What makes Mani ?
Undoubtedly creative. Mani Ratnam is a filmmaker with marketing savvy
FROM directing students’ plays at the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management and watching Gum Dutt films, to making flak-drawing, award winning gut-wrenchers, is quick upward mobility that few have achieved in Tamil filmdom. Most of today’s Tamil film directors have worked their way up from being assistant directors, cinematographers, or even actors and actresses, before wielding the megaphone.
And that was how the corporate world’s loss became cinema’s gain. The man who would have been a management gum of some sort,decided to quit the scene to package and market his own films. Mani Ratnam entered Tamil cinema rather inconspicuously with ldaya Koyil, almost nine years ago. Nobody took serious note of this venture. With Pagal Nilavu, he had come to stay. The next few years found him cornering more attention. These were the years which he put to good use perfecting the fine art of creating serious entertainment shorn of excessive emotion. He also honed his work style around this time, choosing artistes capable of breathing life into characters rather than tinkering with characters to suit the limited talents of hand-picked actors and actresses. Complete entertainment with due importance to every role essayed and with no larger-than-life heroes was what Ratnam aimed at.
Agni Nakshatram, Mouna Ragam, Geetanjali (in Telugu) and Anjali became instant hits, depicting a new depth of emotion without the excessive use of glycerine. Apart from being ‘clean’, the films presented inter-personal relationships in a proper perspective. The agony of an illegitimate son, or the mother’s helplessness in making her retarded child understand the word amma, that binds the mother and child, were the stuff of his early films.
Nayakan was different from all this, in the sense that it touched a raw nerve and brought violence to the fore. Though parallels have been drawn between Godfather and Nayakan, the latter’s originality lies in its realistic depiction of the throbbing life of Bombay’s underworld.
The 1994 success story, Roja, and the ‘95 success, Bombay, turned out to be outright winners, thanks to the topicality of their subjects. The fact that songs like ‘Rukumani Rukumani’ and ‘Humma Humma’ proved chart-busters shows how carefully Ratnam marketed his films. The winning combination has been the A.R.Rehman-Rajiv Menon-Mani Ratnam trio and the Mani Ratnam P.C.Sriram duo. As in the case of K. Balachander, the director’s name once again began to overshadow those of the stars. Ratnam became the superstar of his own films, bagging every accolade for making stars perform the way he wants them to. Mani Ratnam’s friend and partner of the Alayam film company; S. Sriram, says they know what package the audience wants and how to give it to them: “We ensure quality in whatever we take up, so much so that some feel that our films are in the serious bracket. Regular hard-core commercial films have been given the go by since we don’t want to make such movies at this juncture. We don’t believe in giving audiences six songs and a few fights and then call it a film. We try to produce good films. We give films that are different and sensible, not mindless.”
Mani Ratnam has directed only two (Thiruda Thiruda and Bombay) of the five films produced by Alayam. Explains Sriram,”Alayam is not Main’s in-house company. We get others to direct films under our banner This way, we get the best of both. It makes sense to have other directors work for us since every director’s work is different. We don’t want to get stereotyped. That is how we get value added to our work."
On the runaway success of Thiruda Thiruda, a slick semi-thriller, and Bombay, the tale of communal divide, he says, “Main Ratnam is undoubtedly a very creative person. His works speak for themselves. Each film of his is different, each has a different appeal. There is no repetition of thought process. As long as he can continue to do it, he will be where he is.”
Mani Ratnam’s critics and some fellow directors, especially those protesting against the exploitation of Bombay riots as a movie theme, feel Ratnam thinks with his brain and not with his heart. His approach is clinical and lacks emotion, they say.
The director’s brother, film producer G. Venkateswaran of G V Films International, comes to Ratnam’s defence: “Bombay is more fact than fiction. I met people in Bombay who told me they saw scenes of rape and arson that took place during the riots enacted in the film. Mani is a perfectionist. He is a commercial filmmaker, blending art and commerce very well.”
Venkateswaran is right in saying this because Ratnam, the management graduate, is certainly present at every level in his films, not forgetting for a moment what he has set out to achieve. The cinematography, stunts, dance sequences, music, dialogues (always restricted to the minimum), special effects, sound and lights, every aspect of direction is studiously taken care of, so that nothing seems out of place.
The effect of this meticulousness became evident after a couple of autorickshaw-borne assailants hurled bombs at Ratnam’s home in Madras recently. Though the incident put Ratnam out of gear for awhile, this man of few words is back on the scene working on his next script with his actress-director wife, Suhasini. There is a great deal of speculation about Anandam, as the new film is to be called, which will have Aishwarya Rai cast opposite Nana Patekar and Mohanlal.
It is again the market-strategist in Main Ratnam that makes him pick his cast carefully. He has never repeated any artiste (apart from Arvind Swamy and Revathi who has acted in three of his
films). Since Dalapathy he has cast at least one Bollywood star in his films: Sonu Walia and Amrish Puri in Dalapathy, Anu Agarwal in Thiruda Thiruda, Madhoo in Roja and Manisha Koirala in Bombay. While the last two became the first Tamil films to be dubbed in Hindi simultaneously, remakes of his other films have been quite successful too. Perhaps it’s time they took another look at his earlier films and released them in other languages.