam as my new favourite.
2010 – Watching ‘Raavan’ in ‘Prasads Theatre’ and DESPISING it. Once again, it took me my second viewing years later to see the many merits of it. Also caught ‘Villain’ (‘Raavanan’) and found it far more enjoyable.
2015 – Watching ‘OK Bangaaram’ and enjoying the wave of ‘Mani is Back’ reviews
2016 – Finally decided to trace down each and every movie he ever made and completed the ‘Mani Ratnam Marathon’ watching every movie in the order of release over one blissful month. This included making my Malayali driver John sit with me one evening so he can translate every line of Mani’s only Malayalam film ‘Unaru’.
With each movie screening my favourite of his films would change!
Mid 2016 – Started dating my future wife – our favourite songs on our playlist – ‘Kaay Love Chedugudu’ from ‘Sakhi’ and ‘Hamsaro’ from ‘Cheliyaa’
December 2016 – Celebrated our wedding with a Mani Ratnam themed Sangeeth
25th March 2017 – On my birthday my wife gave me the greatest gift I could have ever asked for. She surprised me with this – [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyLu3-ngB8w ]
She whisked me away to Chennai where she had secretly orchestrated a meeting with him as he was re-recording for ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’ at A.R. Rahman’s studio.
The best day of my life!!!
April 2017 – Watched ‘Cheliyaa’ (‘Kaatru Veliyidai’) with my wife – our first Mani Ratnam movie together
December 25th 2017 – Recreated ‘Hamsaro’/’Azhagiye’ with my friends as an anniversary surprise for my wife [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCZ2i1J3FZk ]
2018 – Watched ‘Nawab’ in theatres – slightly disappointed but happy to have a hit in the kitty
2019 – Waiting for many more Magical Mani Moments!
Mani Sir! Thank you for all the 70mm memories… keep them coming!!!