Mani Ratnam’s latest movie, Kadal, is a box office washout. His previous cinematic offering, the bilingual Raavanan/Raavan, didn’t impress audiences either. His reputation seems to be hanging in balance, a bit like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan perched precariously on a tree in Raavanan. In the movie, the branch breaks and she crashes to the earth. What will be the fate of Ratnam, the whiz kid of Tamil cinema who, until a few years ago, could do no wrong?
The filmmaker has so many popular titles behind him that a dud here or there shouldn’t cause too much concern. For those of us who were disappointed by Kadal, disheartened by the director’s inability to spin a satisfactory yarn, and shattered at the unimaginative showcasing of songs like Nenjikulle, there’s a long list of older movies to revisit. There’s his breakthrough Mouna Ragam, his Godfather tribute Nayakan, his Tamil film industry homage Iruvar, his young-couple-in-peril romance Alaipayuthey.
Ratnam started making movies in 1983, but his career really begins with Mouna Ragam in 1985. The wonderful actor Revathi plays Divya, a reluctant bride who hasn’t forgotten her first love, who has died. She asks for a divorce within days of being married, but has a change of heart later, by which time her husband has turned his back on her. Watching the movie all these years later, it’s hard to swallow Divya’s domestication or pinpoint the exact point when she falls in love with her dull husband. Why then does Mouna Ragam remain enchanting?
Mouna Ragam marks the beginning of the filmmaker’s Mandrake phase. For years, Mani Ratnam has been gesturing hypnotically, mesmerising viewers with his visual panache, creative approach to song-and-dance sequences, handling of marquee names and use of locations. For Mouna Ragam, his regular collaborator, the cinematographer PC Sriram, creates memorable soft-focus images that haven’t dated as much as the film’s politics. Sriram surpassed himself in the soft-focus and back-lighting departments for Agni Natchathiram, Ratnam’s least pretentious and most hedonistic movie (Thiruda Thiruda came close, but was stymied by its uncharismatic leads). The story of a judge and his two warring sons from different wives is arranged around six outstanding songs by Illayaraja. Nayakan borrows bits and bobs from here and there–Nirosha’s “I Love You” tease is a nod to American Graffiti; the climax is from The Godfather–but few movies balance drama and escapism as well as this one.
Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel heavily influenced the movie that sat between Mouna Ragam and Agni Natchathiram. Nayakan blends the real-life stories of Mumbai smugglers Haji Mastan and Varadarajan Mudaliar with the fictional experiences of the Corleone clan. Sriram’s cinematography is directly inspired by Gordon Willis’s work in Coppola’s movie; Kamal Haasan doffs his cap to Marlon Brando through his acting and one key sequence is lifted from Once Upon a Time in America, but the tragedy of a father losing his family one by one to violence is Ratnam’s own, as is the delicate romance between the leads .
Ratnam’s fascination with the underdog helped Thalapathy through its unsatisfactory equivalence between lawmen and outlaws. It does help that Rajinikanth is lovely in the movie, and that Ratnam’s take on the Karna myth from the Mahabharata is not literal but adapted to suit the characters and their compulsions.
Ratnam’s filmmaking flair has managed to momentarily blind his admirers to the glaring problems in his storytelling. His handling of political issues in such films as Roja, Bombay and Dil Se is deeply problematic; his inherent conservatism about female sexuality is jarring; his valourising of crooked characters reaches annoying heights in Guru, which celebrates a law-breaking businessman. Despite their flaws, however, few films can match the visual sweep of Roja, especially the early bits, and the pre-riots Bombay sequences.
Dil Se’s mix of escapism and grittiness is a failed project from word go. The exchange about virginity between the characters played by Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta has to be some of the worst writing ever, especially when you learn that Khan’s character is thirsting after a woman who is not a virgin – she has been raped as a child. What gives? Yet, the movie has some of the best love scenes in a Hindi movie in recent memory, and a career-best soundtrack and background scores from AR Rahman.
By the time of Dil Se and the film that preceded it, Iruvar, Ratnam watchers had become used to his peculiar cocktail of fantasy, surface realism and socially relevant stories. Iruvar is so good for the most part that you can forgive its apolitical approach to Tamil politics and closing-reel hesitation. Everybody in the film works extra hard to make Ratnam’s trippy tribute to the beginnings of the Tamil film industry work – production designer Samir Chanda, composer AR Rahman, cinematographer Santosh Sivan and actors with large and small roles, so if Mohanlal stands out, it’s a tribute to his superbly judged performance.
Ratnam’s drive to make serious cinema continued through the 2000s. In Kannathil Muthamittal, an adopted girl sets out in search of her mother, who happens to be a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In Ayitha Ezhuthu, also made in Hindi with a different cast and locations as Yuva, Ratnam tackles student politics (the Tamil movie is far better than the Hindi version). Both films deal with subjects that are too complex to be condensed into song-and-dance led narratives.
Alaipayuthey, remade by Shaad Ali as Saathiya in Hindi, is one of Ratnam’s best films from the 2000s. The romance, about the troubled relationship between a young married couple, lands squarely on target with its intended youth audience – it’s simple, stirring and heartfelt.
Ratnam’s latest movie Kadal is also an attempt to charm young bums on seats, but movie-going behaviour has changed a great deal in recent years. Ratnam’s eighties chic appealed tremendously to viewers who were embarrassed by the tacky and schlocky cinema of the decade.
Every other television commercial looks slick these days, while younger, easily distracted audiences who have greater exposure to international cinema than their predecessors need edgy material, perfectly moulded melodramas or all-out fantasies to stay awake–more Agni Natchathiram than Raavanan, more Bombay than Dil Se, more Anjali than Kadal.
This weekly series, which appears on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.