This is probably how Mani Ratnam will be remembered — as the man who made Nayakan. But, like the lowly caterpillar is as precious to Brahma as the darling deer, for a film-maker, every work is equally special, even if one is better than another by one’s own objective admission. This is what sets the mood for Conversations with Mani Ratnam by Baradwaj Rangan.

As the title suggests, the book examines the journey of Mani Ratnam’s films, discussing one at a time, beginning with the first, Pallavi Anupallavi (1983, in Kannada), and winding down with Raavan/Raavanan (2010) – 20 films spanning 27 years. The book comes just as Ratnam’s next film, Kadal, is slated for release.

The book sparkles because we have an insightful film critic who can write, and an introspective film-maker who is articulate. Recorded as a series of conversations long after the films were made, the discussions are wide-ranging and substantial. And even though Baradwaj Rangan is in awe of the film-maker, he does not fawn. In a crisp and engaging Introduction, he sets the tone: “He wants to make movies that great numbers of people can enjoy, without besmirching entertainment with the taint of pandering. Sometimes he wins. Sometimes he loses.” This book will certainly help him garner more sympathy.

As Rangan and Ratnam journey across the years and experiences of making films, they recall, analyse, clash, but most importantly, make connections that even lay readers, with only a superficial interest in watching films as momentary entertainment, can relate to with the knowledge of their own lives. The style of the conversation is easy, personal, and devoid of jargon. And, for sure, you will want to re-visit the films to find the things they talk about.

A colleague commented: “Mani Ratnam, there’s so little talking in his films, the sentences are so terse.” And there, on page 198, you have the man talking about how he and his wife Hasini (Suhasini) collaborate, how her dialogues are more free-flowing, his structured; hers more earthy and verbose, his more cryptic.

When Kannathil Muthamittal was released, the film-maker drew huge criticism for the way he showed the central character, a nine-year-old, being told she had been adopted. “And they were right,” he admits in the book. “You reveal it very, very gently, starting when they are four or five… For the sake of the story, we had to compress a few things and put them into once scene, something that could have happened over two or three years.”

Why did Rangan opt to do the book as a series of questions and answers rather than in the third person, reporting on the conversations? He explains: “Looking at his explanations about the swing in Guru or the pigeons in Nayakan, he is clearly a film-maker who thinks beyond the text, but he seems to chafe when someone else mines his work for subtext. In this aspect, and in some others, this book is almost an autobiography. I wrestled, at first, with the impulse to massage his responses into uninterrupted prose, but after a while, it began to sound like just my voice, with little indication of his commitment to this project. That’s why I opted, finally, for the conversational format.”

That was a good decision because their individual preoccupations as critic and film-maker imbue the content with intellectual, emotional and tonal variations, and the several points of disagreement stoke the energy. For instance, as a young film-goer, Rangan remembers feeling that here, at last, was a film-maker who took young people’s side, who added fuel to their anti-establishment fire. His disappointment, therefore, with Roja is evident when he tells Ratnam, “You showed us that it was cool to bribe the clerk at the motor vehicles department in order to get the address of a hot chick (referring to Agni Natchatiram). And then we saw Roja, and the first feeling was that of betrayal. This was a responsible film, a shockingly patriotic film. You’d forsaken us and become one of them.” Ratnam lets on that the film director Ram Gopal Varma actually walked out of the film, but adds, “The more I think back about your questions, the more I feel that I would do most of the film exactly the same way if I were to do it again today.”

In a sense, the book even works as a primer for those seriously into films. It talks about how the movie industry works, the influence of masters, how a film moves from the written word to action, how some of the best lines come from writers, the nallavan-kettavan (good guy-bad guy) dynamics, the exposition of relationships, the place of songs, a film’s style, the use of light, making choices, using symbolism, moving from Ilaiyaraja to A. R. Rahman (who has written the Foreword), how language changes the tone of a film, the pitfalls of adapting from one language to another, censorship…

In this context, Ratnam tells us that “…Mouna Raagam had to be given an ‘A’ certificate because this girl is asking for a divorce... A lady on the (Censor) Board asked me how a housewife could ask for a divorce. After that, I stopped being surprised by anything the censor committee would throw at me.”

But Ratnam was not always ‘the man who made Nayakan’. He was a kid who loved movies, who went to Elphinstone often and to the ice cream parlour there. (The ice cream parlour was Jafars, Mr Ratnam — they made the most exotic peach melbas!). ...

... The very first shot he took in his film-making career involved a child actor called Rohit who, he says, was brilliant. And, “on the day of the release, I was at the theatre in (Bangalore’s) Kempegowda Circle. The show was not full. Many people were passing by and I would tell myself that this man here and that man there will walk into the theatre. But they didn’t. It was a heart-wrenching experience. Watching the film with the audience was unadulterated torture. You want the film to move faster and arrive at the best shot and dialogues (at least, as per your judgement) and the humorous parts as quickly as possible. You want to run to the projection room and turn the reels faster. There was always a second’s delay before the reaction could be heard of felt. That second was quite unbearable.”

Pretty much all the questions fans and critics might want to grill the film-maker about, the critic has asked: To what extent are his films autobiographical? Does he put across his views on hot topics in the films he makes? Does his viewpoint defines a character? Is the ‘Velu Nayakan’ character good or bad? To what extent does he control his films that are re-made in another language? There’s a lot to read, and to learn, in Conversations with Mani Ratnam.

For someone who was sometimes ambivalent about, even irritated by, some of Mani Ratnam’s films, does this sound like too much rah-rahing? The credit has to go equally to the film-maker and the critic, and the publishers for believing in the project. For sure, it’s a labour of love — there’s nothing laboured about it. And the persuasive conversations throw up a canvas of experiences and insights

(This article was published on October 25, 2012)
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