As I was getting inundated with tweets and write-ups celebrating 30 years of Mouna Raagam, something struck me. That the biggest service that Mani Ratnam has rendered thamizh cinema, above anything else, has been in terms of taste. As I was recollecting moments from Mouna Raagam, I was thinking of how there had been directors like Sridhar, Balu Mahendra and Mahendran that had tremendous sense of aesthetics and a cultured, even urbane, approach towards making films. But when I think of the director who consistently exhibited class and style in filmmaking, Mani Ratnam has been the aesthete par excellence.
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I could list umpteen examples of his mastery over the medium, the exquisite detailing of his frames and the rich production values of his films but I choose as my primary exhibit, not the famous NizhalgaL Ravi death scene or the ‘avana nirutha sol…naan nirutharen’ sequence from Nayagan. (Also because if I get started on Nayagan, I can't talk about anything else!) Instead, it’s the Nilave Vaa song from Mouna Raagam. This sequence, to me, speaks volumes about what made Ratnam stand apart from other directors when it came to presenting a splendid audio visual experience. The lead-up to the song is the segment where Revathi asks for a divorce seven days into her marriage and her husband (played by Mohan) chooses to oblige. There are a number of things Mani Ratnam-ish that this song evoked for me when I listened to it during my early morning walk today.
First, the belief that even when the theme had been presented earlier (in movies like Andha Ezhu Naatkal & Nenjathai Killathey), the confidence of Ratnam that he could tell the story in a way that was uniquely his*. This is something that we would see in movies like Nayagan. Sure, it is inspired by The Godfather. But cite one thamizh movie pre- Nayagan where a don sported a shirt and dhoti instead of a gaudy suit and oversized sunglasses (even for midnight, indoor sequences!) and you will start to realize that Ratnam’s presentation and movie making are things that we sometimes tend to give short shrift to, as we dismissively talk about the sources of his inspiration.
Going back to Nilave Vaa, the other thing that it made me think of, is the seamless manner in which he integrated a song into the film, in this case, to underscore the pain of the protagonist. Be it in Ilayaraja’s lovely tune or Vaali’s incredibly poignant lines ("Amaadiyo nee thaan innum siru pillai…thaangathama nenjam neeyum sonna sollai"), the song weaves magic on the senses. And, by the time you factor in PC Sreeram’s glorious cinematography, the audiovisual experience is so complete, so evocative. (In the video below, my favorite shot is at 2:12 when we hear the words, "sollil vaithaai mullai.")
Of course, the reason why I can’t just focus on the Nilave Vaa song to write about Ratnam is because I would not be able to talk about the other thing that made him totally unique – the cuteness of his romances. In the wake of the unfortunate murder of Infosys employee Swathi, an unfortunate victim of stalking, there have been a lot of discussions online about the influence of movies. Even Ratnam’s movies like Dil Se have been invoked in certain forums as an example of a hero relentlessly stalking a heroine. I am not going to argue for or against Ratnam here. Of course, Ratnam’s heroes have not all been paragons of virtue. I mean, in Idhayathai Thirudathey, Nagarjuna coolly plants a kiss on Girija’s cheek 10 seconds after he gets to know her name! But I find it hard pressed to come up with an example where Ratnam shot a romantic sequence in a distasteful manner…including the aforementioned kiss! It may have to do with the fact that his female leads have always had minds of their own, strong convictions and have been unafraid to be brutally honest about their failings…in short, his female leads have always been fleshed out and lifelike. And, despite his heroes wooing and chasing the subjects of their adoration, it’s invariably portrayed in a lovable manner, which makes us overlook their selfishness and maybe even their smugness and instead, enjoy their cool confidence. Of course, as a guy, I run the risk of trivializing something that a girl might find offensive. But I am yet to come across a girl who has not found Ratnam’s romances sunny and funny. So, if you take away the reel-life-real-life connections for a moment, you will see that his romances can be an intoxicating mix of sweetness and sensitivity…or in his own words (from Mouna Raagam), “style…grace…charm!”
In recent years, Ratnam has taken a lot of chances away from his comfort zone, venturing into movies like Raavanan and Kadal with limited critical and commercial success. As a respectful fan of the Ratnam of the ’86-’01 period (Mouna Raagam to Kannathil Muthamittaal), while I appreciate his taking chances and going beyond the tried and tested, what has been disappointing for me at times is the surprising lack of emotional resonance with his characters. Even in a movie like Thalapathi that had its critics who felt that the Rajnikanth-Mammooty friendship was not established well initially, the scene outside the police station was shot so well, was acted so marvelously that it took me all of those twenty seconds where Rajni says, “en kitte onney onnu thaan iruku…en uyiru” followed by Raja’s scintillating music, to fall for the characters. While I continued to admire the craft so evident in movies like Guru and Raavanan, I just did not feel as much empathy for his characters like I did before. Which is why when I watched OK Kanmani last year, more than the sheer joy that the romance gave me, it was the fact that there were characters like Prakash Raj and Nithya Menen that I could care for, whom I wanted to feel happy by the end of the movie, that made me brim with joy and pride as a fan of Ratnam's works.
As a guy that grew up in Chennai in the 80s and 90s (before moving to the US in ’98), my movie-going experiences and interest in the movies – not just watching them but also understanding the art, the craft, the writing and the making – were largely influenced by the likes of Ratnam, Vasanth and other filmmakers that made me appreciate good, tasteful cinema. It is as a result of them that I dug deeper to watch the works of directors who inspired them – Mahendran, Balachander, Balu Mahendra and Coppola, to name a few. So, I have to be thankful for filmmakers like Ratnam for inspiring me to appreciate their art form, truly, madly and deeply. Thank you, Mani Sir, for the choices you have made as a filmmaker and for the choices that you have helped me make as a movie goer.
* Reference: Conversations with Mani Ratnam by Baradwaj Rangan