Mani Ratnam started making films in the mid-1980s. He spent his college years in Mumbai, watching Hindi films (Guru Dutt is one of his favourite directors) and began making films in Chennai. His first feature film, Pallavi Anu Pallavi (1983) had Anil Kapoor, then a rising star of Hindi cinema, in the lead role. Ratnam, now 54, has been an innovator since then. There is a Mani Ratnam gaze on life, society and politics, a staggering achievement in a country that produces hundreds of films every year.
He is arguably India’s “biggest” director—his movies are big in scale, big on ideas and thought, and big in budget. In 1998, he made his first Hindi film, Dil Se..; but his Tamil films have been dubbed in Hindi since the early 1990s.
Few directors can contemporize mythology like he does. He is a master of the cinematic moment—the perfect synthesis of acting, dialogues, framing, and of course, making the camera speak. The personal and the political seamlessly merge in his best films. Film-maker Shaad Ali, who has been assisting him since Dil Se.., says there is never a dull moment on Ratnam’s sets. “He is absorbed in every tiny aspect, that’s how he makes his scenes breathe,” Ali says.
Camera, action: Ratnam directs Abhishek Bachchan on the sets of Raavan.
Ratnam’s forthcoming film, Raavan, with Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, is a story drawn from the character of the villain from the Ramayan, set in rural India. Earlier, Ratnam made Thalapathi (1991), which was the story of Karna. A Tamil potboiler with song, dance and action sequences, it was one of Rajinikanth’s most memorable roles. Raavan released in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi on Friday.
Ratnam was in Mumbai for a short while the week before the film’s release and I met him at JW Marriott over tea. Dressed in a blue pinstripe shirt neatly tucked into dark trousers and in immaculately polished black formal shoes, Ratnam looked like an film-maker’s antithesis, often how Martin Scorsese turns up in public gatherings.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
It’s been three years since your last film.
Yes, and a very gruelling but rewarding three years, I have been obsessed with this idea for years now, and finally it’s out there.
Did one event or phenomenon inspire you to make ‘Raavan’?
Not an event or phenomenon. It wasn’t even an idea to begin with. It was a germ of an idea that has been with me for many years. You go back to it, then leave it and then go back to it again. I was interested in finding out who this 10-headed demon, the ultimate Indian villain, so to say, is. What makes Raavan the person? He made an epic several thousand years ago, but is still relevant today. What does 10 heads mean? Does he actually have 10 heads or it’s just that he has so many facets to him that when we see him close we see 10 different people?
It’s set in a contemporary rural setting. The associations with tribal livelihood and threats to it, and in turn, Maoism are unmistakable in the promotional videos.
Anything that can be drawn from the story is fair. I am not denying it. But it is ultimately about a human being who is typically a villain. Then you go closer to him and start peeling the layers and get to know a human being. After I know the human being, does my stand on his villainy remain the same, does my stand change? Yes, perhaps it does. Raavan was a learned man, there’s a certain kingdom, culture and life to where he and his men are. There are certain rules there which can be threatened and attacked.
You have always engaged with politics, most of your films have political settings. Do you believe in a specific political ideology?
That is always evolving. I am a citizen and have political stands like everyone, but I can express a shade of a reaction to an issue because of the work I do. That is the advantage of a writer or a film-maker. We can see it from different perspectives. I am ideological, not dogmatic. Instead of starting off by saying “I know why”, I want to know why.
Cinematically, have you tried anything entirely different in this film?
It happens in every film. You don’t start the process thinking I have to be different, do something new. The idea is to tell a story as well as I can. That pushes you into pressure zones, and you try to make it real, and not just dramatic. That has been the primary concern in all the years I’ve been making films. If, in Raavan, it comes through better, then yes, we have probably tried something different. If it doesn’t, then no, we haven’t. A lot of it is new. But that is unimportant. When I go and watch a film, what’s important is what I bring back, the overall impact or impression or thought, whatever you call it. Your spelling, grammar and punctuation are additional.
Talking of spelling and grammar, you have often said that you give your technicians, especially the cinematographer, a lot of freedom.
Technique for me is not the dominant factor. Characters have to be believable, portrayed with reality, so that there is a deep connect. Film-making is a collective art no matter how much you want to shout from the top and say I am the director. The director actually does very little, he puts everybody together. That’s basically what you’re doing. It is important to have people who are like-minded, who like to push things the way you want it to be pushed. I like my technicians not to need me so much when they are working, they should be able to push their envelope on their own. That’s the best way to work a chemistry between technicians and the director.
Was your decision to make a Hindi film in 1998 calculated? Your Tamil films were already a rage, some of them watched all over the world.
About Hindi films, I was reluctant in the beginning. But the subjects started changing. In Bombay and Roja, I had to invent small things, like ways for them to behave and speak. How does a Tamil from Coimbatore speak? How does a Tamil from Kashmir speak? Hindi makes it easier. Once you do it once, your inhibitions go and you can do it again.
When you look at the Hindi versions of your films, say ‘Yuva’, and now ‘Raavan’, do you think something gets lost in translation?
When I work in Hindi, I tend to trust people more, in Tamil I have things much more in my control. But I collaborate with people I am comfortable with; we travel together, spend a lot of time together. I trust them and make them responsible for everything, so it becomes, in a way, liberating.
Mythology has been a big part of many of your films.
We have all grown up with mythology, haven’t we? I probably just engage with mythology and think about it more than you, that’s all. There’s so much colour in mythology. You touch almost anything in Indian mythology and make a film out of it. Over the years, my interest in mythology has grown.
Another of your primary concerns has been what drives people to violence, be it ‘Kannathil Muthamittal’ (2002) or ‘Dil Se’ (1998) or ‘Yuva’ (2004). What fascinates you about violence?
It’s not a fascination. We can’t say there is no violence, there is no trouble, that everything is fine with the world and India. There are problems happening to states and to people because of various reasons; there are problems at different levels. And there is a lot of violence all around.
The great advantage of art is that you can engage with the world in a non-academic fashion and try to see what comes out of it. It’s not a logical, analytical study of what is happening, but understanding of an emotion and the human mind.
Do you begin with the characters and then go into the bigger picture—the politics or the society? Almost every film of yours is about relationships, mostly a man-woman relationship.
We are functions of relationships, no matter how political or comical we are. And so that’s the core of my films. Any kind of relationship is exciting, be it between brothers or a man and woman or father and child. It’s the exciting part. I try to make the relationships real, and with enough meat to make people connect with them, so that even without the backdrop, they can stand themselves.
Do you revisit your films?
Once you have finished a film, you have already learnt and unlearnt a lot. I can’t go back to old films, I can’t bear it.