Saturday, August 27, 2016

Inspirations (22 of 25) - Director Mani Ratnam

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. 

Image Courtesy of

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

Friday, August 12, 2016

How mighty is the pen in Thamizh cinema?

Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive thesis about an exhaustive list of writers; rather, it's just a collection of some of my thoughts.

I watched Samudrakani’s Appa last Thursday.  And, I woke up Saturday morning to the sad news of the great ‘Vietnam Veedu’ Sundaram passing away.  Sundaram, for those that might not know him, wrote three back-to-back classics with Sivaji Ganesan – Vietnam Veedu, Gnana Oli and Gowravam (which he directed) - in the early 70s.

Image Courtesy of "The Hindu"

Samudrakani dedicated Appa to K Balachander, one of the finest writers in thamizh cinema.  He might as well have dedicated the movie to Sundaram and every writer that meant something to thamizh movies.  This is not to say that Appa is a classic or even an instance of Samudrakani scaling a peak as a writer.  But the film is a throwback to an era where writing meant something.  It’s a very thoughtfully written film.  There are some lines that pack tremendous punch.  Alas, there’re the stagey and preachy elements that so many critics lament about.  More on that later.  But my point is, love it or hate it, there is no denying the fact that writing was given paramount importance by the filmmaker.  Even if you could argue that the content did not hold appeal to you, there was something about the flow of the screenplay and characterizations that made it abundantly clear that Samudrakani approached his subject matter with utmost sincerity even if what was on paper was not completely transformed into a wholesome cinematic experience. 

Evaluating a movie in terms of its form and content is an approach that I adopted ever since I first read some of Baradwaj Rangan’s pieces.  It is a very simple yet meaningful way of evaluating movies.  But where I am not on the same page – in fact I am not even in the same book! – with Rangan is when it comes to the relative importance of the two.  The well-informed critic that Rangan is, is invariably pained by Thamizh cinema not going to the next level in terms of form – that we don’t have enough directors who have a sense of the medium and the tropes that must be used purposefully.  He has written multiple times that if he were to only get one of the two, then it would be good craft even if the content is not spectacular.  It’s a completely fair point.  But it’s not something that I agree with. I'll tell you why.  

Veteran filmmakers like Mahendran as well as newer directors like Karthik Subburaj are forces to reckon with because of the mastery that they exhibit over form.  But we have several other filmmakers that get by with content that is sometimes inane, sometimes misogynistic, sometimes downright irresponsible that I feel like saying that if I can watch a film that exhibits complete mastery over both form and content (Udhiri PookaL and Iraivi, to name two completely different movies where I both  loved the subject matter and admired the craft) then that’s great.  But if I can get only one from a director, please give me content…any day of the week.  When I see films like Trisha Illana Nayanthara become huge successes and films like Appa become average performers, it pains me.  It is not because I am such a prude that I won’t watch adult humor.  It is just that Trisha Illana... was painfully unfunny – the jokes weren’t even built up well and there seemed to be nothing in the writing to reflect thoughtfulness around the structure or characterizations.  Contrast that with Appa– sure, it’s stagey.  Sure, it even looks and sounds outdated.  But there is some solid writing that lifts several scenes.  I watched this movie last Thursday.  And, over the weekend, several of the thoughts and - gulp! - "messages” from his movie made me think of my own role as a parent.  That is the success of a filmmaker, using a powerful art form to make someone introspect.  And, that, my dear reader, is also responsible film making.  Even if he might score 10/50 for form, it’s at least 40/50 for content.   50/100 - Let my glass be half-full this way. 

Image Courtesy of “The Indian Express."

The passing away of another industry stalwart this week – writer, lyricist and producer Panchu Arunachalam- is also a sad, yet timely reminder of a time when writers were given a lot more importance than they are today.  Arunachalam was the writer of most of Rajnikanth’s blockbusters in the late 70s and 80s.  Even when Kamal Hassan decided to go berserk in the commercial sense, Arunachalam was at the fore, writing movies like Sakalakala Vallavan.  During the 80s, there were other respected writers like R. Selvaraj (Mudhal Mariyadhai), P. Kalaimani (Gopurangal Saivadhillai), Visu (apart from being a director, he also wrote the screenplay and dialogues of movies with stars, like Rajni in Nallavanuku Nallavan) and AL Narayanan (Vazhve Mayam, Kaaki Chattai).  Writers like Arunachalam and Kalaimani had turned producers as well.  In what was truly a sign of prominence given to the writer, Mudhal Vasantham, directed by Manivannan, ended with a card that flashed, “A film written by P. Kalaimani.”  If you think that the content of these movies was nothing spectacular, you may be right in your own way.  But these writers ensured that there was a sense of coherence in the screenplay and some good use of thamizh in their dialogues, sometimes even creating a bit of an emotional connect despite the high masala quotient (Nallavanuku Nallavan, for instance).  Also, that was one type of film that they wrote.  Arunachalam, for instance, also helped create some truly meaningful cinema in that period.  The same person that wrote Sakalakala Vallavan also wrote movies like the sensitive Aarilirundhu Arubadhu Varai, in which Rajni turned in a delightfully understated performance, and helped shape the screenplay and dialogues of powerful dramas like Mann Vaasanai and Pudhumai Penn.

Those last two movies that I mentioned lead me to think about something else that Rangan has written about.  And, that is, how directors like Martin Scorsese have worked with writers like Paul Schrader, shaping the writer’s content according to their tastes and sensibilities to come up with a product that bears a writer’s stamp that’s blended with the director’s vision.  Our directors like Bharathiraja, Mani Ratnam and Shankar have routinely worked with preeminent writers like Selvaraj, Sujatha and Balakumaran to create some timeless classics.  This points to the need for a systemic change in thamizh cinema that celebrates directors and actors and very rarely gives writers their due respect.   And, it is that respect and recognition that we afford to current and future writers that would make the souls of writers like Vietnam Veedu Sundaram and Panchu Arunachalam truly rest in peace.