Mani Ratnam: Madras Male

Posted on February 10, 2007


Mani Ratnam may have conquered Mumbai with “Guru”, but Baradwaj Rangan speaks for a generation when he says that the director does his best work with Chennai stories.

FEB 10, 2007 – I’M A TAMILIAN. I’M IN MY THIRTIES. There, you have it. That’s everything you need to know about why I am at once the most qualified person to write about Mani Ratnam as well as the least qualified person to write about Mani Ratnam. Because to those of us in our teens and in Chennai when Mani Ratnam started out, he wasn’t just a director, and he didn’t just make films. He was a zeitgeist-defining pop showman who propped up before us mirrors into our selves – our young, urban selves. No one – just no one – could put on screen what we thought and what we felt and what we dreamed the way Mani Ratnam did at the time. It’s not that there weren’t filmmakers who’d skewed young earlier – Sridhar, in the sixties, brought a bouncy exuberance to his Kaadhalikka Neramillai – but the girls in that movie wore half-saris, for crying out loud! That was our parents’ youth, not ours. Ours was predicated on visions of Amala in a pink sleeveless top, listening to music on her Walkman – and if there’s another piece of pop culture that so hotwired itself into the very being of the Tamil youth the way Agni Natchatiram did upon release, I’m not aware of it. The sun that you saw emerging from the clouds in the opening credits of this film, that could well have been a visual metaphor for the Mani Ratnam of this era. He was dazzling us with the trail he was blazing – and I’m not just referring to PC Sreeram’s incandescent cinematography – and we were the first to see the light. That’s why I say no one knows – or feels about – Mani Ratnam the way we do. And that’s why, now, when we see Yuva or Guru, we can’t hide our (relative) disappointment, because those scalpel-sharp dissections of the mind of the Chennai youngster have given way to sledgehammer-blow messages revolving around the youth in Mumbai or Gujarat. It’s difficult to retain your objectivity when the director who once used to talk to you – and to you alone – has now begun talking to all of India, and with far less focus.

That scene in Agni Natchatiram where Harold Faltermeyer’s theme for Beverly Hills Cop plays in the background as Amala and her friends get their first taste of nicotine with stolen cigarettes – that was us right there. That was the cheesy-bad synth music we were listening to then, and that was the forbidden-allure fascination that cigarettes held for us then. Mani Ratnam didn’t judge smoking – and if this made him irresponsible, well, whoever expected the young to be responsible anyway! This was just one of ways Mani Ratnam seemed to get us. He seemed to get that school isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be when the kid sister in Mouna Raagam asks her father to fix Revathy’s wedding on a weekday so she could bunk classes. He seemed to get that virginity isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be when he constructed an entire jokey sequence in Agni Natchatiram around Nirosha walking into Karthik’s house and confessing to being pregnant, in front of his folks. He seemed to get that respecting the elders isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be when the little girl in Anjali advises her father to yell back at the bald neighbour who’s asking them to shush up because they’re disturbing the peace. (You really have to know Tamil to appreciate the level of disrespect involved here, for what she prompts her father to say is, “Saridhaan poda, sotta thalayaa.”) He seemed to get that happily-ever-after isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be when he had Nirosha confess in Agni Natchatiram that the man she was dining with wasn’t her father but her mother’s second husband, while her real father lived someplace else with his second wife. He seemed to get that idealism isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be when, again in Agni Natchatiram, Karthik wants to locate Nirosha’s address using the numbers on the license plate of her car, and he cheerfully bribes the clerk at the transport office for this.

And yet, it wasn’t just all cool-but-bad stuff. Mani Ratnam made Prabhu an Assistant Commissioner of Police in Agni Natchatiram, and showed us that hey, it could be a nice thing to serve the government – that it wasn’t just about becoming an engineer or a doctor or a chartered accountant. In the same film, he had Vijayakumar, the IAS officer, in a dhoti all through, and showed us that there was something to be said for four yards of crisp, starched cotton – that it wasn’t just about pants and shirts and a tie around the collar. He made Revathy travel in a PTC bus in Anjali and he made the youngsters take the local trains in Agni Natchatiram and showed us that public transport wasn’t beneath our dignity – that you didn’t become any less because you didn’t own a bike or a car. He had Kiran Vairale in Pallavi Anupallavi take off to the US to pursue an MS in Biochemistry (a first in Indian cinema, perhaps?) and showed us that you needed to go after your dreams – that it didn’t matter if you had a lover (in this case, a very young Anil Kapoor) back home, because settling down could wait. (This, incidentally, is Mani Ratnam’s first film, and it’s remarkable how it contains all the themes and the effects we associate with the director, even today – a man going away from his comfort zone and having to face a strange new reality, the things that happen to a woman after marriage, a child with a single parent, the knottiness inherent in relationships, the rebelliousness and also the touching confusion that’s there in the youth, a daughter’s backslapping equation with her father, a girlfriend’s wisecracking rapport with her boyfriend that’s founded on an utter disdain for conventional romantic gooeyness, a bunch of kids yelling at the top of their voices after an April Fool joke, the lack of heavy makeup on the heroines, the predilection for earth colours and ethnic-Indian design, Pallavi Anupallavi has it all.)

And above all these things, it was just this feel for Chennai life that Mani Ratnam showed off in Agni Natchatiram. (Could that be why the film bombed when transplanted to a generic anycity in its remake Vansh?) If Bharatiraja took Tamil cinema out of the studios and planted it among the paddy fields of the rural South, Mani Ratnam steered it back to the streets of Madras. He told us that if you visited the Egmore railway station at night, you could run into pretty girls exiting the train compartments in midis and shorts. He knew that Adyar was a tonier neighbourhood and West Mambalam was more middle-class, so when Vijayakumar’s wife from Adyar signs her name on the bail application form at the police station, it’s in English, while the other wife, the one from West Mambalam, writes out her name in Tamil. I guess that’s why, to those of us who grew up in the eighties, Agni Natchatiram isn’t just a silly – though supremely well executed – masala movie. Because if you look at the big picture, it certainly doesn’t say anything important. (Well, uh, maybe that Amala looked terrific in a leotard, but…) And it certainly doesn’t feature those other things – great performances, invisible craftsmanship – that are generally thought to make for great cinema. But the film belonged to us in a way no other film had until then, in a way no other film has until now. It was the ultimate hanging-out movie, the cinematic equivalent of an inconsequential couple of hours spent with your buddies – your Tamil-speaking buddies, in the back-alleys of Chennai – that gave you the life’s-all-good satisfaction that no amount of intellectual discussion could. Is it any surprise, then, that it didn’t matter that Mani Ratnam went ahead and cast a non-star named Raghuvaran in his Anjali? Because for us, the real hero was the director. It was Mani Ratnam.

AND THEN ROJA HAPPENED. We – the audience that grew up on Mani Ratnam – smiled as Arvind Swamy reduced his unsuspecting villager-bride to a coughing wreck as he stuck a cigarette in her mouth. We melted when he said he wasn’t all that bad a person, that there was some good in him, and that she should give him a chance. They went to Kashmir – husband and wife – and we laughed when she broke a coconut in the temple and the pistol-crack sound brought in the soldiers. (What a wonderfully offhand nod to the tension in the region!) Then Arvind Swamy got kidnapped, and we shifted uneasily in our seats. Then Pankaj Kapur set the Indian flag on fire and our hero charged at him and put out the flames with his body – with his hands tied behind his back – as AR Rahman’s chorus from Thamizha Thamizha thundered on the soundtrack. We sat there in confusion. And by the end, when Pankaj Kapur turned remorsefully to Arvind Swamy and confessed that he’d become a better man, our jaws dropped in disbelief. This thing we’d just seen, it was… a Mani Ratnam movie? It’s not the melodrama that was the problem, for the director had always worked in a commercial format. Pallavi Anupallavi was his first and last stab at an ambiguous ending – and a beautiful one at that – and when Kiran Vairale took leave of Anil Kapoor at the airport, you didn’t know if they’d ever get back together. And that’s life, right? But, unfortunately, that’s not good box-office, so by the time the railway-station climax of Mouna Raagam happened, we had the train bearing our heroine away, the hero running after her in slow motion, barely managing to cling on before he clambers aboard and pulls the chain and stops the train and carries his woman out in his arms. And that’s the film that made Mani Ratnam’s name. That’s the film we went and saw over and over. That’s the film whose dialogues we quoted over and over. So that’s not what we had an issue with – so much as the way the issues in Roja were handled.

Yes, this is probably the best way to go about it if you want to tackle a burning issue and make a mainstream movie out of it and not offend anyone and please the classes and please the masses. But did all of this really need to be done? Did Bombay really need that moment of Arvind Swamy taking a sickle and making cuts on his arm and his girlfriend’s arm to prove that their blood was one and the same? Where does melodrama end and hysteria begin? Suddenly, the loyal faithfuls in Chennai were left scratching their heads, wondering what had happened to their Mani. Oh, we still loved the songs and how he shot them. We still lived for the way he mapped out the minutest heartbeats of the relationships. We were still exhilarated by the awesome craftsmanship. But why were the films beginning to seem incomplete, as if rushed through to a happy ending? That handholding closure to the communal riots in Bombay, what was that all about? The sort-of item number in the great Nayakan was exquisitely contextualised, because the hero steps into a whorehouse and that’s someplace you would expect to find such a dance. But that Humma Humma in Bombay, it was fun and all, but wasn’t it squeezed in because Roja had become a dubbed-in-Hindi hit and Mani Ratnam knew that this one would be dubbed into Hindi too and he also knew that an all-India audience wouldn’t be as readily-embracing of his brilliance as his loyalists back home, so he would need to entice them with a little more eye candy? Isn’t that what it really was? But the rest of India had no such hang-ups, for Roja had not only changed the conception of what Tamil cinema was in the eyes of the North and the East and the West, it had also made Mani Ratnam a superstar director. He used to belong to us, and now all of India had staked a claim in ownership, so much so that even the spelling of his name is no longer the way we’d write it – Mani Rathnam – but the way they would. It’s Mani Ratnam now.

Of course, he’s still unbeatable whenever he returns to Chennai – with Alaipaayuthey, (a fluffy story with just the right amounts of weight) or with Kannathil Muthamittal (a weighty story with just the right amounts of fluff). In both, the people came before the politics (whether of couples or of countries), and with both, we came away grateful that those Mani Ratnam specialties were still intact – the ability to bring out the best from child actors, the mastery over the emotional canvas of the middle class, the way with cute romantic subplots that never become cloying, it was all back. If anything, he’d returned as a better filmmaker, for Kannathil Muthamittal was his best work since the magnificent Iruvar. What could have become just another variation on the Anjali story – happy family is disrupted by knowledge of an unwelcome extension (a third child/a biological mother) – became an intensely moving exploration of identity (and all this with none of the masala elements that Anjali had, like the fight sequence in the rain). But then, Mani Ratnam went off and made a film where idealistic collegians manage to overcome scumbag politicians, and now he’s made a movie that is a biopic but doesn’t want to call itself a biopic and therefore gets somewhat stranded between what we’re seeing on screen and what we know from real life. But never mind. He’s made his choice, just as we’ve made our peace. Today, when we see Guru, we take note of its breathtaking craftsmanship and the beautiful relationships, we shake our heads at the way it all ends, and because old loyalties die hard, we head back for second and third viewings to savour the good parts. And we nod our heads in complete assent when Time magazine, after waxing eloquent about the various positives in its review of Guru, winds up with the qualification, “Still, it doesn’t seem like a natural weave for Mani Ratnam. This Guru is more like a fine polyester.” Had I not known that this reviewer goes by the name of Richard Corliss, I’d have sworn that he is a Tamilian in his thirties.

Copyright ©2007 Man’s World

Posted in: Cinema: Tamil