Bitty Ruminations 94 – Mani Ratnam, ARR and the ‘mainstream’

Posted on April 25, 2023


This is a take-off on Madan’s comment in the MR-ARR interview thread, where he talked about my podcast where he says I said something like “this weird strongly mainstream impulse Mani has for one who wants to be trying new things all the time. “

I want to define what I meant by the word “mainstream” here. For one, there is no “non-mainstream” cinema in Tamil, and even those films (Nasir, Pebbles, and others that come under the recent blooming of festival-bound “art cinema” in Tamil) have hardly been seen by the “mainstream”. So if Mani Ratnam is a mainstream director, it is because he cannot be niche. He has to work “within the mainstream”, in a format that general audiences can follow.

So what is this format?

  1. Having stars
  2. Having songs
  3. Having (mostly) happy endings
  4. And so on, so forth

But why is Mani Ratnam special, the way Thiagarajan Kumararaja (another filmmaker whose sensibilities I adore) is special? Because in a less “obvious” way than Super Deluxe, every film of his is “avant garde” in some way or the other — and I am not just talking about the post-Iruvar phase, where he transformed into a different kind of filmmaker.

Take the 1980s films:

If you want to take Mouna Raagam the truly “mainstream” way, you’d say the heroine has been hurt by the trauma of a now-dead ex, she refuses marriage, but is nurtured back to happiness by the love of a good man.

But this is not the film at all. The heroine actively rebels against being married off against her wishes (a non-mainstream choice) until she has to because of a father who suffers a heart-attack (a stock-mainstream melodramatic device), and then her ego won’t allow the marriage to succeed (a tremendously non-mainstream choice) until she sees the man’s goodness and relents (a mainstream happy ending).

The same can be said about so many of those early films. I mean, Rajinikanth as a loser in love, losing his lover to his enemy, and later marrying a “non-virgin”? A story about a little girl with a terminal illness, with no individual protagonist as such, where the “family unit” is the collective protagonist? (Even in the “family-unit” Visu movies, the Visu-character was kinda-sorta the centre, the protagonist, so to speak.)

That’s what I mean when I say there is possibly no other Tamil filmmaker — 90s onwards (at least, earlier, there were K Balachander, Mahendran, etc.) — who has made such “non-mainstream” choices within the wrapping of a mainstream film, that can reach broad audiences.

A “mainstream” filmmaker would not even touch a subject like Iruvar or Kadal or Kaatru Veliyidai or Dil Se. Or even Ponniyin Selvan! Who would risk their time/energy on a genre that has been dead for some four decades? Who would ask his lyricist for words like “Aga naga“? (Is this the first andhadhi song in Tamil since MSV-Kannadasan’s ‘Vasantha kaala nadhigalile‘?

And I think a lot of this has been enhanced by ARR’s sensibilities. Mani Ratnam was already breaking formulas, and when he joined hands with a similar-thinking music director, they fed each other’s thirst to be “non-mainstream within the mainstream”. ‘Theera ulaa‘ from OK Kanmani is a wonderful example — the segue from staccato, high-pitched words to a “charanam” (if one can call it that) with a flowing, Carnatic-sounding portion.

Now, compare this — loosely — with a similar, parting-situation song like O paapa laali, my favourite in the Geetanjali soundtrack. That song is gorgeous, exquisitely sung and arranged — but it does not go anywhere you don’t expect it to. This is not a “fault” , or a statement that Raja could not do something else. I am just refuting the idea that the Mani Ratnam-ARR combination or the Mani Ratnam-Ilaiyaraaja combination was somehow “constrained” by the director’s “mainstream” sensibility — because the mode he works in is “mainstream” but his sensibilities are not.

Now, the Ilaiyaraaja question: was he not “non-mainstream within the mainstream”? I would say, yes and no. His genius in music does not need me to elaborate further. But I think his bigger genius was the way he decided to take his music to the mainstream. Yes, there are exceptions like ‘Thendral vandhu theendum pothu…‘ or ‘Ila neje vaa‘, with long melodic lines — but he largely kept his tunes short, metric, easily hummable and did the major non-mainstream stuff (his orchestration/arrangements) in the background. So as a “package” that pierces the hearts of listeners from nooks and corners of the state, ‘O paapa laali‘ is the better song, but as a piece of individual expression, ‘Theera ulaa‘ is better. (All IMO, of course.)

And it is with ARR that Mani Ratnam has gone the furthest with his own mode of “individual expression”, which is also a function of the times. (And which is why many viewers don’t like the new Mani Ratnam as much, and keep asking him to make movies like Mouna Raagam again.)

The other reason is that Raja’s greatest phase (the “IMO” is unnecessary here, because everyone is going to have their own block of time as a “greatest” phase) came before Mouna Raagam. Again, this is not to say he did not make great songs after that, but that “looseness of spirit” you find in, say, Poo malarndhida (Carnatic, prog-rock) or even a Maanada kodi (a staccato three-line pallavi, that segues into long melodic lines in the charanam) did not appear as frequently as in that golden-age phase. Luckily, we got Poo maalaiye, before Raja decided to go full-on symphonic (as a result of what happened with his own symphony? who knows!).

To me, Mani Ratnam’s and Rahman’s sensibilities are like those of MSV and RDB. In their best work, they will totally take you on strange directions, which you never saw coming.

I’ll end with Vikram’s introduction scene in Ponniyin Selvan – Part 1. Any “mainstream” director would have explained why he does not behead the Rashtrakuta king. Instead, we just get the change of expression on Vikram’s face (victorious and cocky to confused, in a few seconds) and the line that he does not want to kill ANOTHER defenseless person. (And again, consider this genre itself was a dead one, and a regular “mainstream” director would have tried to be as safe as possible. )

Even the 80s/early-90s Mani Ratnam might have had the Vikram/Aishwarya Rai portions as a quick prologue, so when we get to this moment, we “know things in chronological order”. But no. The explanation for that line comes before the interval, in two parts: one that is revealed to Vikram Prabhu and one that stays inside Vikram’s head and is revealed only to the audience. And trust me, very few people know the novel that well to make these connections, or would have even anticipated this flashback at this point.

So that’s what I meant by ‘mainstream’ in that podcast. It’s not art-film territory, but it’s not full-on mainstream either. My favourite part of the interview was when Mani Ratnam said: “I have fallen many times.” And yet, he stays away from safe zones as much as possible.

CCV did not work for me at all, but even there, you can see an uncharacteristic, “highlights-reel” kind of approach that worked well for the ADD audiences of today, who just want things to keep moving. And they made the film a huge hit. This, I feel, is the reason Mani Ratnam and ARR have been at the top for so long, despite “falling many times”. They have garnered enough of a loyal audience base — like Kamal did — that wants to see what they do next. “Non-mainstream within the mainstream” is a rare quality.

PS: I have not said all I wanted to say, but I suspect the comments will prod me to write more about this. And thanks, Madan, for making me think about this.