This article appeared in India Today, February 15, 1994. Special thanks
to a fellow netter who chooses to remain anonymous, for bringing this article to
my notice. :) Any spelling mistakes are mine.
MANI RATNAM - A SHOOTING SUCCESS
by Kavitha Shetty
Mani Ratnam would never get a role in the movies he makes. Bespectacled,
comfortably burly and disarmingly modest, he might have stepped out of an
R.K.Lakshman cartoon. But large as life, he's seated behind a table in a
sparsely furnished room, in his Alwarpet office in Madras. "Mani is a very
simple guy. He's the same person he was 10 years ago," says P.C.Sriram, a
childhood friend and the cameraman of five Mani films. But this regular guy is
the director of the moment.
One reason for that is 'Roja', Mani's film about a simple village girl
who fights to free her husband from the clutches of Kashmiri militants who have
taken him hostage. The film's success has given new life to the exhausted
cliche, "from Kashmir to Kanyakumari" by actually bridging that mythic stretch.
As people flock to see the film, even in the troubled Valley, it has become one
of the few things Indians are unanimous about.
The national scale of this triumph took many people, including Mani
himself, by surprise. But in the south, he's long been a well-established
household name. "India's Spielberg", as he's known here, spices his movies with
a sophistication that sets them apart from the usual melodramas. In the process
he has even won over MTV and Hollyqood-struck youngsters who thought that Tamil
cinema was infra dig. And with 11 films behind him in as many years, Mani has
acquired a certain mystique. A popular legend about the director even hints at
a divine hand in his origin: In Madurai in 1955, so the story goes, the wife
of a struggling film distributor, pregnant with her second child, circled the
famous Meenakshi temple four times a day, fervently praying that the infant
would not materialise. The family could not afford another baby. But the
goddess would have none of it. At any rate Mani Ratnam was born in June that
year. The tale may be apocryphal, but it is firmly entrenched in Tamil filmlore
Even as Mani is being mythologised, he is, to his credit, shattering
another myth : that commercial cinema has to be crude, loud, luridly colourful
and brimming with big stars to be popular. In its place, he incorporates all
the more appealing elements of popular cinema - romance, action, songs and
dazzling locations, then wraps them up in a novel and visually exhilarating
package that has now become his hallmark.
"The wrappings", as Mani himself terms them, are spectacular
cinematography, dramatic choreography, sharp dialogue and crisp editing. But
while these elements may be the essence of film craft for Mani and his
enthusiasts, his detractors, and he has a few, dismiss it as mere gloss. "Other
films launch stars, Mani's films launch technicians," says one critic,
referring to Mani's reliance on art and music directors. Mani himself could be
chortling all the way to the box-office, but he is clearly irked by
insinuations that he is all technique and no substance. "It doesn't affect me,
but it bothers me. People put you in a pigeon-hole and want to keep you there."
Perhaps for the same reason, he is reluctant to speak of his own cinematic
canon or any major influences. When pressed, he concedes a high regard for
Kurosawa and Guru Dutt. The admiration for Dutt is telling. "He was a master of
all aspects of film making," says Mani, who considers himself only "fairly
Some fellow film makers are more generous. "He is a true devotee of the
craft. You can see it in every frame," says Bharatiraja, a path-breaker in
Tamil cinema himself. But Mani can be a ruthless taskmaster too, as his cast
and crew would attest. His cameraman describes him as a Jekyll and Hyde
character: mild and affable off the sets but a raging bull once shooting
starts. On the sets of 'Roja', the cast began to faint from the cold but Mani
did not flag. And on location near Pollachi for his latest 'Thiruda, Thiruda'
(Thief, Thief) the entire unit was feasted on by leeches but, encouraged by
Mani, they just plucked them off and soldiered on. "I try to get the best I can
from myself and those working with me," says the unrepentant director.
Mani's cinematic drive clearly runs deep, but his path to film making
was not straightforward. Despite a background in the industry, the young Mani
did not set out to work in films. "As a youngster, films seemed like a waste
of time," he says. Instead he did an MBA at the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of
Management in Bombay and returned to Madras to work as a management consultant.
But he was soon disillusioned with the work. Meanwhile the cinematic urge was
at work. "I didn't want to get to 40 and feel I hadn't made the jump (into
films) when i should have," he says. So he wrote a script and chased people
around trying to peddle it, with no success.
His luck turned when his uncle, Venus Krishnamurty, a film producer,
gave him some script editing work for which he was widely praised. But his
trials were not over. When he completed his first film 'Pallavi Anupallavi' in
1983, his father Gopalratnam dismissed it with a backhanded compliment: "It's
got class, it won't run." The elder Ratnam was right and the film won critical
acclaim but flopped at the box-office. Mani's next films, 'Unaru' and 'Pagal
Nilavu' suffered the same fate, and it wasn't until he made 'Mouna Raagam'
(Tune of Silence) in 1986 that he got it right. That film found the perfect
formula of a strong storyline and great music, presented in a fresh visual
style that caught the audience by surprise. Mani hasn't looked back since.
But success has hardly blunted his hunger for commercial and popular
success. 'Nayakan' may have won him critical praise and an entree to the
Oscars, but Mani remains emphatic that does not want to be an art film maker.
"If the theatres are not full, it hurts me. A film should be commercially
viable. People who put money into my films should get it back," says the
conscientous MBA. His real obsession, however, is to communicate with his
audience. Mani is still rankled by an incident in 1986 when he went to a
theatre 50 km from Madras to observe the reaction to 'Mouna Raagam', a sensitive
film about a girl who is married off after a tragic romance and refuses to go
to bed with her husband. As the film ended, Mani heard a man say: "Why the
hell couldn't the guy have got himself another woman if this one was being so
difficult?" He recalls hs dismay: "If I couldn't relate to a guy 50km from
here, how was I going to get across to a wider audience? I can't forget that
His disappointment pushed him to obsessive labours. He complains about
his slow progress with scripts and screenplays, confessing he is not a natural
writer. He takes four months to complete this work and goes about his research
with all the zeal of a documentary film maker, reading and travelling to meet
and talk to people. Meticulous in his method, he has to have the complete
screenplay ready before he begins shooting. And even before he begins a script,
he must have his team - cinematographer, art director and music director -
The success of 'Roja' may have answered some if his apprehensions about
getting across to a wider audience but Mani has no illusions about his mission.
"Let's be honest. In this format, you have to dilute what you want to say to
get it across." His objective remains "to dilute less and less, until I come to
a point where I don't have to dilute at all, and it still remains a commercial
Nursing his private obsessions in this public art, Mani is
publicity-shy to the point of being a recluse. He guards his privacy jealously:
"I don't want to be a star. I want my freedom to go and sit in a theatre, to
ride a bike." And he has dodged the spoltight so nimbly that even today, not
many people recognise him on the streets of Madras. "Unless I am with Haasini!"
he quips. Haasini is Suhasini, the noted Tamil actress whom Mani married in the
conventional arranged fashion. Mani still remembers that when he was struggling
to make his first film, Suhasini refused to accept a role in it. The couple
haev a two-year-old son Nandan who sometimes calls his father "Gundu Mani" (fat
Modest about the success he has found, Mani brushes it off. "I wouldn't
say I've been successful, and I hope I never get there," he says. The height of
his ambition remains to have a new film to work on at the end of each project.
But others certainly expect greater things. Mani's brother, G.Venkateeswaran,
believes he is destined for international fame: "He will go to Hollywood." As
for Mani himself: "That man in the theatre 50 km from here is still bothering