This was written for an Arts Illustrated issue whose theme was Conflict & Art. Their brief: “For the cinema story we had in mind, we thought it would be interesting to look at a retrospective of Mani Ratnam’s films that deal effectively with the theme of conflict – both the inner and outer…”
An unmarried teenaged girl abandons her newborn son. That’s how Thalapathy begins. That’s a conflict right away, a clash between the errant actions of an individual and the accepted mores of a judgmental society. It’s also a conflict between right and wrong – what is right (or at least expedient) for the mother is wrong for the child. Note, also, how the stretch is staged. We first see Bhogi revellers, dancing around bonfires, and in the far distance, on top of a hill, we see the cart carrying the girl – another conflict, a solitary outcast versus crowds. Chased away by the local midwife, she gives birth in a forest. The songs of the revellers fade away. Now it’s just the girl’s screams, sounds of agony in conflict with the stillness of nature around, just some birdcalls, the ring of a bell from a startled cow. The boy is born. The girl places him in a train compartment, and we see the final conflict in this scene, one that will play out in the boy’s mind as he grows into a man: her fairness versus the child’s dark complexion. We are just five minutes into the movie, and we already have illustrations of the various ways we define “conflict”: to come into collision or disagreement; to be contradictory; to be at variance with, or in opposition to; to clash.
Mani Ratnam isn’t the first filmmaker to employ conflict as a dramatic device, and he won’t be the last. And at some level, it isn’t even about cinema. It’s physics, it’s nature. We know that opposites attract – hence the romantic trope of falling in hate before falling in love. We know that friction creates heat – hence the dramatic trope of cat-and-mouse between cops and robbers, heroes and villains. In real life, being stuck in a traffic jam is an hour of boredom. But in fiction, it’s the situation the protagonist has to overcome in order to get to the airport on time to prevent the villain from escaping to another country. And these broader sources of conflict – the ones easier to discern because they make up the narrative thrust of the film – are certainly there in Thalapathy. Good son versus bad son. Obligation to one’s friend and mentor versus responsibility towards one’s family. Walking away with the man you love versus respecting your father’s wishes and marrying the man he chooses.
But Ratnam’s films are filled with sub-conflicts that deepen the drama. It’s not just good son versus bad son. It’s also fair son versus dark-complexioned son. It’s about a son who does what’s right by deploying the forces of law and order versus the son who does what’s right in a moral sense but not in the legal sense. It’s an illustration of what the dramatist Peter Shaffer said: “Tragedy, for me, is not a conflict between right and wrong, but between two different kinds of right.” The super-conflicts – good/bad; friend/family – would be clichés if not for the way Ratnam makes them unique with his visual and verbal sub-conflicts. Even Ratnam’s first film, Pallavi Anupallavi, isn’t content with the conflict inherent in the clichéd trope of the love triangle. The woman isn’t just the other woman. She’s an older woman, a married woman.
One of Ratnam’s favourite sub-conflicts is that of being a stranger in a strange land. The super-conflict of Mouna Raagam is that of Divya torn between the man in her memories and the man she has married. The sub-conflict is that of a Tamilian girl from Chennai being torn from her home and having to learn to adjust to New Delhi, where everyone speaks Hindi. So too Nayakan. The super-conflict is about a man versus the establishment. The sub-conflict is about a Tamilian in Dharavi. This trope is found in Roja (Tamilian girl in Kashmir) and Guru (Gujarati villager in a Mumbai where genteel Parsis do the wheeling and dealing). This is surely a reason the Hindi remakes of Ratnam’s earlier films failed. Dayavan is about a Hindi-speaking don in Dharavi. The heroine of Kasak (also named Divya) speaks Hindi and is surrounded by Hindi speakers. The super-conflicts remain the same, but there are no sub-conflicts. The drama comes off as shallow, superficial.
In other words, the sub-conflict – which is another word for “characterisation” – creates a parallel narrative. Iruvar is about the ups and downs in the relationship between two friends. The parallel narrative is about the yearning for a lost love. The plot points about power, insecurity and ambition pave the way for the external conflict. The girl who looks like one’s dead wife creates internal conflict. Anjali hands the external conflict to the father (how do I keep this child away from my wife?) and the internal conflict to the mother (will this little girl accept me?). “How do I get away with a live-in relationship in a country like India?” is the external conflict in O Kadhal Kanmani. “How do I stop myself from falling deeply in love with someone I just wanted a fling with?” is the internal one. The friction between the hero and the antihero of Raavanan is the external conflict. The unexpected frissons between the kidnapper and his victim, the hero’s wife, provide the internal conflict. The forces of good and evil fighting over a boy’s soul is the external conflict in Kadal. The boy’s desire for social legitimacy (he was born to a prostitute) is the inner conflict.
In Ratnam’s films, conflicts are often literal. Roja unfolds against the backdrop of terrorism. It’s a love story versus a war story – the very narrative structure is filled with friction. We find this in Bombay and Dil Se. We find this even in a film like Kannathil Muthamittal, where the super-conflict of a domestic drama (a child discovers she has been adopted, and wants to meet her birth mother) plays out against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war. Would the story have worked had the birth mother been from, say, Bangalore? Yes. Because there is still a lot of scope for drama – searching for the mother, finding her, the anticipation of how she will respond. Maybe she is now married to someone else. All of this is valid drama. But war adds a different dimension. It’s not just personal anymore. It’s also slightly political. The mother in Sri Lanka has to choose between affiliation to her cause versus love for the child she abandoned. The war zone allows for actual conflict to be staged, with militants and suicide bombers and an action scene where the internally conflicted family is caught in the crossfire.
This is the reason we talk about Ratnam’s films, the reason even the ones we don’t like as much still give us so much to discuss, the reason even his “lighter” films aren’t as disposable as they appear. Take Agni Natchatiram. On the surface, it’s just another good-versus-bad story. The villain is evil incarnate, the way the villain is in every masala movie. But before the good people are set on the path of conflict with this villain, they must resolve several conflicts within themselves. There’s the father, who refuses to be corrupted. His heart is as white as the dhoti he wears. But in his personal life, things aren’t as straightforward. He married one woman. He continues to love another. He has children from both, sons who cannot stand the sight of each other. These sub-conflicts, these shades of grey, are far more fascinating than the black-and-white super-conflict of good versus evil, which Ratnam rightly moves to the background.
This is why Agni Natchatiram is more than just a stylishly shot masala movie. It’s a human drama first, an action film only later. (The actual physical conflict, the film’s sole action scene, comes almost at the end.) Almost every character faces conflict, and thus the film becomes everyone’s, not just the hero’s. Thalapathy is the most unusual Rajinikanth film post his mega-stardom, for it is not just his character’s story. The resonant conflicts in the supporting characters make the film as much the mother’s story, the friend’s story, even the step-father’s story, for even his handful of scenes make s us wonder about this supremely decent man. The external conflicts shape the course of the story, the internal ones shape the characters. Few mainstream filmmakers have understood this as well as Mani Ratnam.
Finally, a look at the conflicts in Ratnam’s songs. The most famous instance is probably in Thalapathy, where the hero literally goes to war while the heroine pines for him. But there’s also Geetanjali, where the physical afflictions that threaten the hero and heroine are transformed into armies that try to separate them. Iruvar and Raavanan set scenes against war chants – Vairamuthu’s verses in the former, stanzas from the 12th-century Tamil epic Kalingathu Parani in the latter. In Aaydha Ezhuthu, the Jana Gana Mana song is about the youth waging war on the establishment, saying they don’t need anyone’s help to shape a better nation. In Anjali, the conflict plays out in outer space. The Star Wars-inspired song is a sci-fi nightmare that bonds a family during story-time, but it also hints at how an alien (the child) is going to invade this happy home and shake its foundations. You could even point to Putham pudhu boomi in Thiruda Thiruda. What is it if not about the conflict between how things are and how we wish things could be?
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