Once upon a time in Mumbai, you’d have to drag me away from the Santa Cruz aiport, literally prevent me from catching another flight to Chennai. The cities were still called Bombay and Madras then. Life was cool, cinema was cooler and conversations with this brand-new boss of mainstream Indian cinema were the coolest. Dhan ta na, that was Mani Ratnam.
On some absurd pretext or another – like covering the latest twist and turn in Kamal Haasan’s professional and private (marriage to Sarika, the protest by Biwi No 1 Vani Ganapathy etc), I’d wangle an air-trip from my office to go Arre o sambhar for a couple of days at Mollywood’s modest Dasa Prakash hotel.
The evenings were hopelessly veggy, the mornings-afternoons were heart buoyantly non-veg, mucho thanks to the exchange of scandal titbits with director Rajiv Menon. He should write a psst psst column if you ask me. Anway, that’s another story. Above all, the Chennai chukkers were a journo’s swapnam come true because they entailed confabs with A R Rahman and Mani sir.
Rahman’s fan I continue to remain over the decades, unstinted. Mani sir’s, I am not sure. I like him, I like him not. He leaves me with what a dee-veejay would term as Remixed feelings.More Aiyyo than Yo. Perhaps because in retrospect his ouevre is littered with as many disappointments as blind dates in my life. His earlier works, in Tamil, were incomparable. Mouna Raagam (1986), Nayagan (1987), Anjali (1990), and Thalapathi (1991), each used the commecial formulae to say something freshly minted, in a style which was distinctly Ratnamesque. Mood lighting, slick tempo, colloquial dialogue, the works.
He had a firm legible signature, written with strong ink, compared to the outpourings of Bollywood cinema which was then going through a phase dominantly of Jeetendra-Sridevi doing their jhatkas on earthen matkas,. And there were those Amitabh Bachchan’s growl-growl gazpachoes.Ratnam, a business management graduate from Mumbai, modernised Tamil cinema which was till then particularly partial to pink powdered ladies in Kanjeevarams speechifying from studios’ wooden staircases and bewigged gentlemen wreaking vendetta. Aargh. Refreshingly, Ratnam spoke about real people – their marital tension. Or he fictionalised don Vardharajan Mudaliar into the slum sultan Nayakan.
Anjali, a heartbreakingly adorable child, could be the centrepoint of his script. Or he could even fashion an epical masterpiece, booming with fire and brimstone, with a prologue shot in dazzling black and white. Be it neophytes, kids or southern supestars Kamal Haasan and Rajnikant, he was adept at extracting trophy-winning performances.
He gave Indian cinema’s most skillful technicians – notably cinematographer Santosh Shivan and editor Sreekar Prasad – a clear canvas to convey his vision: young, inventive, bold and cliché free. Overwhelmingly, there was a coming together of various elements into an absorbing narrative technique – a quality that can be seen in the earlier films of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. This writer-director, it could be discerned, was also abreast of world cinema, achieving at least a touch of the wallop evidenced in the masterworks of Akira Kurosawa.
Then there was Roja (1992). Fantastic. Ratnam was not only topical – delving into terrorism in the Kashmir valley – but also tackled a love story of a young married couple, adjusting to marriage, against the backdrop of the tumult. The film introduced A R Rahman, whose songs were picturised with an artistry that recalled Vijay Anand’s. No dancing chorus girls popping among the Kashmir conifers. Instead, there was a montage,including such playful moments as Arvind Swamy carrying Madhoo loving in his arms, and then letting her fall unchivalrously. Or Madhoo sneaking a puff from Arvind’s cigarette. The finale was a bit overdone, vending the sort of jingoism that I thought had vanished with Manoj Kumar. Still, no one’s perfect. In its original Tamil version, Roja was a jewel. The dubbed Hindi version, I avoided…no need.
And so, Mani Ratnam had become Bollywood’s Next Big Thing. Curves ahead: the next two films in his terrorism trilogy were more catered towards the Hindi market, and just didn’t belong in the league of Roja. Umm, so Bombay (1995) – while tackling the 1992-’93 communal riots – hit out at politicians and fundamentalists with kid’s gloves. Practically every element was cautiously balance – there were two sides to every aspect of the screenplay: lovers belonging to two different faiths, a set of twin kids, and a couple of daddies drawn till wiser sense prevailed.
Too safe and sweet, never mind the controversy the film generated, with the Shiv Sena insisting on giving it a look-see after the censor board’s clearance. Manisha Koirala was gorgeously photographed, Rahman’s music still rocks your ear’s charts but no, Ratnam was obviously more market-conscious than ever before in his career, a point reaffirmed by Dil Se (1998), which had one of the clumsiest finales, which I couldn’t make head or tale of.Again Rahman’s music and the train-top picturisation of Chhaiyan chhaiyan turned out to be more unforgettable than the rest of this dil se re, dil se re…dee dum dum.
The baroque musical Tamil musical Thiruda Thiruda was remarkable if at all, for its music score, Anu Agarwal’s sensuality and for its some uncharacteristic wacky moment. A caper movie didn’t exactly see Ratnam at the peak of his form.
Hang on, he did return with authority with Iruvar, a mite too lengthy and yet riveting for its retelling of the MGR-Jayalalitha story. Not surprisingly, Jayalalitha made some hostile comments about Ratnam consequently. Mercifully, he was spared of political victimisation. Iruvar introduced Aishwarya Rai to cinema. Not an earth-shaking first performance there, but then she had to match skills with Mohanlal. Tsk, let’s say she looked wonderful, acted serviceably.
Women are Ratnam’s forte, but only in making them look beautiful. He is still to make an entirely woman-centric film. Alaipayuthey (2000), remade by his assistant Shaad Ali in Hindi as Saathiya, could have been narrated from the female point of view. Nope.Again marital discord was the unisex issue here, and if there were stylistic echoes of David Lean’s Brief Encounter (featuring trains prominently), I am not sure that they were entirely coincidental.
Over to Kannathil Muthamittal (2002).Nandita Das as a terrorist mother reunited with her child could have been shatteringly emotional. She wasn’t. Curiously enough, the staging of some action scenes was shabby – even shabbier than that shot of a man’s face frozen under snow in Dil Se. Oddly enough a similar ‘freeze’ shot showed up later in Fanaa.
Neither Yuva (2004) nor Guru (2007) caught Ratnam in peak of form. Guru was obviously a thinly disguised take on Dhirubhai Ambani. Yet Ratnam as well as every spotboy on the project cried themselves hoarse that it wasn’t. Strange. Raavan (2010) is best deleted beyond this sentence.
Be that as it may, the Chennai-domiciled Mani Ratnam whom I admired doesn’t seem to be the filmmaker I could fly miles and miles to meet any longer. Earlier, he kept the theme of his films under wraps. Whenever he has opted for the Hindi film mode, though, an overactive PR machinery went on about who sneezed, hiccuped and coughed on the sets of his Raavan (oops, and I thought I’d deleted the creepy crawly film). Guess in the millennium of trivia-hinged marketing, the director had to play the game.
In Bollywood, Ratnam sir had to do as the Bollywoodwallas do. Aiyyo? Yo?
Note- On the occasion of MAM’s 1st anniversary this is a special post from well known writer-filmmaker-film critic, Khalid Mohamed.