The gifted grammarian
For an entire book, the conversation format can go awry. Interviewees can sound narcissistic, clouding the narrative with self-analysis, or interviewers can be inhibited and droll. Last year’s Conversations With Scorsese by Richard Schickel is an example of how the format works. So is this year’s Conversations With Mani Ratnam, just released by Penguin India.
In his introduction to the book, critic Baradwaj Rangan admits to being interested in the tale rather than the teller, and explains why, nonetheless, he chose conversations to understand Tamil film director Mani Ratnam. Just like the director’s unique position in Indian cinema, that of an accomplished straddler—in being able to, as Rangan says in the book, “marry what you want to do with what the audience may be willing to accept”—this book has a practised spontaneity. The interviewer never really forces the interviewee into difficult “yes or no” answers, and through the pages, a comfortable informality develops between the two.
Conversations expand over several sessions. Rangan begins as a fanboy. He has watched all of Ratnam’s films and connected to them for their amoral, zeitgeist quality in the 1980s. Ratnam’s works defined a new Tamil identity in that era, and Rangan has personal associations with that identity. He is mortified to sit across the man who made Nayakan and ask why he makes films. The inhibition later disappears. Ratnam mocks at his over-analyses, while Rangan prods him a little more. To one of the questions about Thalapathi, Ratnam retorts, “You’re getting into gossip column territory now.”
This is an essential read for film lovers. Through 300 pages of detailed conversations, Ratnam’s works, something of a personal genre, come alive in vivid detail. The director pragmatically explains why he did what he did. While illuminating Ratnam’s genius for creative collaborations and instinctive understanding of human relationships, the book reiterates his refusal to use cinema as a platform for direct political comment. He says that his political views are often in the first draft of a script, but they progressively get deleted—what remains is “how much the film can take”. Committed to aesthetics, he explains why he does not want to communicate what he thinks. The most liberating thing about being a creator, he says, is: “You can be what you’re not.”
Early on, describing how he works with actors, Ratnam says he does not mind doing anything as long as the story takes flight from the script when it is being filmed—“so that there is some magic that happens”. This is the essence of Ratnam’s artistry. “I’d never assisted anybody before, so I wanted to be sure that what I did was grammatically correct. I wanted to be accepted or rejected for the content and not for the spelling and grammatical errors.”
Rangan devotes chapters to Mouna Raagam, Agni Natchatiram, Thalapathi, Roja, Dil Se.., Alaipaayuthey, Raavan and other important works, taking the director through scenes, dialogues, transitions, often asking him to deconstruct a single shot. He asks Ratnam about the problems of translation, about visualizing songs (“...the idea is to make the score kind of lateral, instead of just supportive”), about using live sound in India and about the concept of an interval.
Ratnam’s journey reveals the power of good commercial cinema. When you are arguing with a European on why austerity does not necessarily translate to masterly, why the big Indian movie with song and dance is as powerful as a quiet and sparse Polish one, you point him to this book, and to the works of the great Mani Ratnam.