Readers Write In #514: R.I.P. ‘Anjali’ (a Mani Ratnam film)

Posted on October 18, 2022


By ​Srinivasan Sundar

It is easy to get overwhelmed by Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan -1 juggernaut. After all, the film provides a magnificent culmination to the collective efforts of the Tamil film industry, including the attempt by the all-time biggest star of Kollywood and the ex-Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, MGR, to capture Kalki’s magnum opus in celluloid. But apart from creating an opportunity to celebrate a director, successful films also provide a much needed pitstop to take a closer look at the filmmaker’s body of work. And on such occasions one instinctively goes to the most underrated creation, and that’s when Iruvar caught my eyes. But wait a minute. To be honest the film’s critical acclaim and fandom has only improved over the years. Its rating has been going up. Finally, I end up at Anjali – an agmark underrated creation, written and directed by Mani Ratnam.

Released in 1990, the film has a tragic and tested storyline. Its goes like this – it is life as usual for a character (or bunch of characters here) when a totally external person is introduced amidst them; conflicts, struggles, reconciliation and finally love and deep bonds; life gets so sweet and that is when the person is abruptly removed from them. Bala’s Pithamagan is a compelling instance of a story developed using this DNA. The Karthik portion from Mouna Raagam has the same core.With some open tributes to Steven Spielberg’s E.T, which was also woven around this framework, Anjali is easily among the most well-made films around children.

The film may well be the first one in Kollywood to introduce us to an apartment complex. But it is not just about novelty;  the way the story integrates with the physical setting is worth a study in itself. For instance, take the Motta maadi… song or the place where the ‘society’ confronts Anjali’s family. The plot is so much woven around the location that it ceases to be a mere physical environment and takes a life on its own just like any other living character.

Anjali is a film that treated children like well, children. You see groups of them noisily running around, punching and kicking, watching over the adults, harassing and asking questions like ‘How are children born?’ The songs are fully children-centric and are also sung by children in their own sweet voices rather than Janaki amma or Mano singing in false voices.The background score by Ilayaraja (his 500th film) is a masterpiece. The Something..something.. song that sets the tone for the fun riot of a housing complex is such a fun number. All the songs are written from the points of view of children; while that eliminates the songs from being preachy or philosophical (the types of – Nallapaerai vaanga vaendum pillaigaley… & Kuzhandaiyum dheivamum manathaal ondru.. ) interestingly it also reveals  a lot of cool things about kids.But such very things also made a section of the audience twitch as it did not fit in the mould of ‘onscreen children’ of Kollywood; the kids of Anjali were branded as adhigaprasangis (‘acting smart’). But they are not. On the contrary,even factoring the vintage, Anjali children are only a toned down version of real kids of urban apartments. If you know what I mean.

Moving away fromthe director’s hat-trick hit collaboration with P.C.Sreeram, Anjali had Madhu Ambatas its cinematographer. Replete with hard lighting, pastel colours costume, visual experimentation in songs, innovative camera angles and blocking (like a revolving shot from the bottom of a staircase),beautifully shot home interiors, et al, Anjali built over Mani Ratnam’s distinct approach to visuals that had by then got crystallised with Agni Natchathiram.

Mani Ratnam is known for bold casting decisions (the recent one being Jayam Ravi in PS-1) and nothing gets bolder than casting the most dangerous upcoming villain in the industry as the anchor character in a children’s film with a delicate subject. Hands down Anjali was one of Raghuvaran’s best performance. Actors like Revathy, Saranya, V.K.Ramasamy, Prabhu, Janagaraj and co. from his earlier films deliver on their mandates. But it is the child actors who steal the show. But again, more than to the little actors themselves the credit for pulling it off with dozens of noisy children purely goes to the ace filmmaker. Just try talking to someone who tries to click a group picture with children about 8-9 years of age; your assessment of the director would amp up some 10 times. The kind of performance the kids were made to deliver is just mind blowing. There is not a shade of a slip or a compromise anywhere. Shamili’s performance, as the titular character of a little autistic girl with a terminal illness, is simply stellar. To bank on the cliché, she did not just perform the role of Anjali, she lived (and died) as Anjali.

In Anjali the children also undergo emotional challenges along with the adults. But rather than looking up to the adults for doling out solutions, right from the prelude sequence, the children chip in and handle the problems of adults too in their own ways. Precisely because of this defining feature the film is a genuine film on children. (The only place the writing falters is the pre-climax fight sequence.) Written with an extraordinary level of maturity that balances love and pity, Anjali still maintains its position as a must-watch film on children.

But in the incredible filmography of the ace filmmaker, preceded by path-breaking works like Nayakanand Mouna Ragam, and immediately followed by heavyweights like Thalapathy and Roja and the run continuing with PS-1, it is so natural that such a simple, soulful creation gets hidden deeper. Anjali would have been among the most celebrated films of Tamil cinema had it not been made by Mani Ratnam. This is so very unfair to Anjali.